Introduced in Iron Man 2 (2010), Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, has been a key component in nearly every Avengers story since. If not for her, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) would’ve been toast well before Ultron’s appearance. If not for her ingenuity, her team of elite heroes wouldn’t have known to go to Sokovia to stop the A.I. from beginning his new age. If not for her enduring love, there would have been no team to protect Earth after the loss to Thanos and there would certainly have been no successful avenging if not for her sacrifice. Though audiences said goodbye to the character in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, there is at least one more story to tell about the former assassin in search of redemption and family thanks to director Cate Shortland’s (Berlin Syndrome) Black Widow, a tale that’s, for once, more interested in unfinished business than in setting up something new. Whether you feel this solo outing is too little too late or right on time, there’s no denying that this is an adventure worthy of the heroine who gave her all to bring us back. Whatever it took.
After attacking T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to prevent him from capturing Cap and Bucky during the battle at the airport in Civil War (2016), Natasha (Johansson) is officially a rogue agent in violation of the Sokovia Accords with General Ross (William Hurt) using every tool in his arsenal to capture her. Separated from her team (some captured, some gone to unknown places), she’s left to fend for herself with the help of the only contact she has left, a fixer named Mason (O-T Fagbenle). Just when she thinks she’s all set to wait for things to blow over, a sudden attack from a masked individual puts her on the run once more. To find out who is after her and why, she’ll have to return to the one place she doesn’t want to go: her first family born out of the Red Room.
When it comes to the original MCU Avengers, nearly all have been given some kind of solo attention. Iron Man, Cap, and Thor got at least three films (with a fourth on the way for Thor), Strange and Black Panther each have another coming, as do the Guardians of the Galaxy. Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson got a television show, as did Elizabeth Olson’s Wanda Maximoff. Even Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has a television program. After 23 other films, Natasha finally gets her time in the spotlight and two questions spring to mind: (1) was it worth the wait and (2) does it honor the character? The answer to both is yes. While it absolutely would’ve been preferred to see Natasha get a turn headlining her own film sooner, the film we get doesn’t retcon or reduce the stories that have come before it. Nor does it diminish or subjugate the character in order to uplift the next likely candidate to take up her mantle, Florence Pugh’s Yelena. In truth, Shortland’s handling of Natasha is not a light-hearted affair and shares more in common tonally with The Winter Soldier (2014) than any other film. This is a story about secret communist agents living in America, soldiers who are ok with the punishing torture of children as a means of creating warriors to defend from and defeat the enemies of Russia, and how her past didn’t didn’t stop with her defection. At no point does the script by Eric Pearson (ABC’s Agent Carter) shy away from what Natasha went through as a child or what she’s done as an adult before joining the Avengers. Put another way, the red in her ledger that she so often refers to is given concrete shape as we’re witness to her backstory. The fact that the film neither demonizes nor absolves her is a testament to the balance of script, performance, and direction. It certainly helps that, as an audience, we know where Natasha’s journey ends, so our feelings on her are likely already past the point of judgement. The thing is, Black Widow isn’t about shining a light on areas we don’t know about with Natasha. Not really. It’s about exploring her need to make amends from her past, not with it. This requires the film to look deeper at aspects only hinted at during Age of Ultron (2015), past the Red Room as a specific location, and more into a horrific ideology which is entirely nefarious and misogynistic.
Perhaps it’s because the audience already knows the outcome, Pearson and Shortland never place Natasha in situations that are unnecessarily death-defying, even if there are a few moments of superhero-based incredulity. By not relying on the “will-they-survive” tension that comes from most action/adventure/spy thrillers, Black Widow becomes more introspective, while also opting to highlight just what makes Natasha, as the audience knows her, so beloved. For instance, by the start of Endgame, Natasha is desperate to keep her family, the team, together. Her sacrifice on the planet Vormir was an extension of that, seeing it as a way to clear all the red she felt she still owed. Viewed in this way, Black Widow opts to allow Natasha to retain the humanness she’d developed over years of working with the Avengers instead of requiring her to tap back into the coldness developed within the Red Room. So rather than some John Wick-type “I guess I’m back” switch, Black Widow feels right at home within the continuity of the MCU as either the start to Phase 4 (which it is) or if you were to place it between Civil War and Infinity War (2018), when the story takes place.
