BLACK WIDOW Review
It’s been a long time coming but finally, after multiple release date shuffles, everyone’s favorite Avenger* managed to get her own solo movie out to the public — through the new reality of dual releasing on streaming services and in theaters. BLACK WIDOW, the latest Marvel entry designed moreso to hold over fans till the next franchise pushing entry than satiate their need for more background context on a rather plain Marvel hero, is in fact just like its central character: unassuming and efficient with the occasional welcoming moments of surprise.
Set after the events of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, Black Widow A.K.A. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is, as is usually the case for a spy (blacklisted or not) on the run and on the search for answers. Kicking off with a taut intro that gives viewers a peek into the dual-life Natasha has always led, even as a child, BLACK WIDOW finds exciting potential in the ideas of family and trauma. The former is developed through Natasha’s former “family”: a cell of Russian spies composed of “Papa” Alexei A.K.A. The Red Guardian (think Russian Captain America, played by David Harbour), “Mama” Melina (Rachel Weisz), and little “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh). While their relationship was always a ruse, a fact that Yelena can’t quite get past, a bond nonetheless formed between these sleepers which makes their reunion (after a prison break here, a car chase there, etc) fraught with resentment and regret, try as Alexei and Melina might to push past sins aside in the ways only aloof parents can. This is where the latter themes of trauma begin to peek into what is essentially a B-Side Marvel film as Natasha and Yelena, now reunited on a quest to bring down the villainous Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the ringleader of the Widow program that once controlled Natasha and Yelena’s own lives. As Natasha and her sister search for Dreykov (while avoiding his own toy super-solider, the elite Taskmaster, who hardly makes that much of an impression outside of the reveal on who is behind the mask), BLACK WIDOW offers faint peeks into the weight that the life of lies and contract murders can take on two women who never had agency from the moment they learned to walk. Even as they bicker and snicker as Marvel heroes do, the specter of these women’s past sins hangs over them. For a Marvel film, by now an assembly line franchise, these moments offer peeks into other unexplored narrative avenues that once more in this film hardly get the shine they deserve.
Try as Eric Pearson and Jac Schaeffer, who handle script duties here with Cate Shortland handling the director’s chair, BLACK WIDOW is constantly thrashing against the monolithic universe it resides in — and all of the patterns that come with it. Like Natasha herself, this is a film that almost manages to do something different with itself, only to be pulled back into the only thing it was programmed to do, and do it well. For every moment that pushes BLACK WIDOW into what could be a dark comedy about a family of spies coming to terms with their fake relationship or into a sort of personal character study that really lets the audience sit right with the usually mysterious Natasha on her quest for personal retribution, there is another moment where Natasha thwips around screen effortlessly through CGI-heavy action set-pieces. Thanks to Marvel magic however, it would be hard for BLACK WIDOW to be anything but, at the very worst, THOR: THE DARK WORLD (an okay movie at best) and to its credit this is still an enjoyable comic book movie.
Shortland, who has a background in smaller films (in scale moreso than narrative complexity), does solid work here, finding her groove around action scenes that move with verve and finesse. Additionally, the director finds her best moments in the smaller, more human moments between its heroes, allowing an all around steady cast to bounce off another, particularly in the case of the family members whose hang ups with one another tread the line between bitter comedy and tragic remorse. Pugh in particular stands out (as she usually does) effectively embodying the little sister of the family; a young woman who, despite being a ruthless assassin, still gets hurt when Natasha keeps pointing out that their entire relationship was a lie. Even outside of the dramatics, Pugh fits right in with the MCU’s penchant for quippy heroes, bringing an easy-going charm to her allegedly ruthless assassin. Harbour and Weisz also do great work as Natasha’s fake parents with Harbour bringing a game physicality to the role that is humorous and intimidating in equal measure (shoddy accent be damned) and Weisz taking on the quieter if more steady role of Melina, a woman whose coldness and slyness matches her fake daughter’s.
Sadly, by the time BLACK WIDOW gets to its predetermined destination of a CGI-heavy finale, I find it hard to say that we get to learn much more about the eponymous character. Despite her name shining bright on all the posters and ads, BLACK WIDOW feels more like a handing of the baton than a full fledged solo film. Indeed, while the addition of Romanoff’s family is entertaining throughout, it almost feels as if the creators quickly realized that Natasha may not have much left to discover. Johansson, for her part, gets some moments to bring some of the trauma and anger that has been building in her character for years but as she is a Marvel hero, it’s not long before the next scene has her quipping and zipping, free of all of her worries and problems.
While slated as Black Widow’s final farewell, this is a comic book universe where there are no clear conclusions. There will always be villains and crooks and as a result, heroes (super and non) that will be there to bring the former to justice. Where Scarlett Johansson and Black Widow now stand in that framework is in the hands of Marvel’s overseers but if this is the final curtain call for our favorite normal human Avenger, the assassin can rest easy knowing that any remaining secrets of hers will remain untold — probably.