Movie Review: Black Widow

MARVEL’s BLACK WIDOW, long delayed due to the pandemic, is finally here.  While franchise fans will be happy to see one of their superheroes in a solo adventure, many will be left wondering if it was worth the wait.

After a flashback to superspy/assassin Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson, JOJO RABBIT; the AVENGERS films; ISLE OF DOGS; GHOST IN THE SHELL; THE JUNGLE BOOK; CHEF; DON JON) childhood in Ohio with her parents, Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour, EXTRACTION; TV’s STRANGER THINGS) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz, THE FAVOURITE; DENIAL; THE LOBSTER), and younger sister, Yelena – and you thought Natasha never left the Red Room Academy! – BLACK WIDOW shifts forward 21 years to 2016.  It’s just after the events in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and Romanoff packs her bags and heads to Norway to reflect on her family, her friends and her life to this point.  It’s not long, though, before she’s attacked by a menacing creature known as Taskmaster who wants something she’s got.  After getting away with the bounty, Romanoff tracks down Yelena (now played as an adult by Florence Pugh, LITTLE WOMEN; MIDSOMMAR), whom she hasn’t seen since 1995.  Not surprisingly, Yelena has family issues but she puts them behind her and tells Natasha that an old nemesis of theirs, Dreykov (Ray Winstone, CATS; NOAH), has created an army of female “widow” operatives that he controls using a mind drug… and she ought to know because she was one of them.  The bounty that Romanoff has and what Taskmaster wants is the antidote.  With that, the women decide to find Dreykov and stop his nefarious work.  They need some help though, and they go looking for their parents with the assistance of Romanoff’s go-to guy from her S.H.I.E.L.D. days, Mason (O-T Fagbenle, TV’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE).  However, Dreykov has thrown Alexei into a maximum-security prison somewhere in snowy Russia while Melina is the scientist in charge of Dreykov’s mind-controlling project.

There’s a lot to unpack here so I’ll start with “Why this movie?”  This idea for a BLACK WIDOW solo project reportedly came about as early as 2004 but the project was stalled for a few years while the character’s film rights were being sorted out.  Work in earnest then began in late 2017, possibly due to the success of rival DCEU’s (Warner Bros.) WONDER WOMAN that same year.  It may have been that the suits at MARVEL realised that, what do you know, there is interest in a female-led superhero movie.  If that’s what it was, then that realisation was only confirmed with the success of CAPTAIN MARVEL in 2019.  As for “Why now?”, BLACK WIDOW was supposed to have been released in May 2020 but thanks to the pandemic, Disney decided to push the date back to November.  Covid had other ideas, though, and in September, Disney pushed the release a second time to May 2021.  Finally, in March, Disney announced that it would be released in July.  And here we are.

There’s a small problem with releasing the film now though.  We already know that Natasha dies in AVENGERS: ENDGAME.  That makes it hard for the audience to get emotionally invested in her character here.  Screenwriter Eric Pearson (GODZILLA VS. KONG; THOR: RAGNAROK) and producer Kevin Feige must have realised this, so they very wisely put a lot of emphasis on Yelena’s character development.  Fortunately, Pugh is up for the challenge and she easily is the best thing about this film.  Yelena has scads more personality than Natasha does and she wastes no time throwing shade at her big sister.  Weisz and especially Harbour are also very good in their supporting roles.  There needs to be a solo film about Alexei Shostakov.

If the emphasis is on Yelena then, what’s the point of having a BLACK WIDOW film, you ask?  Clearly, this film is meant as a placeholder.  If BLACK WIDOW’s post-credit scene is any indication, and it always is, we can expect to see Yelena again.

That’s the good. Unfortunately, there’s some not so good with BLACK WIDOW.  For starters, the high-octane scenes pale in comparison to what we’ve seen in other MCU films.  Natasha and Yelena’s high-speed chase through Budapest with Taskmaster and Dreykov’s people in hot pursuit lacks spectacle and thrill.  Unfortunately, director Cate Shortland (BERLIN SYNDROME; LORE) relies on plenty of shaky camerawork and quick cuts as a substitute for action and good fight choreography.  Sadly, even using stunt doubles, as she does, it doesn’t work.  The story also doesn’t quite work when the first third of the film is spent watching Natasha mope around trying to find a new purpose in life.  Pull up your bootsteps, girl, and get on with it already!

In the end, BLACK WIDOW is a bit of mixed bag.  It’s part spy thriller, part family comedy-drama and, of course, part superhero action film.  As a whole, it’s not bad but it really lacks the bite that a film like this should have.

BLACK WIDOW opened in Hong Kong yesterday (July 7th).  It opens in the rest of the world this weekend.  It’s also available on Disney+ starting tomorrow too.  MARVEL fans will be mildly pleased.

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