It is pretty remarkable to look back and see where Marvel had managed to get to in 2019. It was closing out the Phase Three era with the conclusion of it’s Infinity Stone storyline that had crossed over nearly two dozen films over 10 years. With the double whammy releases of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), Marvel Studios claimed the crown as the ultimate kings of the box office. But they weren’t done yet. Even as Endgame put a nice button on all the events that had led up to it, Marvel was still setting the stage for what was going to come next. On the horizon was Phase Four, which looked to be even more ambitious than what Marvel had done before, expanding their cinematic universe even further (and even into a multiverse). The ambitious plan not only called for continued stories on the big screen, but also mini-series releases streaming on Disney+, the platform of Marvel’s parent company. Given how huge a year Marvel had in 2019, with an extra assist from Captain Marvel (2019) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), it only looked like the next year was going to be even grander. Cue global pandemic. The Covid-19 virus outbreak ground everything to a halt, including Marvel’s plans for the year 2020. Every planned release in that year had to be pushed back, including the ones that were done and in the can. For the first time since 2009, we had a year without anything new from Marvel Studios. After a decade long run of dominance, this was an unusual sight. But, as the pandemic has thankfully waned, those delayed projects are also finally making their way to audiences, although done in a way that none of the team at Marvel likely intended. Instead of relying on cinemas, which are still recovering, Marvel launched Phase Four instead on Disney+ with Wandavision, and continued through the Spring and Summer with The Falcon and Winter Soldier and Loki series; none of which were supposed to lead the charge originally. Instead, that distinction was originally intended for a movie that finally gives the spotlight to one of the founding members of the Avengers: Black Widow (2021).
Black Widow’s history in the MCU goes almost all the way back to it’s very beginning. She made her first appearance in Iron Man 2 (2010) played by Scarlett Johansson, who would continue on through the next ten years, playing the character in several crossover events during that time. Though not given much to do in her first outing, Black Widow’s presence grew over time in the MCU, eventually becoming one of the six original Avengers. And though Scarlett Johansson brought a great amount of strength to her performance, there has been an unfortunate aspect to Black Widow’s place within the MCU. She essentially was there in the beginning to be eye candy for the male centric audiences that Super Hero movies originally catered to, especially when you take notice of the skin tight costumes she used to wear and the provocative hero stances she would pose in the movies. Not only that, but there was an element of tokenism with her placement in the team. But, thanks to Scarlett’s influence over the character, she was able to rise above these controversial aspects of the character, and helped to make Black Widow not only a standout in the Avengers team, but also an essential member who takes on leadership, even over those more physically powerful than her. And in turn, Black Widow became a positive role model for young girls who over the last ten years have become the most rapidly growing segment of comic book fandom. Not only that, women were now pushing to tell their own stories their own way within the genre. She was the trendsetter in proving that these movies were not just for teenage boys anymore; they were for everyone. So, over time, demand grew higher for Black Widow to get a movie of her own, which Marvel eventually agreed to. Despite the long wait that resulted from the 2020 pandemic, we are now finally able to see Black Widow take to the big screen in her own story. The only question is, is it a story worth telling or is it one that doesn’t do justice to a character we’ve grown to love over the last 10 years.
There are some small spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Avengers: Infinity War, as this story takes place in between the two. Following the events of Civil War, which saw the break-up of the Avengers and leading the likes of Captain America, The Falcon, and Ant-Man to become fugitives of the law, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) aka Black Widow, also finds herself on the run, after she helped the others escape by attacking Black Panther. Now a fugitive herself, she is having to escape General Ross (William Hurt) and his forces, who are in hot pursuit. With the help of her tech engineer Mason (O-T Fagbenle), she manages to find a safe haven off the grid, but the peace and quiet doesn’t last long. After receiving a mysterious package from an unknown sender, she is immediately attacked by a masked assassin known as Taskmaster, who has the special ability to mimic any fight move against an opponent. After evading Taskmaster, Natasha follows some clues to that leads her to another safe house in Budapest. There she meets up with the one who sent the package, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), another Widow assassin who shares a history with Natasha, as they were pretend sisters in a sleeper cell family cover set up by the Russians 30 years ago in rural America. Yelena thought she could trust Natasha with the package, which contains vials of a mysterious red liquid, because of her Avengers connections, but Taskmaster and other Widow agents have caught up to them. After nearly escaping, Yelena tells Natasha that the Red Room where both of them received their training is still operational, and under the stewardship of notorious Russian criminal Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who Natasha thought she had already assassinated years ago in a mission that granted her a place in S.H.I.E.L.D. They resolve to take Dreykov and the Red Room down, and to do that, they need the help of the two people who pretended to be their parents all those year ago; Alexei (David Harbour) who was Red Guardian (Russia’s answer to Captain America), and Melina (Rachel Weisz) who is still Dreykov’s chemical expert. With the “family” back together, will they be able to take down the mighty machine that is the Red Room, as well as their ultimate weapon, the Taskmaster.
