Finally giving Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow her own cinematic outing, Black Widow explores more of the hero’s origin while having her resolve past trauma and recover those important to her. Starring Johansson alongside Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, and David Harbour, Black Widow introduces several new characters to the MCU – many of them traditionally villains in the comics – presenting a further opportunity for the MCU to more directly embrace its anti-heroes.
Black Widow feels as much like a James Bond or Mission Impossible outing as it does an MCU film, which should highlight two things: first, there’s no supermen running around with magic powers, and second, there’s still plenty of over-the-top unrealistic action to be seen regardless.
Fleshing out Black Widow’s back story was an absolute must for Marvel. She has long been the franchise’s most interesting female hero, and her origins were previously only addressed in fleeting conversational moments with other heroes, and actually giving fans of the character an opportunity to understand her story a little better was always going to be a good idea.
That said, Black Widow is, from its earliest scenes, a little ludicrous. Its heroes are shown to be pretty dangerously unpleasant people, but this is never addressed as a matter of conscience – instead, they’re just redeemed by their intent on taking down someone even worse, which is a not-so-clever way of glossing over the fact that the film’s “heroes” are each responsible for the deaths of numerous innocents.
Luckily, Johansson brings along her familiar Black Widow charm, and Florence Pugh is on hand with some serious acting chops to assist in building sympathy for the characters. Add in David Harbour’s Red Guardian, who provides much of the film’s comic relief, and you have a solid team of central characters – that is, until Rachel Weisz’s Melina reappears and the film’s narrative falls off the deep end.
Even to begin with, Black Widow was far from an intelligent film – from the start, it’s true to the spy-action genre, and sacrifices a believable plot for large-scale set pieces – but by its final act, it’s gone entirely insane. With several convenient twists and turns, it devolves into a predictable and uninteresting superhero film that relies on the gut-punch delivered in Avengers: Endgame instead of its own narrative.
While Black Widow‘s own story leaves a lot to be desired, it does introduce a handful of interesting characters into the MCU, and its acting and overall design is impressive. With the post-credits promise of Pugh’s return as Yelena Belova, it sets up some interesting developments for Phase 4, which do go some way towards redeeming the film, but therein lies Black Widow‘s biggest issue: it doesn’t stand entirely on its own.
By framing the narrative with the events of Civil War and Endgame, it kneecaps much of the film’s potential impact. After all, Romanoff’s survival is ensured – at least until the events of Endgame – and as a result, Black Widow‘s stakes never feel overly high.
It’s a film that exists in-between: between other MCU entries, between the action and superhero genres, and between good and bad. It’s got some excellent points, and it’s got some less than excellent aspects, too, which ultimately sour what should have been an emotional and rewarding journey for one of the MCU’s best characters. There’s also some truly awful attempts at Russian accents (Ray Winstone’s is abysmal and Rachel Weisz’s is very inconsistent).
Summary: Solid action and a cast of interesting characters are brought to life by impressive performances from the film’s two leads. Overly convenient writing and heavy reliance on grand-scale set pieces hamper the film, though.
Highlights: The introduction and characterization of Yelena Belova is excellent, and Harbour’s Red Guardian steals the show on more than one occasion. Other than that, Ray Winstone’s laughable non-attempt at a Russian accent is the worst sort of highlight, bringing unintentional hilarity to a scene intended to be tense and semi-climactic.