*** out of ****
(for intense sequences of violence/action, some language, and thematic material)
Released: July 9, 2021 in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus
Runtime: 133 minutes
Directed by: Cate Shortland
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle
Playing in theaters and on Disney Plus
If Black Widow makes Marvel fans feel wary about moving on to Phase 4, it won’t be because they’re nervous about what lies ahead. It’ll be in realizing just how much untapped potential still remains in what we’re leaving behind.
After a decade-plus of 23 Marvel movies, it’s hard to fathom what the franchise may have left on the table. Black Widow suggests it’s quite a bit.
The first standalone adventure for Natasha Romanoff – a.k.a. Black Widow – is long overdue, inexcusably so. A delayed Phase 3 sequel set in 2016 between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, it’s brimming with possibilities that, for its star, will remain unfulfilled as Scarlett Johansson takes her final bow here in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There’s a bittersweet edge to how satisfying her swan song is because, with it, there comes a sense of injustice for Johansson, her character, and what should’ve been: a solo franchise showcase of her own.
Suffice it to say, Florence Pugh will reap those rewards. But we’ll get that.
That promise, however, isn’t readily apparent in the film’s prologue. A flashback sequence to tween Natasha’s family life in mid-90s Ohio, it’s a standard (if well-staged) setup that establishes Natasha’s orphan status, complete with corny dialogue (“Never let them take your heart!”). Add in a moody female cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and it’s as routine as we’ve come to expect from Kevin Feige’s assembly line; prodigiously done but nothing distinct.
Fast forward to 2016, though, and things start to get interesting, even intriguing. While still unfolding within a formula, Black Widow dives into the character’s mysteries that have been hinted at in the past but are now finally revealed (the truth of her family ties, her insidious Russian spy roots and, most of all, the clandestine Soviet Red Room) as she leads an effort to finally bring down the secret Communist agency that kidnapped, brainwashed and controlled her and so many other young women.
The arc of those revelations is framed within a thrilling action-espionage genre ride, conventional in construct but deftly told, never showing its hand, allowing for surprises that other films might telegraph or even fail to orchestrate. Broadly speaking, yes, this is an average Marvel movie, but it’s smarter and more ingenious in its details, complete with a formidable, masked villain named Taskmaster, an unrelenting foe with Terminator-like precision (although if you’re a diehard fan of the character from the comics, which I’m not, the movie’s take on Taskmaster will likely disappoint).
Cate Shortland, an indie Aussie filmmaker who is now the first woman to ever direct a Marvel movie solo, brings her talents to bear on a studio IP without being run over by the corporate machine (just as Patty Jenkins did with DC’s Wonder Woman). Along with nurturing these characters and relationships beyond their stock archetypes (which is why Johansson hand-picked Shortland for the job), her action scenes, fights and high-speed chases display a design and clarity of vision that gets the most out of Marvel’s generic approach of a fast-cut assembly from multi-camera coverage.
Shortland utilizes practical in-camera stunt work, too, certainly beyond what Marvel’s default reliance on VFX overkill normally permits. The results may not quite reach the heights of Christopher Nolan’s action operas or the daring ambition of Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie’s recent Mission: Impossible efforts, but Shortland invigorates the MCU with some of its more rigorous and credible set pieces.
Black Widow is the best kind of standalone as well, credibly self-contained by rooting its stakes in the hero’s personal vendetta. That helps skirt the problem of the “Why doesn’t the hero call on other Avengers for help?” question; timing it with the group’s civil war helps, too. Also, the threat of world dominance is only a late third act afterthought, which is refreshing. The solutions to the most challenging obstacle they face, however (i.e. mind control), are a bit flimsy, but it is a comic book movie after all.
Giving substance to the spectacle are the family dysfunctions between Natasha, her younger sister Yelena (Pugh), and parents Alexei and Melina (Stranger Things’ David Harbour and Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz). All Soviet-trained super spy assassins, they’ve been separated for over twenty years. Now, the possibility of infiltrating the Red Room and taking out its leader Dreykov (Ray Winstone) brings them back together, but with that comes a reckoning between them.
The ensemble work distinguishes Black Widow from much of the MCU, feeling more authentic and sincere than the franchise’s average boilerplate conflict, with an actual moral weight and psychological toll. This family’s scars are deep, their traumas legitimate, and their pain tragic, with psychic wounds from betrayals and bona fide sins. Even with an acerbic banter that helps break the tension, these dynamics resonate and make for one of the richer (and rewarding) MCU episodes, not to mention more compelling rather than rote.
Harbour is a hoot as Alexei and his alter ego Red Guardian, the former USSR’s answer to Captain America who never reached the same stratosphere of global fame. Alexei’s still bitter about that, pining for his glory days and getting his due. Weisz is a tempered contrast, keeping Melina’s allegiances cagey even as her love of family is genuine, tinged with regret.
But its Pugh who really stands out, taking a fairly straightforward role (albeit physically demanding) and investing some standard emotional beats with a raw anguish. Her lingering, suppressed hurts remain tender, even as her resolve remains fierce, making for a vulnerable volatility that’s never overplayed. She lightens other scenes with a dry, relaxed humor as well. In the past, Pugh has risen to the test of daunting complex roles, but how she humanizes a more familiar hero-with-a-past archetype may be even more impressive.
Slated to take over from Johansson moving forward, Pugh earns the Black Widow mantle in a way that Jeremy Renner never did in Mission Impossible’s failed baton pass from Cruise. She has what it takes to carry a franchise.
There’s a requisite post-credits scene, natch, and it’s the most meaningful one of the MCU (which is saying something). That poignant coda, however, quickly turns into an intriguing tease.
For those who need the MCU to indulge in orgiastic VFX excess, Black Widow may land like minor Marvel, but Shortland’s character focus is exactly what makes this one of the brand’s better offerings. For Pugh, her MCU debut serves as a launching pad from indie starlet to international star. And for Johansson, who deserved more from Marvel than she got, Black Widow at least gives her a worthy curtain call.