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Disney+ Review: Black Widow

July 9, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Over a decade after her big screen debut in Iron Man 2, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has finally gotten her own long-awaited solo film in Black Widow, the latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the film is indeed long-awaited by fans, especially after having its initial release date last summer pushed back by over a year due to the pandemic.

I have personally been wanting to see a solo movie featuring Natasha, aka Black Widow, ever since the character took centre stage as a key member of Marvel’s superhero ensemble in The Avengers in 2012. Which is why it’s a bit disappointing to say that Black Widow, while generally entertaining, is also one of the more minor entries into the MCU.

Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow is more of a midquel than a prequel or proper origin story. Chronologically, the film is set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War in 2016. The Avengers have broken up, and Natasha is on the run from Secretary Ross (William Hurt) after defying the Sokovia Accords. The plot finds her travelling through Europe and reuniting with her fellow Black Widow sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), while grappling with elements of their past that continue to haunt them.

Johansson is an expectedly solid presence in the lead, and there are some interesting emotional aspects of her character that are explored. While the traumatic training that she underwent in the Red Room as part of the secretive Russian spy program was already covered in Avengers: Age of Ultron, we do learn a few more details of Natasha’s backstory here, with the film filling in a few blanks. But Black Widow ends up feeling sort of like an afterthought to the larger narrative, a spinoff that exists more to cash in on a popular franchise in need of new content.

More so than being a fully fleshed out solo movie for the character whose fate was already sealed in Avengers: Endgame, Black Widow often feels like it is showing us what Natasha was doing in her free time between the events of Civil War and Infinity War. At its best, the film works as a dysfunctional family drama that seeks to explore the trauma of Natasha’s upbringing. But it ultimately devolves into being more of a simple side adventure meant to slot in neatly between the other films than something truly substantial on its own.

The film starts off quite strong, opening with an intriguing prologue that introduces us to Natasha and Yelena as kids in 1995, being forced to flee from their childhood home with their parental figures Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour). The girls are whisked away and put into training to become deadly assassins for the KGB’s Black Widow program, which leads into an impressive opening credits sequence set to a drawn out, emo cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Malia J and Think Up Anger that plays over unsettling flashes of their training in the Red Room.

It’s a gripping start, and these first roughly fifteen minutes of Black Widow have a grittier and more grounded feel that offers an interesting change of pace for Marvel. I don’t want to necessarily say the film gets less interesting as it goes along, because there are entertaining moments throughout, including a decent, more character-driven midsection. But there is also a marked difference in the involvement that I felt between watching this prologue and the film’s pretty standard comic book movie climax.

Following this prologue, we flash forward to 2016. Natasha is now a rogue superhero and Yelena is an assassin starting to question her programming, and their mission involves taking down the system that created them. Along the way, they reunite with the washed up but arrogant Alexei, who has his own superhero alter-ego as the Red Guardian, the Soviet answer to Captain America. The first half of the film sort of has the feel of a globetrotting spy movie, and there are some solid action sequences, including a gritty hand-to-hand kitchen fight between Natasha and Yelena, a car chase through the streets of Budapest, and a high-wire prison escape involving a helicopter.

The dynamic between Johansson and Pugh, a welcome new addition to the MCU whom I suspect we will be seeing more of in the future, is the best part of the movie. One of the film’s most interesting sequences is a domestic dinner scene that reunites their family unit, including Weisz and Harbour, which is buoyed along by the chemistry between these four actors. Pugh is the standout here, with her sarcastic, accented take on Yelena making her a sardonic counterpart to Johansson’s stoic Natasha. Harbour is also quite entertaining as the full of himself former hero, who seems intent on reliving his glory days.

But Black Widow ends up feeling a bit lacklustre as a whole, and is not quite the thrilling standalone adventure this character deserves. There are some pacing issues in the over two hour film, and the last act, which finds old conflicts being rehashed, leads to a mostly uninspired and overly chaotic climax that could be interchanged with pretty much any movie in the Marvel canon. It ends up feeling more like an extended pilot for a new TV series, most notably in the obligatory end credits scene.

I think the film would have hit harder if it had been released in 2016 or 2017, before the events of Endgame. Still, there certainly are things to like about Black Widow. The opening is very strong, the performances are solid, the action is mostly decent, and there are enough good sequences to give it a recommendation. I just wish it was a bit better overall, and less of a minor entry into the MCU.

Black Widow is now available to rent for $34.99 on Disney+ with Premier Access, and is also playing in theatres where they are open.

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