Movie Title: Black Widow
Release Date: June 29, 2021 (World Premiere), July 9, 2021 (United States)
Studio: Marvel Studios
Director: Cate Shortland
Release Format: Theatrical/Digital
Well, it’s here. Ever since Scarlett Johansson debuted as Black Widow in 2010’s mixed-bag Iron Man 2, fans have clamored for the character to have her own solo movie. Eleven years later and we finally have it, ironically a couple of years after Widow’s demise in Avengers: Endgame.
Which leaves us with only one question. Is the movie worth the wait? Does it give Scarlett Johansson’s deadly spy the send-off she truly deserves? Well, in a word, no.
The Makings of a Black Widow
Black Widow, as a film concept, seems interesting. It explores the past of Natasha Romanoff AKA the titular Black Widow, as she reunites with her adoptive family, sister Yelena Palova (Florence Pugh), father Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour), and mother Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) while trying to find Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov, who trained Natasha and Yelena to be the super-spies they grew up to be.
It’s a shame then that Black Widow faces a common problem throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an action drama that is often contradicted by forced comedy. The problem is, in trying to do so, the film fails at achieving its full potential in either genre. One solemn scene between Yelena and Alexei is cut short by Alexei recounting the tale of how he nearly lost his hands to frostbite before his father urinated on them. This kind of zig-zag in tone is emblematic of the movie whole.
David Harbour falls short as Natasha and Yelena’s socially inept Dad. This Russian superhero Homer Simpson is the main comic relief of the film, but his constant interruptions in the plot’s flow with his exaggerated Russian accent and silly comments are more tiresome than funny. The film’s marketing promised us it would delve deep into Black Widow’s dark past, but Harbour’s loud, obnoxious performance overshadows this interesting premise, possibly to set him up for future spin-offs.
The Movie Has Lost the Plot
Even when you take away the movie’s regular mood whiplash, you’re left with blandness. Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov is as boring and one-note as one might expect from a typical MCU villain. Another yawn-inducing control-room puppeteer with ambitions of world domination, the film tries to humanize him by pointing out that Natasha Romanoff killed his late daughter. This doesn’t work as we see that his mysterious ‘Taskmaster’ goon is actually his mind-controlled, resurrected daughter in disguise. Dreykov then treats her like another one of his soulless toys, showing no emotional bond.
Now, Scarlett Johansson kills it as Black Widow herself, that’s a dead cert. Her performance here is evidence that she can perform brilliantly in tense, high-octane action thrillers. As Natasha, she is powerful, focused, and intelligent while possessing a certain charm. One brief scene has her watch GoldenEye on her laptop while eating ice cream (funnily enough, the franchise the aforementioned film belongs to inspired Black Widow).
The problem is, again, the material Johansson is given. Cracks of relatable vulnerability are there, but not enough to make for compelling drama. Natasha’s relationship with her estranged sister isn’t properly explored beyond surface-level banter and when you think it is, the moments are interrupted by another forced wisecrack or joke. The same applies to her scenes with Alexei. The film had the potential to be an interesting character study of Black Widow but refuses to go into much depth.
The Action-Packed Adventures of Black Widow
That said, the action in Black Widow can be commended. Having a non-superpowered ace combatant duke it out means reducing CGI usage and utilizing live combat instead. For those who criticize the Marvel movies for relying too much on CGI boss-fights, the fight sequences here are a counter-argument. Natasha’s acrobatics and swift fighting moves prove that Marvel films can deliver the goods without being over-reliant on animation. However, the fight sequences are only good on their own terms. In the context of the film whole, they don’t carry much weight.
But why is this? Well, for one, Black Widow or her family never feel as though they’re in danger throughout the movie. In one scene, Natasha, an un-superpowered combatant, miraculously survives a large fall, having no trouble getting up afterward. Now, given we know that she dies in Endgame, we are already confident that Romanoff survives this movie’s climax from the get-go. But because Romanoff and her family are basically invincible and poorly developed, this further steals any real tension, nor emotional stakes in the action scenes.
The inherent invulnerability of the main cast is evident also in the plot itself. In one late scene, we think that the Widow family is successfully captured, with Natasha, Alexei, and Yelena imprisoned while their mother comes face-to-face with Dreykov. But ah! It’s okay because it turns out it’s all part of the plan. Melina is not just a brilliant assassin, but also a great scientist. A Mission-Impossible-esque face-mask ensures that Natasha is disguised long enough to face Dreykov herself.
But she can’t attack Dreykov because he wears a special scent that prevents his Black Widows from attacking him. Not to worry, though – all part of the plan! It’s revealed that Melina anticipated this, earlier telling Natasha to break her nose to block the nerve connecting her nose to her brain. This, therefore, means the puppet-master’s technique becomes ineffective. Sigh.
When All’s Said and Done
Black Widow kicks off MCU Phase Four movies by telling the audience what we’ve suspected. It’s not going to shake up its tried-and-tested formula. Even with the addition of physical fight scenes, it’s heroes still remain invincible action figures. Even with a more grounded tone, the plot is still fantastically farfetched. And because of this, you leave the cinema feeling nothing at all.
Verdict: Black Widow had huge potential in terms of exploring serious themes in Natasha’s past. However, the movie sadly renders Martin Scorsese’s criticism of the MCU valid. Despite a commendable performance from Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow has you leaving the theater a bit empty.
- Brilliant fight choreography
- Scarlett Johansson nails it as Natasha Romanoff
- Bland, uninspired plot
- A forgettable, one-note villain
- Unremarkable characters
- Lack of stakes in the fight scenes