Black Widow (2021) Review
I’M DONE RUNNING FROM MY PAST
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has indeed been an incredible, lucrative, and entertaining to ride since its inception in 2008 with the release of Iron Man. This shared superhero movie universe has incorporated many comic book heroes (both famous and unknown) within Marvel Comics back catalogue; producing heightened cinematic fanfare of epic proportions and box office success whenever each entry gets released. In every installment, the MCU has grown in size (expanding its own universe of heroes, gods, and monsters) as well as providing a blockbuster-ish superhero fantasy escapism for moviegoers around the world. Naturally, the franchise itself has proven to be a powerhouse juggernaut, cultivating large successful numbers at the box office with every entry, which demonstrate the mass appeal of costumed comic book heroes and the need for continuing the various MCU phase sagas in continuing already established ones as well as new ones to fill in the roster. This is especially noticeable after the release of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, which closed the chapter of the Infinity Saga storyline arc, saying a satisfying farewell to some of the main staple characters in the franchise, and sets a new stage for the MCU heroes to explore and save the world therein. Now, after an almost two-year hiatus since the release of 2019’s Spider-Man: Far from Home, Marvel Studios and director Cate Shortland present the solo movie for Natasha Romanoff (one of the original six Avenger characters in the MCU) with the release of Black Widow. Does this long-awaited solo focused superhero movie gets its “day in the cinematic sun” or is it a bland blockbuster endeavor that never really gets off the ground?
Set after the events that took place in Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are divided, and team is broken up. Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a wanted fugitive to the government, with Secretary Ross (William Hurt) trying to bring the Avenger to justice, unable to track her down as he hunts for the rest of the superhero group. Staying off the government radar and out of sight, Natasha is pulled back into danger when she receives a mysterious package containing a special antidote, suddenly reuniting with her little sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), a Black Widow operative recently freed from mind control thanks to the special red gas serum. Separated for years, the pair have trouble dealing with their past as tools for the infamous Red Room leader Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who brought the two girls together as a cover for Russian agents Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour); creating a made-up family that felt real for the children. Looking for revenge, Natasha and Yelena hunt Dreykov, coming into contact with his deadly assassin enforcer, Taskmaster, while they seek a reunion with their parents. However, as deeper as Natasha goes, her past comes to light and must confront it or be destroyed by it.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
It goes without saying (as many of you readers already know) that I’m a huge (and do mean huge) fan of the MCU films. I think this particular cinematic franchise has indeed flourishes (the right way) into becoming a powerhouse juggernaut that it is today, spanning over more than a decade (currently) in presentation its shared universe of Marvel superheroes. As one can imagine, I’m more of a fan of Marvel comic book characters than the DC Comics ones, so the actual cinematic representation that each of the twenty films released (thus far) since 2008 have definitely enchanted and “geeked out” my inner fanboy. Of course, the success of the MCU has been expanded upon the already established characters (i.e., Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk) as well bringing new characters into the mix (i.e., Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians of the Galaxy); showcasing the different styles and narratives that accompany these super tales of good and evil. Yes, I do agree that these movies have found a “winning formula” and have repeated as such (accordingly) throughout its different entries in their “phase sagas”, but it’s something that definitely worked and there have been a few surprises along the way that keeps these movies both “interesting” and “entertaining” at the same time. Plus, I do have to admit that I loved 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, which brought the whole Infinity storyline arc to a rousing conclusion; setting the stage for the MCU’s next phase saga in a very intriguing way. All in all, I think that the MCU (as a whole) has definitely left its mark on the film industry. The question remains…. how long can this shared cinematic universe of Marvel superheroes be relevant before it becomes stale and uninteresting to the general public opinions? I guess only time will tell on that endeavor in the coming years.
