It’s been 24 months since the release of Spider-Man: Far from Home. 24 months of no Marvel Studios properties released in theaters due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After many delays and questions about if this movie is 5 years too late, which it is, finally the MCU is back, and all feels right with the world. In the MCU’s absence these last 24 months, the anticipation to see the next adventure on the big screen only grew with each passing minute, hour, day, week, and month making the hype surrounding the return that much more palpable. And on opening night, once Michael Giacchino’s theme music to the opening tag plays, the energy in the theater erupts in glorious applause and cheers as if there was no break at all between films.
Experiencing a Marvel Studios production in a room full of strangers has become a national holiday with each new film. You want to be there on opening night in a packed theater – there’s no other way to see this type of film. In the absence of the movies, the Phase 4 Disney Plus shows have filled that void, kept our appetites at bay, waiting for Black Widow to finally release after numerous delays. And they have, Wandavision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier & Loki have all done beautifully with bringing ancillary characters to the forefront while the world gets back to normalcy. To be frank, Black Widow should have been released in Phase 2 or 3, the notion of this film being too little too late is certainly there when the prologue starts, but as the film gets its legs, that feeling quickly disappears.
The beauty of Black Widow being told in the past, although we know this character’s future, lies in the amount of possible stories that can be told, If Marvel and Kevin Feige wanted to, a trilogy can be easily made from stories that take place in the past. It’s also the films downfall, we know the outcome of the titular character but instead it’s an origin to a new, younger widow. The other downside to that is while a story can be told that introduces new characters that have never been on screen before, these new characters can take away the focus from the main attraction in Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Every new character in Black Widow is shoehorned in to fill in the shoes that Natasha walked in.
That’s exactly what it is, Yelena (Florence Pugh) is taking over post Endgame as the new Black Widow, that’s what the end credit scene implies and the direction the studio is taking which isn’t a bad thing. Pugh as Yelena steals the show, she’s brilliant. Eric Pearson’s screenplay may have Yelena as a co-lead, but she subtly keeps her distance leaving Scar Jo at the front of her story. And the chemistry between the two suggest that we’ve known these characters together far longer than 134 minutes.
Black Widow takes places in the past – right after the airport battle in Civil War and before the events of Infinity War. Natasha, on the run from the American government and Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) gets swept up in her own past that leads her to clean the red out of her ledger – which is something that has haunted her in previous films as long as we’ve known her.
Going into Black Widow one of the major questions besides the “too little too late” is can this family dynamic work? It absolutely does, the family scenes are perhaps the strongest scenes in the entire film. Every moment between Natasha, Yelena, Melina (Rachel Weisz) & Alexei (David Harbour) add nuance to a film that didn’t have many expectations. Turns out each actress and actor add more depth to their characters and relationships than was written. They feel like a family, even though their family was a lie. With Pugh, she nails that sense of belonging, it’s all Yelena knew.
The prologue is possibly one of the most important scenes because of the exposition it sets up, you really believe the sincerity of their dynamic.
Black Widow is not a perfect film by far. The same issues that plague many of the previous installments in the MCU also troubles Black Widow. The supposed villain is given nothing to add to the story. In fact, Dreykov (Ray Winstone) is treated as a whispering ghost story instead of a proper villain. He has zero motivation and depth to his character. Why is he kidnapping young girls around the globe and turning them into trained assassins? The answer to that question will undoubtedly leave some disappointed, he only has 5 minutes total of screen time. But with how little the villain matters to this story, he won’t take away the enjoyment of Black Widow.
Possibly more disappointing than Dreykov is Taskmaster / Antonia Dreykov (Olga Kurylenko). This particular villain is a formidable, well known villain in the comics that is underutilized in every aspect. I understand the purpose of the villain being Dreykov’s daughter which ties into previous films that allude to Romanoff’s past, but the actress is misused as well as the character. I hope Marvel will do with Taskmaster what they did with the Mandarin after the whole Iron Man 3 fiasco. This villain deserves to be written better – after getting Killmonger, Loki, Thanos, the Red Skull, the Winter Soldier and Vulture, Marvel needs to do right by majority of their villains.
Emotionally, Black Widow follows the same path that majority of the MCU films take. Every emotional moment is followed immediately by a joke – let these characters live in a moment of sadness. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is guilty of this trope too – once Peter finds out Ego killed his mother, a joke succeeds the news.
What separates Marvel Studios from Warner Brothers and DC is the lighter tone and use of humor in their films. Black Widow certainly has the more lighthearted tone and humor, but the use of the humor is natural and organic to the characters. There are genuinely funny lines of dialogue, and it doesn’t overpower the more serious moments. Again, Pugh as Yelena nails all her comedy while not taking away from Johansson. Harbour also nails his dialogue and comedic beats with almost every line adding in some physical comedy to his repertoire.
Every Marvel film since the inception with Iron Man blends a prominent genre with the superhero / comic book style of storytelling. Black Widow is no different. Few franchises are felt in Cate Shortland’s DNA. A mix of Jason Bourne, James Bond & Mission Impossible are all thrown together and out comes Black Widow. From the fast pacing that slows down significantly between set pieces to the fight sequences and choreography and the camera movements that capture the brutality of the fighting, the influences of those franchises make Black Widow the first spy thriller in the MCU.
It can be argued the first of this blended genre is Captain America: The Winter Soldier but I’d debate that Winter Soldier is more of a political thriller with spy elements.
In a way Black Widow is a lot like Loki- both explore free will and how being controlled can affect a person’s well-being and mental health. Pearson gave Yelena more attention in this regard to set her up for future appearances since Natasha has been a familiar character since Phase 1. How Pearson, Jac Shaeffer and Ned Benson handle the involuntary hysterectomy portion of becoming a Widow is more lighthearted but still disturbing, nonetheless. Way better than in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It proves that these characters are more than what happened to them.
Black Widow is written by Eric Pearson with a story by Jac Shaeffer & Ned Benson, directed by Cate Shortland is Rated PG-13 and has an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. Black Widow was released on July 9, 2021 in the United States and has a runtime of 2 hours and 13 minutes. Black Widow is currently in theaters and available on Disney Plus with a premier access. 3.5 out of 5.