Part of the excitement surrounding the release of Black Widow is the fact that we had to wait so long for it to happen. In addition to the tragic consequences of what the pandemic did to the theatrical industry, it was also just strange not having anything from Marvel for over a year after they had been so omnipresent in the years before. There were several worries over that time that Marvel was going to just end up skipping theaters overall and release Black Widow on streaming, which would’ve been a devastating blow for the theaters. But, thankfully Marvel and Disney remained resolute in giving Black Widow the big screen treatment, though they did have to compromise with a hybrid Disney+ Premiere Access release as well. After multiple date shifts, we now are able to see the movie that we’ve long been waiting for. But after a year of delays, how does the movie play today after all that has gone down. To be honest, I think the delay may have actually favored Black Widow in the long run, because had it come out in the summer of 2020 right on the heels of what we got from Avengers: Endgame, I think audiences might have been a little underwhelmed by this movie. Black Widow is a serviceable movie, but not a big game-changer like many of the more recent Marvel movies we’ve been seeing. It’s giving us more or less a Marvel version of a Jason Bourne movie. It does fit with the character of Black Widow, but there’s not a whole lot beyond that as something that fits within a larger Marvel narrative. Essentially, we are just seeing a stand alone side story focused on Black Widow and nothing more. It might be satisfying to many, and there is plenty within the movie that does satsify long time fans; but anyone expecting huge earth-shattering twists and turns should probably look elsewhere. It’s hard to say how that would’ve played out in 2020 with Endgame so fresh in people’s minds. With a little extra distance from that monumental achievement, a more standard film like Black Widow plays a little bit better, and removed from it’s original intention of launching Phase Four also helps the movie out as well. It’s a movie that in many ways feels like an obligation, but even still, it works on it’s own merits.
The one nagging aspect of the movie is the question of whether it was a story that needed to be told. It’s kind of strange watching this movie after having seen Endgame because (spoilers), Natasha ends up sacrificing her life to see the mission to it’s end. Knowing that, it takes away some of the drama surrounding her character in this movie. We know she’s going to live by the end of this story so that she could be a part of Infinity War and Endgame, and we also know that beyond that she no longer will be a part of the cinematic universe due to her death in Endgame. So, Black Widow is a story very much out of place in the continuing Marvel storyline. It’s like Marvel intended this story to be made way back in Phase Three, but the train had already left the station and they couldn’t make any more room for Black Widow’s story, so this movie is a make-up for having missed the stop before. Honestly, I wish there was more to this movie, because a character like Black Widow and her actress Scarlett Johansson deserves a better sendoff than just a basic spy thriller. She’s one of the original Avengers; a character that has done so much to increase female representation in Comic Book movies. The movie Black Widow just assumes that audiences will accept it’s awkward placement in the timeline, which I’m sure that many will, but a character like her should have been given a more monumental sendoff. Still, Marvel isn’t delivering a bad movie by any means. There is still plenty to enjoy in the movie, with the usual slick balance between action, comedy, and suspense that Marvel has excelled at. As a swan song, it falls short, but as an action packed spy thriller, it is definitely better than most. You just have to go in with tempered expectations, because this movie is just going to deliver enough to warrant your time, but not enough to place it within the all time greatness of Marvel at it’s peak.
One troubling thing you’ll notice while watching the movie is that Black Widow is the least interesting character in the movie. True, most of her character development has been spread out over the ten years that she was a part of the Avengers team, but even still, it’s a shame that she doesn’t command an even greater presence in her own movie. The more meaty character development here belongs to the members of her “family,” which really belies the true intention of this movie; it’s here to pass the baton to the next generation. It’s very clear that Florence Pugh’s Yelena is being set up as Scarlett Johansson’s successor in the Black Widow role in future Marvel projects. And in that regard, the movie does do a very good job establishing her. Yelena is great character, which Pugh plays to perfection. She’s tough, funny, and more than holds her own in any conflict. Her future is going to be pretty bright in the MCU, and I’m happy that she makes the obvious changing of the guard aspect of this movie feel earned. David Harbour’s Alexei is also a great addition, as he provides a lot of the comic relief in this movie, as well as a genuine bit of charming vulnerability that makes his a character worth rooting for. I especially love his fixation on how he stacks up against Captain America, with him at one point asking Natasha straight up, “Does he talk about me much?” much to her annoyance. Rachel Weisz has much less of a presence in the movie, but she does use it well. Indeed the best part of the movie is seeing this dysfunctional faux family come together and work off each other. It does offer a little insight into Natasha’s character as well, and why protecting family is important to her. Being an orphan who had her childhood stolen from her, she would do anything to protect any semblance of family that she had, and in time, she managed to become a part of two families of her own choosing; the one in this film and the Avengers. Sadly the biggest letdown in the cast are the villains. Ray Winstone is a great actor but here he is just a stock villain, which is disappointing after a string of strong Marvel baddies like Thanos, Killmonger, and Hela just to name a few. And though Taskmaster looks pretty badass, there isn’t a whole lot beyond that, and the mystery of who is behind the mask is easily pieced together. It’s a mixed bag, but thankfully the best characters in the movie are going to be the ones that have a future in the long run with Marvel.