This brings me back to talking about Black Widow, Marvel’s 2021 action superhero film and the beginning of the MCU’s Phase IV saga. I do have to say that this movie has been quite on everyone’s minds, especially since there has been a lot of talks of doing a Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow solo movie since the character first debuted in 2010’s Iron Man 2. To be sure, the character that has been prominent in several of the solo MCU movies (i.e., Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Captain America: Civil War) as well as a superhero team-up films (Marvel’s The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame). That being said, the Black Widow character never got her chance to shine in her own solo focused movie. So, with all the talks, rumors, and tidbits info, I was pleasantly happy to see the character get her own movie when it was announced that Marvel was going to do a Black Widow movie. From there, Marvel touted the project quite frequently, with plenty of hype surrounding the feature and bringing a lot of fanfare to the proceedings. Plus, the movie’s trailer looked great and showcased some great stuff of what we (the viewers) were going to experience with the movie. So, of course, I (like many fans out there) I was definitely looking forward to seeing Black Widow, which was originally set to be released in May 2020. However, the on-going effects of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the film to be delayed several times, with Black Widow finally having a release set for July 2021.So, I know that many are probably going to see this movie in theaters, I decided to purchase the premium access for Black Widow on Disney+ and prepped myself to watch the latest Marvel superhero film on its opening night. And what did I think of it? Well, I liked it actually. Black Widow is a solid Marvel movie that carries the cinematic blockbuster pedigree of the franchise and finally gives the character Natasha Romanoff her solo debut film that many have craved for years. It’s not best MCU film out there in the franchise, but it is still worthy entry in the long-running superhero cinematic universe.
Black Widow is directed by Cate Shortland, whose previous directorial works includes several movies like Somersault, Lore, and Berlin Syndrome, as well as TV episodes for Bad Cop, Good Cop and The Secret Life of Us. Given her background on all of her previous endeavors, Shortland makes Black Widow her most ambitious project; approaching the feature with a little bit of a different flair to the MCU movies and bringing her own mindset to the proceedings. To that end, I think that Shortland did a good job and succeed in making this latest entry in the MCU an interesting take. Of course, the main body of Black Widow focuses on the uncover of Natasha’s past, which I think that Shortland does a good job in helming this endeavor; shaping the feature with a fresh set of new eyes to the shared cinematic universe of superheroes. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film that Shortland brings is the tonal musings and nuances of a James Bond spy aspect that definitely is Black Widow’s “bread and butter” for most of the film’s runtime. The film itself is very much a “street level” narrative of the MCU; feeling a tad bit more grounded (albeit still quite fantastical) than some of the other features in the franchise. Thus, there’s a tad bit more of realism to the proceedings and Shortland embraces the revelations of the spy genres with glee. From this aspect, I think that the movie worked well as I really did love the first act of Black Widow the best. There’s a sense of gritty and dark realism (most notable in the opening sequence / title crawl) and that’s where Shortland shines the best; setting the stage for something interesting and entertaining. That’s not to say that the rest of the film isn’t great as Shortland follows through for most of the picture, with a few bumps along the way (more on that below), but I think it is admirable job of what she was able to accomplish, especially with a non-background in mainstream blockbuster making.
Of course, the big selling point of the movie is the focus on the character of Natasha Romanoff and the uncovering of her past as she confronts it now in the present. This also includes the ideas of family; something that Marvel is known for presenting in their features, and Shortland handles this quite well by showcasing Natasha’s first family (before the Avengers) and shows the various dynamics to how they all interact with Romanoff. From a storytelling standpoint, Black Widow works. Its’ not the best revolutionary narrative threads to follow, but it definitely works as some of the best moments is watching the cast interact with each other (more on that below). Thus, I think that the story is quite good and, while it could’ve had more polished / refinement to it, is solid for most parts. Naturally, with Black Widow being a MCU film, Shortland adds the franchise signature of action, humor, and heart and its all presented well within that package; demonstrating various character / scenarios that fits perfect within those categories. Altogether, those three beats are utilized throughout the movie and, while not the absolute best, still clearly represent that MCU formula and Shortland keeps that in mind. Plus, there is plenty of callbacks and references to the established MCU world throughout Black Widow, which will help the non-MCU fan help figure out where this movie takes place in the universe’s timeline. Overall, I think that Shortland did a decent job with Black Widow; handling the Marvel style action, humor, and heart effectively well as well as making her own directorial mark on the project. As I said above, it’s not the best MCU movie, but its still as solid and admirable one that works.
