After 11 long years of appearing in a variety of Marvel Cinematic Universe films, Scarlett Johansson finally stars in her brand new, very own Black Widow film which fills in the details of the titular character’s checkered and traumatic origin and past. Given how overdue this moment is (so overdue, in fact, that the character is currently deceased in the present timeline of the MCU) literally anything was likely to fall short of fans’ growing expectations and speculation… which was only extended due to pandemic delays. However, when the dust settles after the credits roll on this lengthy and sometimes unbalanced example of the Marvel formula, most genre fans and general audiences will be engaged and satisfied with Black Widow due to the captivating performances of its charismatic ensemble cast.
A frequent criticism of many of the MCU films is that its homogenized action sequences and (grating) signature sense of humor match the tone and style of all the other films in the franchise, leaving talented directors only with moments of exposition and connective downtime to show off their own filmmaking abilities. Sadly, this would be a valid criticism of the action sequences of Black Widow as well. If you’ve seen a handful of other MCU films before Black Widow, you’ve already seen the hand-to-hand combat, bright explosions, and free-falling airborne melee of this movie many times before. Thankfully, the cast becomes so darn engaging about 50 minutes in that you’ll be happy to go through the motions of the action sequences to see where this all ends up. Even better, the comedic moments are typically much funnier and less sophomoric than the gags which tend to pass for comedy in these movies. The result is a picture that’s genuinely fun to watch.
Despite all of the boxes which need to be checked to manufacture an MCU film, director Cate Shortland is given many moments to demonstrate her craft as a filmmaker. Establishing shots and compositions of indoor environments and outdoor scenery are especially beautiful in Black Widow compared to other standalone MCU titles. Shortland brings a level of humanity to Natasha Romanoff which other Marvel films were never quite able to show with the character… even when the stakes were much higher. Dialogue scenes—especially those featuring Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Rachel Weisz—are natural and smooth, whether they’re all on the same page or arguing out decades of resentment.
Johansson and Pugh have demonstrated their ability to captivate audiences in important leading roles over the years, and they handle the spotlight in Black Widow just fine. While Johansson is never quite given the kind of material to work with that she nailed in Lost in Translation, and Pugh’s Yelena Belova isn’t put through the emotional wringer quite like her work on Midsommar, their relationship is believable and nuanced. Let’s face it: this is an action movie and they are the action stars of the movie. Anything having to do with character is a welcome bonus, and they deliver. Rachel Weisz is fantastic as the complicated matriarch of this dysfunctional faux family, and she helps add a new dimension to the Black Widow character, whose background was always much of a mystery until now.
While Pugh’s Yelena, Weisz’s Melina, and Harbour’s Alexi, A.K.A. The Red Guardian, are welcome and memorable additions to Black Widow’s mythology, the same cannot be said of the film’s antagonists. Despite being the mastermind responsible for Natasha’s predicament and the suffering of countless other young women forcefully put through his assassin program, Dreykov comes off as completely forgettable in this movie. This isn’t even due to Ray Winstone’s satisfactory performance… the movie just never gives him enough moments to truly reveal he is as evil as the story tells us he is. Sadly, Olga Kurylenko is given even less to work with as Taskmaster, who comes off as intimidating in early fight sequences until suddenly she isn’t. Marvel movies are famous for their unremarkable villains, and Black Widow doesn’t turn over a new leaf in this capacity. What is remarkable, however, is that both Winstone and Kurylenko happen to give Johansson some of the best moments in the film to emote and show off both the strength and humanity of Natasha Romanoff. Between her willingness to go through some flinching body horrors to best Dreykov and her level of regret and compassion in how she wraps things up with Taskmaster, Black Widow is simply a better, more nuanced character with greater range for having encountered both of these antagonists… and that’s more than can be said about the function of the villains in about 80% of these movies. Black Widow doesn’t deliver Indiana Jones-level villains, but they do make for better protagonists.
Black Widow isn’t a perfect movie. It suffers from the contemporary condition of being about 45 minutes too long and there are some unusual decisions along the way (including a bizarrely out-of-place “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover set against the disturbing conditions of Red Room, where girls are programmed into Widows). But, it’s a movie-going experience where a vast majority of viewers will leave satisfied and thinking about the heroes of the film, new and returning, with smiles on their faces. I want to see more of Florence Pugh. I want to know what happens to David Harbour’s and Rachael Weisz’s characters. And above all, I want to see the Infinity War storyline reversed so we can see Scarlett Johansson front this intriguing new team once again. For a standalone movie in a bloated, 13-year-old franchise, it’s no small feat to introduce new protagonists who are this fun to watch! Black Widow sometimes stumbles along the way, but it ultimately accomplishes its mission and it will leave audiences wanting more.
Black Widow debuts in theaters and on Disney+ today. Stay tuned to Conskipper for complete coverage of the hottest superhero films of the summer as soon as it breaks!