As far as the action goes, the movie lacks the grandiosity of Marvel’s more out-there projects, but that’s kind of the point. Black Widow is a much more grounded film, taking it’s visual cues from the likes of the previously mentioned Jason Bourne movies, as well as some James Bond and a little sprinkling of Mission: Impossible. Director Cate Shortland proves to be perfectly capable of making these big set pieces work, but what I find she does best with are the more intimate action beats in the movie. My favorite fight is actually one between Natasha and Yelena early in the movie. It’s a scene that shows you don’t have to rely upon a bunch of CGI tech wizardry to pull a suspenseful scene off. Sometimes you just need two really skilled stunt women throwing each other against the walls. There’s also a really solid car chase through the streets of Budapest that rivals any that I’ve seen in other spy thrillers. It’s at the point where CGI becomes ever more present that I think Shortland begins to lose her grasp of the action, and unfortunately that’s what makes up the final act of the movie. The finale is honestly one of the messiest and least affecting that I have ever seen from Marvel, and it’s one of the main reasons why it knocked the movie down a peg for me with regards to other Marvel films. Marvel, especially in recent years, has done a stellar job with building their movies up to satisfying resolutions, especially in the last two Avengers flicks. But the finale to Black Widow is just loud and dumb, and so far removed from the grounded reality that made the rest of the movie work as well as it did. It makes it even less effective when the movie just wraps everything up in a pat resolution, like the writers realized they needed to quickly wrap things up, and the audience is left wondering, “was that it?” Overall, it is pleasing to see this kind of genre made through the guidance of women behind the camera just as much as in front of it. Shortland, despite her lack of long term experience with action thrillers, does actually deliver some tense scenes that are on par with the genre. But, given the way the movie ends, the whole thing turns out to be a mixed bag.
So, fair warning, don’t go into this movie expecting another Avengers level event. It’s a perfectly serviceable movie in the Marvel canon, but nothing truly spectacular. Like I mentioned before, the delay may have done the movie a service, because the pressure to follow up on Endgame was taken off of it’s shoulders. Because of Marvel’s stellar track record, I think it’s at the point where we have to judge these movies on a curve compared to other Hollywood movies, much like what we do with Pixar now. Compared to other spy thrillers out there, Black Widow is certainly a cut above, and especially groundbreaking in the fact that it shows this genre through a female perspective. But, as a Marvel movie, I’m sorry to say that it actually falls into the bottom half. It’s not bad by any means, but it falls short of the high bar that Marvel has set for itself. It’s especially disappointing in the fact that it is the last we’ll ever see of Natasha Romanoff in the MCU. What Scarlett Johansson has brought to the character over the last ten years should not be understated. She transformed a sexist old trope into a genuine positive role model that has transformed the Marvel fandom for the better and opened the door for so many more female super heroes in her wake. Marvel should have honestly given us a little more to digest than a “look what she was doing after Civil War” storyline. I would’ve liked to have seen more of her backstory with regards to how she left the Red Room and joined S.H.I.E.L.D. There’s so much to be mined there like what made her turn and how did she befriend Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They could have also done a soul-searching story about how she learned to cope with the tragedy that took place at the end of Infinity War. Overall, I feel like there were better stories to tell than the one we got in this movie. Natasha deserved better. Even still, as a set-up for the future Black Widow adventures for Yelena, it does the job well enough. Of course, there’s a not to be missed end credits scene that does indeed set up the next chapter. Despite it’s disappointing elements, it is satisfying to see Marvel return to the cinemas once again after such a trying period. And with exciting things on the horizon like Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao’s Eternals and sequels to Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and Thor in the near future, along with all the Disney+ projects upcoming, Marvel is going to do just fine regardless how this movie performs. As of now, it should be noted that despite it’s shortcomings, Black Widow magnificently sends off Scarlett Johansson’s decade long legacy as Natasha Romanoff with a movie that firmly establishes all the great changes she brought to the character that made her an icon for a generation. It was perhaps a little too late, but better now than never and hopefully it’s the start of greater things down the road for Black Widow in the MCU.