The overall presentation of Black Widow is quite solid and is definitely has that “quality” blockbuster feeling that Marvel Studio is knowing for. Like the previous MCU endeavors, there is a lot going on and the visual appeal of the film (both physical and computer generated) are “in-line” with today’s cinematic takes on blockbuster and Black Widow fits squarely right into the category. From beginning to end, the film has that special “T” factor that makes the film (visually speaking) work and work well with its various European locations / locales as well as detailed fictional interior buildings and corridors as well as clothing attire. Thus, from that standpoint, I think that Black Widow’s “behind the scenes” team, including Charles Wood (production design), John Bush and Jess Royal (set decorations), Lisa Lovaas and Jany Temime (costume designs), and Leigh Folsom Boyd and Matthew Schmidt (editing) do great work in bringing the film’s world to life. Aiding in that endeavor is the feature’s cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, which creates some creative visual looks throughout the film threw the effects of camera angles, movement, and lens flair. This (of course) adds to the dramatic “look and feel” to the proceedings, especially in the action department. The film’s visuals are also good. Nothing “out of this world” revelation, but ones that feel appropriate for a Marvel movie and meets the industry standards for a blockbuster movie. I will say, however, that there were one or two fighting sequences that were obviously computer generated (computers still can’t fully replicate body movement), but those were just a minor discrepancy. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Lorne Balfe, is solid; creating a very atmospheric melodies that feel right in both tone and action for the feature’s various sequences. As a lot of that heavy choir chants that feel almost Russian, which given the subject matter of the movie, feels appropriate.
Unfortunately, there are a few problems that I had with Black Widow that make the project feel a bit underwhelming, especially considering the high standards that are set by some of the previous MCU feature films. For starters, the movie itself is a tad “meh”. That’s not to say that it is unenjoyable and / or boring to watch, but the film (and its story) doesn’t really bring anything new to the table of what’s already come and gone in this cinematic universe. As a whole, Black Widow doesn’t have the complete “wow” factor in taking us (the viewer) to something new. The movie doesn’t take us with the far reaches of space with new characters like Guardians of the Galaxy, it doesn’t have the gritty “in your face” action like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it doesn’t explore the mystical realm like Doctor Strange, and it doesn’t bring a hidden unseen kingdom like Black Panther. As mentioned, Black Widow is very much a Marvel “street level” narrative, but doesn’t take that many strides in being anything new or different from many would expect from an MCU. The first act is great and definitely works, but the ending takes a easy route out and becomes a stereotypical Marvel movie; following a formula of big action, daring escapes, and climatic moments. This didn’t bother me a whole lot as I kind of expect it to be like this, but I just felt that the film could’ve been so much better if the studio “changed the formula” in its story / presentation. Also, I do have to say that the film’s pacing is a bit off at certain points. This is most part during the film’s middle portion (second act) and I feel that this portion of the narrative is a bit sluggish. Sure, there is plenty of Marvel style humor and heart (as well as story plot points), but I felt that there part could’ve been better handled.
Next, I would say another point of criticism that I have with the movie is in its political commentary message. Let me rephrase that…. a point of criticism that I have with the way the political commentary message is presented in Black Widow. Why? Well, Marvel has certainly been champion of recent events / change in cultural representation and gender representation and do that I applaud them, especially since these movies are seeing by the masses. To me, Black Panther showcased that aspect beautifully with the characters of Shuri (intelligence), Okoye (strength), Nakia (compassionate) and were treated with respect and the representation shows that. However, other Marvel movies have had their representation a bit “on the nose” and / or quite heavy-handed in how its presented (i.e., the all-female group charge at the end of Avengers: Endgame or Carol Danver’s revelation scene in Captain Marvel, etc.). Unfortunately, Black Widow falls that category with all its gender overtones and heavy-handed political commentary that almost gives inducing eye-roll in one scene. I’m all for equality and representation, but there is a right way to do it and the wrong way do it and Black Widow falls into the latter. It doesn’t derail the movie, but it feels a bit forced and “on the nose” when its mentioned. I think that Marvel just needs a better way to incorporate equality representation in their future installment that doesn’t seem shoehorned in.
Another minor problem that I had with this movie is the simple fact where the feature’s story takes place in the timeline placement in the MCU. What do I mean? Well, think of Black Widow as a sort of prequel entry and you’ll get what I mean. With the movie’s narrative taking place in-between Civil War and Infinity War, the film tries to up the stakes for Natasha and throws a lot of big danger for her to face off against, but it all is slightly a bit of moot point. If you’ve seeing Avengers: Endgame, then you know the fate of Natasha Romanoff. So, all the danger and perilous fights that she faces in Black Widow seems a bit “meh” because you know she’s going to show up in Infinity War and Endgame. I know that sounds a bit of superfluous complaint, but hey…. that’s just my opinion.