Something else that is worth crediting to the writer and director is the humor, most of which is situational. Natasha is a Black Widow, born of the infamous Red Room, one of many assassins developed to manipulate and/or kill for Russia. So often solo stories will buff their heroes to make things somehow harder for them than before, to create the sense of difficulty where they might not be. The fact that some of the most humorous moments take place via cold delivery of dialogue among ridiculous circumstances speaks to just how much of a well-trained badass Natasha, her “sister” Yelena, and “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz) are. Also, no one knows how to rag on you, truly get under your skin, like family does, making the moments between the characters feel authentic instead of purely for comedy’s sake. It’s certainly a shame that this may be the only time that Johansson and Pugh share the screen together as these characters because their on-screen chemistry is perfect.
If there is anything that doesn’t work as well, it’s the execution of the action. Strangely, though there are some great action set pieces, two problems become noticeable more quickly than in any other MCU before: (1) the fight scenes are difficult to follow and (2) the stunt team is far more recognizable. While the action sequences are a huge part of what makes the MCU such a joy to watch, the use of shakey cam and multiple edits create difficulty for audiences to follow what’s happening on-screen. Some of this isn’t helped by the multiple characters wearing the signature black Black Widow outfit in typically dark spaces, but even when not, you find yourself observing the action without feeling like you can follow it. Instead, you just go “that’s a thing that happened” as something new occurs. The illusion of action is diminished further thanks to several instances where the stunt team doing the more dangerous things were recognizable in place of the actors. Credit where credit is due, none of the MCU films would be as successful without the team who does the stunts. Except, once more, the illusion of Natasha the hero is reduced when we, the audience, can tell it’s not Johansson or Pugh, for example, executing a stunt. Considering how long folks have waited for this film and all the unnecessary pressure to get things done right, it’s frustrating to observe this kind of issue now when it’s less noticeable elsewhere. Keep in mind that these moments didn’t obliterate the illusion entirely or make Black Widow any less enjoyable, they just take you out of the movie enough times to frustrate.
The good far outweighs any bad with Shortland’s Black Widow. Despite some early reviews saying that Johansson feels second-rate compared to Pugh, I disagree entirely. Pugh’s Yelena may be joining the upcoming Haweye Disney+ series, but the character isn’t explored in a way that makes her the lead; rather, she’s the foil for Natasha as the one who didn’t get out. She is part of the red in the ledger, whether Natasha thought of her that way or not. So while we do spend time with Yelena, the film really is about Natasha and the moments this film gives her are ::chef’s kiss::. This isn’t a battle of who she was versus who she is, but a battle of what her enemies perceive her to be versus who she is. Like any good spy thriller, it’s got a few surprises that are wonderful to see executed, but it’s also an MCU film so a few are telegraphed well in advance. But like Endgame, Black Widow is made richer by possessing knowledge of all the films which came before it, rewarding audience members with long memories. Also, Weisz and David Harbour (Extraction) as Natasha and Yelena’s “parents” is truly the gift that keeps on giving. With all of this in mind, your choice then becomes: to watch via Disney+ or in theaters. Always do what’s safest for you and where you think you’ll enjoy the film most. If you’ve got a large TV and a decent sound system, home viewing should be fine. I can only think of two instances where home viewing may not be ideal, but, given the focus on interpersonal relationships amid the action, Disney+ won’t be the worst first-viewing option.
In select theaters and available for streaming via Disney+ Premium Access Premier July 9th, 2021.
For more information, head to Marvel’s Black Widow website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.