While many have been critical of Marvel Studios for failing to do justice to the female heroes of the MCU, the past few years have seen a course correction of sorts with the studio’s first female-centric theatrical film “Captain Marvel” and other female led or co-led productions having followed suit. However, the most anticipated female-centric film has to have been “Black Widow” which was originally slated for a 2020 release but was pushed to 2021, along with the rest of Marvel’s big screen slate, due to the pandemic. While talks about a “Black Widow” movie had taken place in the early 2010s it wasn’t officially green lit until near the end of 2017 and became the first Marvel movie with a lone female director, Cate Shortland. The final result is an action spy thriller taking place after Black Widow goes on the run following “Civil War” and explores her origins as she works with old allies to take down the Red Room led by an old adversary. While not the best Marvel movie by a long shot, “Black Widow” is a welcome return to the MCU providing plenty of action, fun twists and a bit of subtext to justify itself beyond the fan demand for a Black Widow solo adventure.
“Black Widow” teams Natasha Romanoff, once again played by Scarlett Johansson, with her adopted sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) as the two target the Red Room, a secret facility that trained them and other wayward young girls to become mindless assassins, and its founder General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). They are joined by the pair’s adoptive parents, Alexei a.k.a. Red Guardian (David Harbour), who is the Russian equivalent of Captain America, and Melina (Rachel Weisz). They are pursued by Dreykov’s expert assassin the Taskmaster who is able to copy the fighting style of opponents. What unfolds is a fun MCU-style espionage thriller grounded in real word issues but that also suffers from many of the same problems as past MCU entries. One of its biggest issues is, of course, its villains. “Black Widow” does justice to the training and fighting prowess of the famously un-superpowered Avenger by, as Marvel films tend to do, pitting her against foes that are more or less her equal. Taskmaster is the main threat to Natasha and her crew with a surprise reveal in the final act that, for me at least, felt extremely predictable once a certain detail from Natasha’s past is explained. Additionally, Dreykov isn’t really that memorable of a villain either basically used to personify men of power who use women for their own means, playing into one of the film’s themes. With that said though, watching Taskmaster fight was super fun and Ray Winstone does a fun job at getting to the core of Dreykov’s sinister personality, so they are at least passable Marvel villains at worst and I can’t really think of any other major baddy that should have taken center stage here.
Otherwise, “Black Widow” at its core is a fun action thriller combining typical MCU superhero film elements with spy film tropes in the same way “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, in which Natasha also appeared, felt like a “Bourne” Style thriller. The overarching story introduces us to the “red” in Natasha’s ledger that was mentioned by Loki in “The Avengers” as Natasha must face the demons of her past and put an end to the Red Room that trained her. To do so however she has only a few people she can turn to, namely her old fake-family she worked with as a child which we see in the film’s opening sequences eventually leading to a jailbreak, several public encounters with Taskmaster and the brainwashed Widows, and a final showdown to free the rest of the Widows. The action in this film is top notch even if it is CGI and cut-riddled like most action films are these days. I had a lot of fun and the energy oozed off the screen with every encounter. The choreography of the fights is also well done and there’s usually a pretty good sense of space accompanying the combat. If you enjoyed what the Russo Brothers brought to the MCU you’ll enjoy what “Black Widow” provides and, like every genre piece, turning your brain off and ignoring the impossibility of survival in certain circumstances is a must. None of this should be a surprise to people. If you go into an action movie expecting the hero to die when they should die and everything to make sense by real world physics then you’re going to be disappointed every time. Just go in for the fun and “Black Widow” will deliver.
What is both the best and most disappointing aspect of “Black Widow” though is the thematic undertones incorporated into the film that inject plenty of heart into the picture but also left a bit to be desired. At its core this film tackles two issues, dysfunctional families and men using women for their own gain. Of course, Natasha is already dealing with the dysfunction of the Avengers, so dealing with her estranged adoptive family is quite the struggle and you feel that through Scarlett Johansson’s always commanding performance as the badass with a heart. She’s clearly impatient but uses what she has learned working with all the egos of her superhero team to help manage her not-parents and not-sister to try and bring them together towards a united cause. Her three co-stars are also exceptional with Florence Pugh playing Natasha’s younger adopted sister and a Black Widow herself trying to navigate the same traumas Natasha has already had time to manage after being a part of the Red Room. Meanwhile their parents, Alexei and Melina, have no idea how to relate to their now older not-children but they still clearly feel a responsibility to help them navigate life. There’s a great scene between Harbour, who injects plenty of great levity into this movie, and Pugh where Alexei tries to relate to Yelena, but they just can’t connect leading to a touching moment that speaks simply to the struggles of an absent or out of touch parent trying to help their child, blood or adopted, through a traumatic or difficult time. I loved these dynamics, and the cast really works hard to get to the heart of it all without any of their characters feeling so vulnerable they can’t accept the challenge before them. They all feel very human and that’s important for grounding them in an otherwise over-the-top comic book movie.
The other main theme is where I was a bit underwhelmed. The idea of men using women for their own gains is a very timely subject symbolized through the villain Dreykov trying to control the world using orphaned or even “purchased” young girls that he has brainwashed to do his bidding installing safety measures to ensure that they can’t hurt him. It’s a not-so-subtle presentation of a man in power abusing women who are powerless to stop him because he holds all the cards in one way or another. Florence Pugh, who as you can see is the standout actress from this film, has another great moment where she opens up to her adopted family about being under that control and feeling abused and used but unable to escape it. I loved this moment and especially in the #MeToo era it felt poignant and timely giving context and emotional weight to the mission ahead. Natasha and Yelena want to free other women the way they have been freed. Sadly, I do feel the film downplays this a bit too much and seems to have a hard time juggling its feminist goals while its focus on family dynamics feels more fleshed out. While handled well, the idea of women being used by a man feels more like a form or motivation to kick the films heroes in gear rather than genuine commentary, but it still does more than more action films do to respect women and their struggles especially in how these badass warriors are filmed, not as sex symbols but as capable warriors with style. Even if i felt it could have leaned more heavily into its ideas, it’s great to see Marvel continue to inject these social issues into its films adding some real-world struggles to the lives of individuals that are presented as the most skilled and focused heroes of their world. It’s baby steps, but it’s important baby steps.
“Black Widow” isn’t one of Marvel’s best, but it is one of the best of the rest. It pales in comparison to epics like “Civil War” and “Endgame” and even falls short of similar standalone projects like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, but it’s still a very good movie that will surely continue Marvel’s stronghold on the genre. The action is engaging and when the film does take time to breath is uses that time to touch on some deep underlying themes supported by a wonderfully on-board cast as well as a director and writers that seem to have a firm understanding of what this movie needed to be, even if it misses out on some of its potential in favor of the action and typical Marvel flair. “Black Widow” might have been overdue, but the product we finally got is more than worthy of the heroic Avenger at its core. Overall, I would consider “Black Widow” to be an entertaining thrill ride balanced by its heart and the genuineness of its main heroes. However, it struggles with a small villain problem like most Marvel movies and doesn’t feel as willing to delve into the deeper nuances of its most important theme of women overpowering the oppressive male villain. It’s still a lot of fun though and does have some important things to share so I highly recommend it. It doesn’t redefine where Marvel is headed but reminds us that they’re still at the top of their game.