Black Widow (United States, 2020)

July 07, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Black Widow Poster

If timing is everything then Black Widow has suffered from a buzzard’s luck in that regard. Starring a character who is already dead in the MCU, the movie is forced to pick through her past life in search of a viable story and, in terms of being released, the film suffered through at least three date changes resulting from COVID. The end result feels more like one of the spin-off Star Wars Story movies than a full-fledged member of the main arc. With a paint-by-numbers storyline and lackluster villain, Black Widow’s chief pleasures come from the introductions of two promising newcomers and the opportunity to spend a few last moments with a well-liked Marvel character. (Then again, with multiverse shenanigans on the horizon, who’s to say the character couldn’t make a return appearance? Death in superhero movies is about to become a non-factor, if it wasn’t already.)

The death of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in the Infinity War duology creates a story-related problem for Black Widow; instead of looking forward, it has to look back. The inelegant solution is to craft a combination origin story/Infinity War prequel. Following a prologue set in the 1990s that establishes the main characters, the movie skips ahead to the time period between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. That’s when Natasha re-connects with her long-lost sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), her mother-figure, Melina (Rachel Weisz), and her father-figure, Alexei (David Harbour). She also confronts the results of a past action and seeks to eliminate her long-time adversary, Dreykov (Ray Winstone, more restrained than usual).

For the most part, Black Widow plays like a second-rate James Bond knockoff, with Moonraker being explicitly referenced. There are also strong echoes of Red Sparrow, although the Jennifer Lawrence film has a sharper edge. The genre change isn’t necessarily a bad idea for a tangential MCU movie but it isn’t well-handled. The action sequences are mediocre at best, the spectacle moments include some surprisingly cheap-ish looking CGI, and the movie as a whole feels derivative. Despite frequent name-dropping, none of the other Avengers appears and the only other MCU character to show up is Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), who helps out with the connective tissue between Civil War and Black Widow. It’s hard to argue that the movie needs a cameo – although I think many viewers will be waiting for one – but the absence feels a little like a letdown.

The reason Black Widow exists despite the awkwardness of bringing back a dead character is that the title character became one of the MCU’s most popular (due in no small part to Scarlett Johansson). As a result, it’s no surprise that the actress proves to be one of the most compelling reasons to see an otherwise disappointing film. Johansson continues to impress with her physicality (although director Cate Shortland’s decision to use fast cutting to “enhance” the action scenes neuters some of this) and she engages in some nice banter with a few of the other actors. Although she and Florence Pugh generate some nice, low-key, sisterly chemistry, one missing element is the easygoing interaction Johansson had with her Avengers co-stars.

The inherent problem with following up an epic story like the rise and fall of Thanos with a smaller prequel is that the stakes are absurdly low. Based on the existing MCU chronology, we know that nothing big happened between Civil War and Infinity War, so Black Widow has to jump through hoops to create a credible danger while trying to emphasize intimate themes (something difficult with a character whose death is imminent). The frequent references to “family” make this movie feel like it’s borrowing from F9.

The newcomers are welcome additions to the MCU and one could see one or more of them contributing in the future. Although Rachel Weisz’s Melina is sidelined for too much of the film to make an impression, David Harbour’s quasi-comedic turn as “Red Guardian” shows the actor at his most likable. Florence Pugh is likely to stick – she evinces the same qualities as Johansson with respect to interpersonal interaction and physicality – and Kevin Feige has hinted that Yelena could replace Natasha in the Black Widow role. Black Widow somehow fails to make perennial villain Ray Winstone into more than a muddled, second-rate megalomaniac. Dreykov is easily among the least imposing bad guys to inhabit the MCU. Like a lot of the other plot elements, he appears to have been removed from the 007 stock character shelf, dusted off, and inserted with minimal changes. He’s a low-rent Dr. No or Goldfinger (not rising to the level of Blofeld).

Black Widow represents the MCU looking back when it should be moving forward. Everything about the movie seems small, even the big action set-pieces. No doubt fans – and when discussing Marvel, there are a huge number of those – will be delighted to see the mega-franchise returning to the big screen but it would be a fallacy to consider this anything but a low-tier entry. Natasha Romanoff’s final MCU appearance (for now) sometimes appears less like a way to honor the character and more like a cash-grab.

Black Widow (United States, 2020)

Director: Cate Shortland
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt
Home Release Date: 2021-09-14
Screenplay: Eric Pearson, based on a story by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Bens
Cinematography: Gabriel Beristain
Music: Lorne Balfe
U.S. Distributor: Marvel Studios/Disney+
Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2021-07-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profantiy)
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1