What’s new, folks? For seven films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Scarlett Johansson has played Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, the Russian superspy who defected to S.H.I.E.L.D. and became a founding member of the superhero team known as the Avengers. However, none of those MCU entries featured her as the lead. Only until after she (spoilers) sacrificed herself for the Soul Stone on Vormir in Avengers: Endgame did Marvel Studios go, “Hey, you think it’s time for us to give Nat her own movie?” We finally got this in the form of the MCU’s 24th title, Black Widow, which simultaneously released in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9. Within the MCU timeline, it takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, giving Origin Story vibes as it explores Natasha’s shadowy past with the Red Room, a covert program that abducts young girls and trains them to become merciless elite operatives called Black Widows, and her relationship with a surrogate family made up of baby sister Yelena Belova (played by Florence Pugh), scientist mother Melina Vostakoff (Rachel Weisz), and super-soldier father Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour).
Directed by Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome) and written by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok, Agent Carter), Black Widow is a much-appreciated return to the cinematic side of the MCU (though I had to stream it via Premier Access; I suspect I won’t be seeing anything in theaters for a while longer due to the damn surge of the COVID Delta variant). The last MCU film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, came out two years ago on July 2, 2019. Black Widow was originally scheduled to launch Phase 4 of its superhero franchise on May 1, 2020, but the pandemic forced Disney to postpone it to November 6, 2020, then May 7, 2021, and finally July 9, 2021. Admittedly, I was quite skeptical going into this, considering it should have dropped five years ago. Honestly, I’d prefer this becoming the first female-led MCU movie instead of 2019’s Captain Marvel. While it does suffer from a handful of shortcomings, they’re far from enough to overwhelm my general enjoyment of its strengths.
Strip away the espionage-thriller shell, and you quickly realize that it’s a startlingly heartfelt and humorous found family tale. As dysfunctional as they are, you can’t help but root for domestic bonding between Natasha and her “relatives,” whom Russia had planted undercover in ‘90s Ohio to pose as a red-blooded American family. Credit goes to Shortland for pinpointing the right balance between the comedy and the drama of it all, as well as to the actors for finding their own balance and for creating such superb chemistry. It’s also notable that, while Captain Marvel was co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Black Widow is the first MCU entry to be directed solely by a woman.
I’ve heard viewers argue that this is a throwaway piece and it isn’t a worthy farewell for the character of Natasha because she doesn’t get that much screentime in comparison to the rest of the folks. Sure, the plot does have to make room for all of them, but I don’t think Natasha’s arc of redeeming herself for her dripping, gushing red ledger, as Loki once called it—something to which the movie sneaks in a callback—and reconciling with her family is a waste of her presence at all. It’s far better than what the supremely talented Johansson had to endure during her incredibly sexist debut as Natasha in Iron Man 2, after which the MCU kept tossing her back and forth for whatever stories and extraneous romances they wanted for her. Oh yeah, and then they killed her off in Endgame, even though Clint Barton/Hawkeye clearly should have been the one to go. As upset as I am that we won’t be able to spend an entire trilogy with Natasha, I’m grateful the MCU went, “Oops, we made a mistake, so maybe we should take a step back.” I especially love the strong sisterhood between Natasha and Yelena. Seriously, I could watch Johansson and Pugh chat for hours and hours.
Even though I haven’t seen Lady Macbeth, Midsommar, or Greta Gerwig’s Little Women reboot, I’ve always been aware of Pugh as a rising star. I just assumed most others were, too, until she started trending on Twitter on July 9 and people were acting like they just discovered her. In any case, she truly is a gift—not just to the movie, but to the MCU overall. There are numerous beats where she has to shift between dramatic and comedic modes as Yelena. In the hands of the wrong actor, the drama could have come across as mawkish and the comedy as flat. But Pugh handles the material so deftly, whether it’s teasing Natasha for her stylized superhero pose or engaging in a heartbreaking confrontation with her family at the dinner table. Pugh is also the one who executes the most consistent Russian accent, whereas Harbour and Weisz’s accents can be off at times. I can’t wait to see more of Yelena later this year on the Disney+ Hawkeye series. Hopefully, she’ll even get to star in her own picture. That’s the way it should go, considering how this film passes the baton from Natasha to Yelena as the new Black Widow.
