REVIEW: 'Black Widow' Reminds Us Why Marvel Owns The Big Screen Experience
Natasha Romanoff has waited a very long time and now her big-screen solo film has finally arrived. Delayed over a year by the global pandemic of 2020, Black Widow is officially hitting theaters and to put it simply; it was very much worth the wait.
Now let me be clear here, I’m fully embracing the possibility of some rose-colored glasses for two main reasons: 1. This is my first venture back into the theater in 19 months and 2. It’s specifically geared with my cinematic happy space of the MCU. The MCU has kept us satiated with some truly great Disney+ series for the last six months, but with Black Widow we’re reminded of why they built their bones on thrilling cinematic blockbusters that make sure not to leave their character development behind.
It was this aspect of the film that took me by surprise. Natasha has always naturally been the great unanswered question of the MCU. With our other Avengers (except for Clint, which I think will be fixed with the Hawkeye series dropping on Disney+ this winter), we’ve gotten to see their beginnings. We’ve seen how they went from a brash war monger, or a scrawny kid from the Bronx, or a brash God of Thunder and turned themselves into the selfless protectors of the universe. Not so with one Natasha Romanoff.
She debuted in the sequel Iron Man 2 and ever since, despite appearing in seven other MCU entries, we’ve only ever been able to peel back very small layers of her backstory and history. Now, because all of these characters first existed in print, if you wanted to you could of course go back and read much of what this film incarnation is based on. But the greatness of Johansson’s performance has been how intrigued she keeps us to want to learn more.
Those glimpses have been very quick things sprinkled throughout epic films but they’ve stuck with fans of the MCU for the past decade plus. What happened with Dreykov’s daughter? Why do Nat and Clint avoid Budapest? How did Natasha get recruited into the Red Room? Where are her family? These questions and many more have been planted over the course of 11 years and now they’re answered in full force in a slam-bang spy thriller that makes us love and miss this character so much more.
Director Cate Shortland deserves a ton of credit here because she’s spinning three distinct plates, and she excels at all of them. First, the action: for fans of the more practical effects and stunt work of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, boy are you gonna have fun. The action is done in the more grounded MCU framework, but they all have a great handle on the space they inhabit. The top prize goes to the stunt work behind villain Taskmaster. This is a villain familiar to comics readers but to those others he’s a fighter that can literally mimic every fighting style he sees. He studies the superheroes of Earth and can literally call up their very moves to fight them. We see shades of Natasha, Captain America, Black Panther and even Spider-Man in the stunt work here and it always looks phenomenal.
Second, and this is the most surprising, the human drama. The film opens very coyly for an MCU entry giving us a small glimpse at the only frame of normal life Natasha has ever experienced. It’s a quiet, deliberate opening that very naturally unfolds into the brazen action that we’ve come to expect from the MCU. But the most effective scenes are the dialogue-heavy recollections of Natasha and her broken family. These include Alexei (a fantastic David Harbour), Russia’s Cold War-era super soldier the Red Guardian; Melina (Rachel Weisz), a scientific tactician and fellow survivor of the Red Room; and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Natasha’s adoptive sister from her youth.
Some of the most effective scenes in the film are simply these four looking back on not only their time together but the mistakes they’ve denied and the lies they’ve clung on to trying to make themselves go forward. It’s a great bit of human drama that gives us a great set-up for the slam-bang action finale.
Third and last, connections to the larger MCU. These are usually where an entry can put off more casual fans as opposed to us hardcore MCU nerds. But the connections in this film are very natural and don’t go out of their way to exist. This film takes place in the time between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War and the small ways it references these events enhance the quality that we’re seeing something previously unknown but also a certain melancholy knowing this is our last ride with Natasha. Most of these connections come from the presence of Secretary Ross (William Hurt), but they are welcome in letting us know we’re back in the MCU prime-business.
The standouts of the film are Pugh and Harbour respectively. Those familiar with Harbour's entire body of work will not find it hard to believe that he’s the best comedic relief in the movie but also does what he’s best at which is marry the natural comedy with a humanity and affability that is just impossible to resist. Pugh’s Yelena is going to be an instant MCU favorite. She has an edgy wit that fits her circumstances perfectly with a wry sense of humor that I would LOVE to see matched up by Thor or Star Lord some day. She is the clear path forward from this particular story-line, and I can’t wait to see what more she brings to the MCU after this fantastic debut.
Some might say the big finish is a typical MCU trope of effects-laden explosions but because of the human connections we’ve made, most of it becomes a great compliment, not a distraction. Overall the film boasts a perfect cast, some of the best action the MCU has shown us to date, and paces itself so well you won’t be able to look away from the screen. And yes, there is a post-credits scene as with all MCU fare, but there’d be way too much given away to talk about it here. Let’s just say Kevin Feige wasn’t kidding when he said the Disney+ series and films would be working closely together.
Overall, the film does feel like Scar-Jo’s swan song and even if it was delayed that just might make it sweeter as well. The MCU is in a big transition period right now with mainstays like Captain America, Iron Man and now Black Widow waving goodbye. We’ve had plenty of time with the formers, but this time with Natasha feels cathartic and feels like we’re really turning the page on a new era for the MCU. And although this film to many was overdue long before COVID-19, if this is the end result it was well worth the wait.