REVIEW: Black Widow (2021)

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, David Harbour as Alexei, and Florence Pugh as Yelena in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW — Photo by Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios.

Directed by Cate Shortland — Screenplay by Eric Pearson — Story by Jac Schaeffer & Ned Benson.

After numerous delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cate Shortland’s Black Widow is finally here. Out now in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the first film in its so-called Phase Four — which also already includes Disney+ series WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki — but it is also the first theatrically released Marvel Studios product in two years (since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home).

My fellow Marvelites and so-called True Believers can now rejoice as the wait is finally over. However, while I’d say the film is quite good and, at least to some extent, worth the wait, I also have to say that it is clear as day that this film is ‘out of time’ in more ways than one, which makes the film feel quite strange even though it is ‘just’ a long-awaited solo film with a beloved character.

Although its prologue takes place in the mid-1990s, Cate Shortland’s Black Widow — the 24th MCU film — mostly takes place in 2016 after the events of Captain America: Civil War — the 13th MCU film — which means that Natasha Romanoff, the titular character, is on the run from the U. S. Government, led by Thaddeus Ross (played by William Hurt), at the outset of the film and that the Avengers have disbanded, in part, as a result of the fallout of the Sokovia Accords.

While hiding in Norway, Natasha is attacked by Taskmaster, a master assassin who can perfectly mimic any fighting style. Taskmaster is looking for these vials that have been left for the titular character. The vials contain an antidote that can neutralize certain subjects’ mind-control, and by attempting to track down the origin of this antidote Natasha has to face her past, allow old acquaintances back into her life, and be prepared to relearn everything she thought that she knew about her own origin.

When the Black Widow-character was first introduced to us, it was as a side-character in Iron Man 2, which is arguably one of the weakest installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nevertheless, Scarlett Johansson’s character became a fan favorite and a central component of the Avengers-films from day one. This is why it is so strange that Marvel Studios waited this long to give the character her own solo film, and it is downright ridiculous that the film still hadn’t been made when Natasha Romanoff met her demise in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, arguably the biggest movie of all-time.

This, of course, means that Cate Shortland’s feature film is a prequel, which, on its own, is not all that strange, but the setting of the film is still quite questionable. Like I intimated earlier, to have the 24th film in the franchise take place after the 13th is just absurd, but it becomes even more baffling when you consider that this isn’t even an origin story for the titular character and that it only briefly touches upon the events of Black Widow and Hawkeye’s mission in Budapest, which was mythologized in memorable fashion in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.

All of this is exactly what I mean when I say that this entire film feels ‘out of time.’ Although I am a huge fan of Marvel Studios, I also have to say that I think it reflects poorly on Marvel that both of their first two films about female titular characters — this and Captain Marvel — are prequels. Because, frankly, they shouldn’t have to be shoe-horned into the universe retroactively, and, with this film in particular, I can think of no excuse for having waited this long to finally make it.

But, here’s the thing, in spite of all of these things, I think that Cate Shortland and Marvel Studios have still succeeded in making a somewhat fresh and slightly different film that nevertheless fits fairly well into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Cate Shortland’s Black Widow is Marvel’s globe-trotting action spy film in the vein of the Bourne Identity or Mission: Impossible that I didn’t know that I wanted. It features solid action set-pieces, and Shortland’s film even has a character that feels like a Bond-villain, as well as his own henchman of sorts (who is woefully underused however).

Black Widow is equal parts an action spy-flick and a film about re-establishing a connection with family. It is also a difficult tonal balancing act that doesn’t always work. Its prologue at times feels very alien when compared to the rest of the films in the franchise, but it took me off guard and I really liked it. The prologue made me think of The Americans, and the subsequent title sequence was surprisingly dark (and aptly paired with a haunting cover of Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). For this reason, it is somewhat surprising that David Harbour’s character acts completely different in the prologue than he does later in the film, when he becomes the comic relief, and a part of me really wishes the film had stuck with the prologue’s version of the character.

To me, it is unequivocally clear that the best part of the film, however, is the performance given by Marvel-newcomer Florence Pugh, who has already given several memorable performances in films such as Midsommar, Little Women, and Fighting with My Family. Pugh makes a seamless transition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and she steals every scene she is in by imbuing her character with a vulnerability and a ‘little sister’ energy that feels perfect for her character. Marvel fans will be delighted by her introduction, but Black Widow-die hard fans may be disappointed by the fact that Natasha Romanoff’s only solo film tries this hard to introduce her obvious successor in the franchise.

I liked the film but by the time the tumultuous third act reached its conclusion, it was very strange, however, that the film didn’t really end in a way that was satisfying. It has an awkward three-pronged ending that tip-toes around Romanoff’s fate for far too long, includes a baffling time-jump, and that doesn’t properly situate it within the timeline of the franchise for anyone other than the most die-hard Marvel fans.

Cate Shortland’s Black Widow does a lot of things right, but it falls just short of being great, and it isn’t a top-tier Marvel movie, in part due to the the fact that its antagonists are underused and that its ending is decidedly awkward. It took Marvel way too long to give Scarlett Johansson the standalone film that she has deserved for quite some time, but, as the saying goes, better late than never.

7.9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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