Of course, what definitely helps overcome those criticisms is the film’s cast, which definitely bring their “A” game and feel like a welcomed addition to the many of the hero characters (major and minor ones) within the MCU. Naturally, leading the charge in the film is actress Scarlett Johansson in the central protagonist role of Natasha Romanoff. As stated previously, Johansson, known for her roles in The Island, Lucy, and Marriage Story, has been one of the many players in the MCU since Iron Man 2 and has a delivered a very solid / nuanced role throughout this cinematic universe as Natasha Romanoff within the various feature films therein. So, (much like what I said above) it’s welcomed “breath of fresh air” that Natasha gets her own movie and Johansson, who has been wanting to one for quite some time, relishes that opportunity to the “T”. Throughout Black Widow, one can easily see that Johansson is having a lot of fun in following Natasha’s journey from onset to conclusion. Johansson has certainly made the character her own in the previous movies, but gets the chance in Black Widow to give the character take more of a “center stage” as protagonist rather than a supporting role. As such, Johansson is quite solid in the role and handles the lead role in a great way. The character does get a bit lost / push aside in a few moments, but that’s a problem that comes from Shortland’s direction rather than Johansson’s performance. All in all, I really liked the fact that Johansson finally gets her own moment in the cinematic spotlight with her portrayal of Natasha Romanoff in a prequel solo movie and a good send-off to the character.
Behind Johansson, actress Florence Pugh plays the new character of Yelena Belova, Natasha’s sister and fellow Black Widow assassin. Pugh, known for her roles in Fighting with My Family, The Little Drummer Girl, and Little Women, is definitely a welcomed addition to this superhero cinematic universe and is perhaps the best part of the movie in general. How so? Well, she completely nails the characters completely; offering Yelena to be a very battle hardened and deadly assassin much like Romanoff is. However, the character is also a bit vulnerable a few times I think that Pugh portrays that quite well. Moreover, Pugh has great comedic timing and delivers some of the best one-liner zingers in the movie (i.e., such a poser) and handles the action scenes in great way that it makes her standout that much more (in a memorable way) than Johansson, which is quite different and a bit unexpected. Personally, I really liked Pugh’s Yelena and is probably my favorite character in all of Black Widow. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the character in the future of the MCU.
In larger supporting roles, the acting talents of both actor David Harbour and actress Rachel Weisz feeling the respective roles of Natasha / Yelena’s surrogate parental figures of Alexei Shostakov and Melinda Vostokoff and are considered the “veterans” talents that usually pop-up within many of the MCU films. Harbour, known for his roles in Stranger Things, Hellboy, and The Newsroom, is most delegated in the movie as a the “comic relief” and Harbour is definitely good at, which is probably why he is heavily utilized in that aspect. As Alexei, Harbour is fun and entertaining whenever he’s on-screen, especially when compared to the more gravitas / stoic demeanor of Weisz’s Melinda. Plus, it’s kind of funny as he is the somewhat “Russia” version of Captain America as the Red Guardian and I love how he tries to adopt the persona. Similarly, Weisz, known for her roles in The Favourite, The Constant Gardner, and The Fountain, is spot-on in the role of Melinda and perfect nails the role in great and fun way. The one minor downside I would have to say about Weisz’s Melinda is that she a bit underutilized in the movie. Of the four main players (her, Johansson, Pugh, and Harbour), she gets the least amount of screen-time, which is strange because Weisz has the strongest and most dynamic acting range of the group and could’ve definitely added more substance to the character in general. However, that being said, I really did like Weisz as Melinda as she was terrific and another great “seasoned” acting veteran to appear within the MCU. Also (collectively speaking) both Harbour and Weisz have a good rapport with each other, and their co-stars and it clearly shows.
