Over a year later than originally promised, BLACK WIDOW is finally ready to land in theaters and kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s fourth phase. Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Here’s the thing…
Natasha Romanoff, skillfully played by Scarlett Johansson for a decade now, was never written to be a solo character. Like Hawkeye, she’s always kind of been on the second tier of Avengers members. After all, she has no superhuman abilities (other than posing, something hilariously skewered in this film) and no heroic backstory. She’s just bad-ass and if anything, her superpower would be somehow being able to function after sustaining years and years of intense injuries. She was the perfunctory hot girl in the original group, and now that 20+ movies have been made, it feels as if Marvel was contractually obligated to fill in some blanks on her past and finally imbue her with a third dimension.
BLACK WIDOW takes place sometime around CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR in the MCU timeline, meaning Natasha is alive and well and on her own. The fractured Avengers team gives us a chance to have a realistic solo adventure for her, one that starts with a heartbreaking sequence showing from whence she came. With the help of her sister-in-widowhood Yelena (the excellent Florence Pugh), Natasha goes on a mission to destroy the man who made her what she is.
Along the way we gather pieces of her past, including David Harbour as Alexei. Harbour steals every scene he’s in. Rachel Weisz feels underutilized as Melina, but still shines as always. If anything, Natasha begins to fade into the background of her own story at times, which isn’t… great. Weisz also looks young enough that it’s borderline distracting to the story.
The whole affair feels a bit late. I realize this isn’t the first time an MCU film has jumped backward to fill in a gap, (in fact it’s not even the first time the MCU has focused in on the year 1995) but post-ENDGAME this just really feels like something that should have been made closer to its place in the storyline. If anything, it would have made Natasha’s ENDGAME sacrifice more emotionally resonant.
It would have also benefited from not feeling like so much standard fare. When I realized where the film’s action climax was to take place, I audibly sighed. There has now been so much Marvel and so much of it is so good that retreading now feels like retreading. This felt very “standard” for Marvel, and after enjoying the way the studio has transformed itself over and over (especially via WANDAVISION and LOKI), going home feels a bit dusty. The action sequences are polished but mostly predictable. I found myself wanting more time with Natasha, Yelena, Alexei and Melina, and less time with the punch punch bang bang. I’d watch an Edward Albee play with those characters.
We’ve now seen so much of this kind of content it’s easy for audiences to take it all for granted. Pugh and Johansson shot their knockdown drag out fight scene first, during a heatwave. Director Cate Shortland (the first solo female director of a Marvel film) noted that “it was kinda great watching these two women fight and making it look effortless. And then they’d stop and we’d kinda hose them down.”
Post-COVID audiences clamoring for big summer movie action will find it here and they should. It’s well-crafted, fun, exciting – it’s just missing something. It could be it’s too little too late, but it could just be a je ne sais quoi that other Marvel projects seem to harness (see THOR: RAGNAROK, for example). This is good, baseline Marvel, but like Natasha, this late in my life I just want something more.
See it for Yourself
BLACK WIDOW arrives in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access July 9, 2021.