From the moment that Scarlett Johansson killed a man with her thighs in Iron Man 2, she cemented Black Widow as one of the best characters of the MCU. And the camera loved her just as much as the fans did, handing Natasha Romanoff some of the best scenes and best lines throughout her appearances in seven Marvel films, even as her wigs changed almost as much as her characterization did from movie to movie. It wasn’t until the Russo brothers got a hold of her in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that Natasha felt like she developed something akin to a personality apart from “hot spunky spy lady,” and even then, it felt like too little too late. The Marvel ensembles got more crowded, Natasha was shunted to the background, and eventually, shunted off this mortal coil.
Which is what makes it so unfortunate that Johansson’s long-awaited solo movie Black Widow also feels like too little too late. A prequel film that takes place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow‘s narrative function is mostly to serve as a bridge between the two movies, while working backwards to try to fill in the large gaps in her past thanks to the MCU’s spotty characterization of the character. Which all might have been fine and good if the film had come out 10 years earlier. But, just like Natasha’s senseless, overshadowed death, Black Widow leaves you feeling like she deserves better.
Like many a past Marvel solo movie, Black Widow takes a well-known movie genre and remixes it for the MCU, this time taking heavy inspiration from the Bourne movies and the Mission: Impossible movies, with a dash of James Bond. But even with a few bruising fight scenes that emulate the best of Bourne, and a thrilling chase scene or two that could have been lifted straight out of a Mission: Impossible film, Black Widow comes off as a mostly serviceable spy thriller.
Thank god, then, for Florence Pugh. A sentiment that I could use any time, really, but one that is even stronger with Black Widow, which mostly skates by on the strength of its performers — Pugh running away with MVP status with a performance that is equal turns prickly, hilariously self-effacing, and even a little soulful, showing the emotional vulnerability that has made the Midsommar star into such an arthouse darling. Pugh has a dangerous physicality to her as well, which lends to one of the best aspects of Black Widow: the fights, which are nastier and dirtier than they’ve ever been in the MCU, Johansson upping her game to match punches with Pugh in the many breathless fight sequences. With these fight and chase sequences, director Cate Shortland proves to be one of the few filmmakers to make the leap from the indie circuit and put her own singular fingerprint on the visual identity of the film — Black Widow is one of the most visually coherent solo films of the MCU, with a gritty, streetwise style that feels like Shortland didn’t just hand off the action scenes to a second unit director.
Pugh plays Yelena Belova, Natasha’s “sister” who was raised alongside her by two KGB operatives: Russian super soldier Alexei Shostakov/The Red Guardian (a delightfully ribald David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz, dusting off her action-comedy skills), a Black Widow and scientist working for the Red Room, the mysterious Soviet training program that turns girls into spies. After a few blissful years living undercover in Ohio, both Natasha and Yelena are turned over to the Red Room by the pair they thought of as loving mother and father, to be shaped into ruthless killers.
It’s this deep dive into Natasha’s past where Black Widow shows the most promise, starting off as a character study of the beloved Avenger — now without the other Avengers crowding the screen. There’s a deep loneliness that Johansson conveys, even as she declares that she’s “better on my own” to her lone ally and “finder” (O-T Fagbenle, dutifully playing the part of goofy tech support), as she prepares to live life as a fugitive following the disbanding of the Avengers after the events of Civil War. But when she’s dragged back into the action by Yelena, you get the sense that she’s reluctant, but almost relieved to have another mission on hand, a target in sight. Not only because it’s a chance for her to finally excise the ghosts of her past that have long haunted her, but because she lives for the thrill of the mission.
But while Black Widow starts off strong, kicking the action off with a dark, propulsive mystery that promised to unearth long-awaited revelations about both Natasha’s character and her past, the last half of the film completely squanders it. Natasha assembles her own misfit group of allies to take down the Red Room, crowding the screen again and unwittingly becoming a supporting player in her own movie. While the twisted found family dynamics between Natasha, Yelena, and their traitorous “parents” are a wonderful showcase for all four extremely talented actors, Black Widow feels like it misses the chance to give Natasha her due.
The problem is, at this point, Natasha has finished her arc. She’s a complete character, and looking to the past to fill in the gaps is something that either should’ve been done years ago, or should’ve been given more time — time to parse the thorny relationship between her and Yelena, time to explore the betrayal she felt at the hands of Alexei and Melina, time to figure out who Natasha is on her own.
There is probably something to be said about how Natasha is always seeking to belong in a family, whether it’s through S.H.I.E.L.D., or the Avengers, or in this sad family unit that she’s trying to recreate with Yelena, but Black Widow doesn’t have time to sit with this idea, instead turning its attention to a half-baked plot with an anti-brainwashing chemical that can free all Black Widows from the control of Dreykov (Ray Winstone, phoning it in as one of the blandest MCU villains), the head of the Red Room. Of all the Bourne movies to emulate, Black Widow accidentally takes inspiration from one of its worst ones, rehashing a plot from The Bourne Legacy (complete with “chems” and Rachel Weisz!) in what feels like a gesture toward a message about the agency of women, and how it can be so easily stripped away by evil men. But try as Black Widow screenwriter Eric Pearson might, this theme of “sisterhood! Or something” lacks the genuine thought and care put into the smaller character moments between Natasha and her “family.”
Black Widow is at its best when it’s a wacky family drama between Natasha, Yelena, Alexei, and Melina, with dashes of a spy thriller. But Marvel films can’t content themselves with staying small, and Black Widow falls victim to the big bombast characteristic of the studio. The result is a disappointing solo movie that ends up burying Natasha Romanoff once again.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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