Perhaps the weakest characters in the movie would have to be the antagonist villains that Natasha faces off against…. both Red Room / Widow mastermind General Dreykov and his deadly assassin enforcer codenamed Taskmaster. Marvel has certainly given us plenty of memorable villains (i.e., Loki, the Winter Soldier, Kilmonger, the Vulture, Ultron, Thanos, etc.), but largely they have struggled in developing / presenting villains; often being weakly developed and more just “baddie” constructs rather than fleshed out antagonists. Unfortunately, Black Widow falls into the latter category rather than the former with its villains. Actor Ray Winstone (The Departed and Beowulf) certainly fits the bill for someone to play Dreykov as he has that naturally gravelling / growling sounding voice that seems to resonate quite well. However, Dreykov is a rather bland and straightforward bad guy that doesn’t really go anywhere unique or interesting. The character fits the narrative for Black Widow’s story, but Dreykov is rather straightforward and one-dimension, lacking a dynamic and / or memorable villain. The same can be partially. said for the character of Taskmaster. I’m not going to spoil who is acting talent behind the assassin’s mask as that would ruin the “big reveal” twist in the third act, so I won’t be mentioning who plays the character. In the movie, the Taskmaster character is quite reminiscent of the “Winter Soldier” as a ruthless and deadly assassin and I was really getting the vibe whenever the character appeared on-screen. For most part, I liked it. However, what becomes the character is a little “meh” in the third act and feels a bit empty-handed; loosing that particular edge and leaving more of an unsatisfying taste in a viewer’s mouth by the film’s end. Of course, some hardcore / pursuits Marvel comic fans out there will probably cry disappointment (i.e., ruining the character from its source material), I’m not so much in the category. That being said, I kind of wished they handled the Taskmaster better in the third act as there was so much potential to make the character quite memorable rather than a bland / generic revelation on identity / send-off.
The rest of the cast, including actor William Hurt (A History of Violence and Lost in Space) as US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross and actor O-T Fagbenle (The Handmaid’s Tale and Maxxx) as Mason, make up the minor supporting players in the movie. While most of the film relies heavily on the main cast, these two characters are really “minor” characters in the story; offering up sparse sequences in their involvement in Black Widow. That being said, both Hurt and Fagbenle are fine in their respective roles and really can’t complain on their acting ability.
Lastly, it won’t be a Marvel movie with something extra at the end of the film as Black Widow does feature a post-credit Easter egg scene after the credits have finished. I won’t spoil what is presented, but it something that is quite interesting and look forward to seeing where Marvel Studios will go with this narrative plot point.
Escaping from those who want to capture her, Natasha Romanoff returns to face her past and reunite with her first family and plans to take down Dreykov’s infamous “Red Room” Widow program in the movie Black Widow. Director Cate Shortland latest film takes the first female Avenger character and gives the character of Romanoff her own solo film; adding more depth to the character by filling in some of her backstory, while offering a new adventure for the famous “Black Widow” to play around with. While the movie does struggle with its pacing, its villain, a heavy-handed commentary, and having a bit of underwhelming pieces in a few areas, the movie still manages to be quite fun and entertaining, especially thanks to spy aspect of the street-level narrative, majority of the cast (most notable Pugh) and in its overall presentation. Personally, I liked this movie. Yes, there were a few problems with the movie, and I wasn’t super blown away by the narrative and its presentation, but it was still entertaining and nevertheless a solid entry in the MCU franchise. Additionally, one of the two female focused MCU movies that is so far released, I think that Black Widow is better than Captain Marvel. Thus, my recommendation for the film would be a favorable “recommended” one as I’m sure Marvel fans out there will enjoy the film as well as the casual moviegoers out there that are curious to see the latest entry in the MCU. As mentioned, the ending of the movie opens up for several possible ideas for continuations / spin-off with some of the characters in the film. So, I’m curious to see what Marvel Studios does with these ideas on both the big screen as well as small screen, which seems to be thriving on Disney Plus streaming platform. In the end, Black Widow, while not exactly the “mind-blowing” MCU feature film that some were kind of expecting, still manages to bring a spy-esque Marvel adventure to the proceedings, while giving the character of Natasha Romanoff (and Scarlett Johansson) a proper and fitting solo film as well as a send-off that she deserves.
3.9 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: July 9th, 2021
Reviewed On: July 20th, 2021
Black Widow is 133 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence / action, some language, and thematic material