Harbour executes big heart and understated comedic timing as Alexei, the paternal figure of the family whom Russia had once fashioned into the Red Guardian, their own nationalistic spin on Captain America, until he got locked up in prison for two decades. Often behaving like a toxic bro as he cracks a period joke, goes off on egotistical monologues about his adventures as the Red Guardian, and obsessively compares himself to Captain America, he’s someone whom we shouldn’t grow to like at all. But Harbour gets us on his side with a deeply endearing performance that conveys Bumbling Dad energy.
Weisz brings her best to the game as Melina, capturing a brand of humor so eerily deadpan that it’s almost sociopathic. I’m not throwing out hyperbole, either. There truly are plenty of moments in which Melina, after the years of research she’s done on the Red Room’s behalf, is as absolutely incapable of summoning normal human feelings as Dexter Morgan. Weisz carries out the emotion of her role as well, convincing us that she does care for her strange little family, even if it’s in her own frighteningly phlegmatic fashion.
The film isn’t all fun family time, though. It grapples with the abuse and trauma that the Red Room inflicts on its Black Widows, the female operatives whose agency it has thoroughly and cruelly removed. While the commentary on women’s choice is heavy-handed, it’s nonetheless satisfying to see it unfold, particularly in the thematically rewarding third act. Unfortunately, that’s when the action becomes choppily edited and formulaic. I also would have preferred a nuanced portrayal of Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the Red Room’s head honcho, instead of the mustache-twirling version that we’re given.
I came out high on the onscreen portrayal of Taskmaster, the Red Room’s master assassin who can mimic the fighting moves and equipment of Bucky Barnes, Captain America, Black Panther, and other figures in the MCU. The character has similar abilities in the comics, but the movie took their arc in a different direction than I was expecting. Without getting into spoilers, I understand why there’s a controversy around the onscreen incarnation of Taskmaster, but (a) I’ve come to expect the MCU to draw only loose inspiration from its comic book sources and (b) I’m satisfied with the way that Taskmaster plays into the story.
Now, it isn’t as if Black Widow is flawless. There are points in which the script becomes flimsy and awkwardly reminds viewers that it’s a prequel, particularly with the jarring nature of the final pre-credits scene; O-T Fagbenle (not only was he on The Handmaid’s Tale and Doctor Who, but he’s set to play Barack Obama opposite Viola Davis’s Michelle Obama in the Showtime TV show The First Lady) doesn’t get much to do as Natasha’s thinly written associate Rick Mason; the score by Lorne Balfe (The Tomorrow War, Mission Impossible: Fallout), aside from its underutilized Russian choral work, is as forgettable as the majority of the MCU compositions save Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme and Tyler Bates’s Guardians of the Galaxy score; and the post-credits sequence misses the mark for me.
Initially, the film secured a giant box office haul, debuting to $218.8 million, with $80 million of it coming in domestically, $158.8 million of it globally, and $60 million via Disney+ Premier Access. However, it then brought in $26.3 million over the July 16-18 weekend, making for a 67% drop-off—the sharpest second-weekend decline out of all the MCU pictures. This led the National Association of Theatre Owners to slam Disney for stealing business away from theaters with its hybrid release plan. Speaking as a consumer, I understand why this—along with the rampant piracy surrounding Black Widow—is frustrating the cinema industry. At the same time, I don’t feel comfortable being a sitting duck in an unventilated theater for two and a half hours quite yet, so much so that I wouldn’t have done it for Black Widow if the PVOD option had been unavailable. This is the new world we live in now. I’m not saying you need to emulate me if you’re a theatergoer. As long as you mask up and avoid getting touchy-feely with your face, good on you. I personally prefer the viewing model that keeps me feeling as safe as possible.
That’s my review of Black Widow. Again, Natasha Romanoff deserved a trilogy, but if we’re going to get only one solo title of hers, I’m generally happy it turned out this way. I’ll be giving my spoilery opinions on next week’s episode of the 2 Cents Critic podcast, so be sure to tune into that. Stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 84/100