“We have unfinished business.”
(This review is spoiler-free, but as always, if you want to go in completely blind, do not read this)
(Full disclosure, this review was written months after the movie came out, I just did not care all too much about pushing it out back then).
The first theatrically released MCU film in over two years, Black Widow arrives much too late into the MCU, but it’s still an energetic and frantic thrill ride that at least partially succeeds in helping the more grounded aspects of the MCU stand out, even if it does fall victim to having a generic, over-the-top finale that abandons any pretense of being grounded.
A Black Widow solo movie has been in the works for a while, but it was only after Scarlett Johansson’s super spy sacrificed herself in Avengers: Endgame that we got a prequel film officially announced at SDCC 2019, which proceeded to have 50 delays and finally release in July of this year. And to absolutely no one’s surprise, this comes so incredibly late into the MCU to mean a thing. The movie, which takes place in the interim period between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War while Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is on the run from the US government, carries absolutely no stakes as a result of being released AFTER we see her die in Endgame, and fails to effectively build any tension. The actual plot of the film is a fairly simple one, with the film being buoyed by the strong character work done with Natasha’s supporting cast. The shady General Drekov (Ray Winstone), leader of the Red Room (the secret operation that transforms little girls into ruthless assassins and is responsible for creating Black Widow) learns of something that can topple his operation forever, and so he hunts down Natasha and her sister Yelena.
Johansson’s great as always in the role she’s inhabited for the last decade, but she gets remarkably little to work with in her own movie, with many of her strongest moments only coming when she gets to play off of Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova (above), Natasha’s surrogate little sister turned fellow Black Widow. Having pretended to be sisters while deep undercover in Ohio during the 1990s, both assassins bicker and quarrel just like real siblings, and Pugh is a huge reason why Black Widow is able to keep its energy up, with both deadpan humor and her effortlessly magnetic screen presence, which the rising star’s showed off in the 2019 remake of Little Women and Midsommar. From joking about her sister’s odd penchant for doing a “superhero pose” in fight scenes to trying to come to grips that the rest of her undercover family doesn’t treat it like a family as she does, Yelena is one of the main reasons why Black Widow is enjoyable, outshining Natasha by miles to the point where it’s much more riveting to follow Yelena instead of the presumed star of the movie.
Completing the pseudo-family that makes up Black Widow‘s supporting cast are Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (a hilarious David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), both of whom serve as foils to Johansson’s Natasha as well help to make up the emotional core that the film revolves around. Harbour in particular is a brilliant addition to the film, with his ridiculously overblown accent and impeccable comedic timing serving as nearly all of the film’s humor, as well as the near-constant physical comedy that ensues when he’s onscreen.
As for Black Widow‘s villains, they unfortunately fall victim to the same issues that have plagued many MCU antagonists: being boring despite a cool fight scene or two, and being underwritten into being a monologuing mustache-twirler. General Drekov (Ray Winstone) leads the Red Room project that turns kidnapped girls into the lethal Black Widows, and Black Widow touches briefly on the obvious parallels to real-life child trafficking, but neither Drekov nor that theme are explored any further than what’s on the surface, leaving Drekov as just another forgettable MCU villain. With Taskmaster (actor is a spoiler but I will say that it’s extremely obvious once you see their name in the opening credits and they still haven’t shown up two hours in), he’s a physical threat and formidable foe like his comic counterpart, but outside of three well-choreographed yet frustratingly short fight scenes, isn’t given anything to do besides stand there and look menacing. Although the MCU’s Taskmaster has the same ability to mimic the skills and techniques of others, much of this is implied offscreen, with him using a shield like Captain America, a bow like Hawkeye, Spider-Man’s web-swinging, and Black Panther’s claws all-too briefly.
Since this review is coming after the Shang-Chi one, I feel it’s a disservice to the film to say that the action is subpar to Shang-Chi, but it definitely is. There are only three big fight sequences in the film, and none of them save for the first Natasha vs Taskmaster fight (pictured above) stand out in particular. Although they’re much better than the average MCU fight scene featuring normal people and not magical gods, Black Widow‘s action still can’t hold a candle to Winter Soldier or Civil War (which in turn, can’t touch Shang-Chi), with an excess of cutting on action and “shaky cam”. And for the aforementioned CGI mess of a finale, what more is there to say? It completely catapults Black Widow into fantasy instead of the heavily grounded film it was for the last two hours, and is as generic and bland as a finale as any action film nowadays.
Director Cate Shortland and director of photography Gabriel Beristain do make an effort to make Black Widow look better than the average MCU film (read: Far From Home and Ant-Man and the Wasp), however. Before the third act dissolves into the unescapable CGI grayness of MCU third acts (of course, there are exceptions), there are some good shots sprinkled throughout the film, and some inspired camerawork during some action sequences. It’s still not enough to help disguise the fact that Black Widow should have come out at least three or four years earlier, although I doubt that you could get the same cast and have it be the same film three or four years ago.
Verdict: The world waited way too long for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow to get her own film, and it shows, with a lack of any tension or true closure for the Avenger that’s helped to define a decade of the MCU. Black Widow is an energetic and quickly-paced thrill ride that’s helped immensely by its strong emotional center and standout performances from Florence Pugh and David Harbour, but its incredibly vapid and lifeless third act, along with generic action and plot beats we’ve seen a hundred times, make Scarlett Johansson’s swan song as the assassin-turned hero a lukewarm one.
Let me know what you thought of the film in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I do not own any of these photos, screencaps, or posters. Disney and Marvel Studios own all of these images!