It seems like every major franchise wants to say they are single-handedly bringing back the movies to the big screen. That’s all well and good, but it’s also nice when they deliver the goods. As it stands, Black Widow is a solid action picture that does its best not to buckle under the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a tricky position to be in, as the pieces are all in place to deliver fun summer spectacle. The problem is trying to see an action-focused superhero movie attempt to stand on its own in a world where the genre is oversaturated, and timeline continuity seemingly means a lot to audiences. Still, for another MCU film staking a claim in James Bond territory, Black Widow works pretty well.
Following another prologue giving us younger versions of our heroes, which includes de-aged versions of co-stars David Harbour and Rachel Weisz, the film picks up after the events of Captain America: Civil War. At this point in time, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. and finds herself confronting some dangers people tied to her past. This means reuniting with the broken family she left behind, including her “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh).
It’s really once these sisters meet that Black Widow begins to find its groove. As a standalone story serving as a reckoning with the red on Natasha’s ledger, there’s not much that’s all that compelling. Mileage will vary, but very little was enlightening in a way that significantly enhanced what’s been teased since Avengers. For all that’s come out of the Daniel Craig-era of Bond, that series similarly suffers when it suddenly feels the need to address the larger continuity of it all, including the “architects of one’s pain.” On the other hand, when Black Widow finds itself leaning more into Incredibles territory, the fun that comes from an MCU film is in fine form.
Whether it’s the sisters bickering with each other (their reintroduction includes a pretty brutal throwdown) or the whole family (including Wiesz’s Melina and Harbour’s Alexei) arguing over the best methods for a plan of attack, that’s when the energy is genuinely working in the film’s favor. It’s not as though I expect these Marvel movies to suddenly pivot away from being primarily action-comedies with huge budgets, so I’m more or less happy to welcome fun banter shared between this core set of characters.
The struggle comes from distancing this film from some inevitable factors. I’m not inherently against the idea of revisiting past years in the timeline of an established franchise. However, unless one is a die-hard Widow fan or lacks awareness of this series, it’s hard to reckon with getting a Black Widow feature post-Avengers: Endgame. Regardless of whatever decisions were being made by MCU producer/guru Kevin Feige, waiting until after the big season finale of “Avengers” to provide this standalone movie shortchanges whatever narrative/character growth is thrown our way. Sure, the film has ways to branch off other characters for their adventures, but it’s hard not to think this film would have been better served coming out within the past five years.
Still, outside of its placement in this overarching franchise, the movie has enough working in its favor. There may be many MCU regulars doing their part to add to the machine when it comes to the screenwriter, cinematographer, editors, etc., but director Cate Shortland has a good enough handle on how to frame this film. This is a globetrotting, spy-heavy, action-packed flick, taking a page out of the Bond notebook (including one particular entry that was surprisingly the most heavily referenced). Whether or not one is impacted by the arc of Natasha’s story, it would be hard to say she wasn’t pushed to her limits here.
Doing its best to hide the use of the huge Atlanta studio these films are shot in, we get enough of Norway, Morocco, and Budapest to at least be somewhat convinced this film has a pretty large scale. On top of that, the action includes car chases, motorcycle chases, rooftop chases, fistfights, sword fights, aerial battles, and more. While not exactly grounded in reality, there was something to admire in seeing this play more in the realm of The Winter Soldier as opposed to Thor: Ragnarok. That’s not knocking the quality of one or comparing the other, simply an acknowledgment of the choice to keep Black Widow as human as you can in a superhero movie such as this.
As far as the humans go, Johansson has certainly been comfortable in this role for a while. Black Widow doesn’t necessarily do much to challenge her, but she’s a star with plenty to do in her big solo vehicle. Of course, these films tend to allow more time for the supporting characters to shine. Pugh has fun playing into the bratty sister role, mocking Natasha’s need to make superhero poses as an entrance while proving herself just as capable as a fighter. Weisz takes a lot of perfunctory dialogue and elevates it as needed. Harbour is a much broader, brash persona that would be annoying if not for his character flaw of being needy. Together, they make for a fun set of folks to watch, even if they are a broken family.
On the other side, well, let’s just say the MCU has not exactly corrected its void of great villains. Despite the few anomalies of greatness that were Killmonger, Thanos, and I guess Agatha (all along), Ray Winstone’s evil Russian, the man behind all of the Widows, does little that’s all that memorable, beyond wear menacing, thick-rimmed glasses. The film’s other heavy is the mysterious Taskmaster, who is entirely silent and wears a full mask around their head. Indeed a threatening character, but not much to go on beyond how this character reflects on Natasha.
Really, it may come down to how much one wants to appreciate Natasha as a character to have significant thoughts on this film. Black Widow isn’t asking much of the audience. One core idea for those looking for social commentary revolves around Natasha and Yelena wanting to free women from toxic men. Still, even that idea is similar to Captain Marvel (though it is better handled here). When not concerned with pure entertainment, whether in the form of action, comedy, or both simultaneously, I’d ideally want to be focused on how this story is evolving my perspective of who Natasha is. In that regard, I came away with little. It didn’t sting to feel that way, but Black Widow’s web of spectacle is best enjoyed on the surface.