REVIEW: Black Widow [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 133 minutes
    Release Date: July 9th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
    Director(s): Cate Shortland
    Writer(s): Eric Pearson / Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson (story) / Stan Lee, Don Heck & Don Rico (characters)

I’m not the killer little girls call their hero.

Even if we take COVID-19 into consideration and say that Black Widow arrived in 2020 rather than 2021, twelve years since Iron Man and nine since the character’s debut in Iron Man 2 isn’t much better than thirteen and ten. And remember when the company line was, “Well, The Winter Soldier is pretty much a Black Widow movie?” Yeah. That went over well and didn’t shine a light on a major issue within the MCU. Paired with Captain Marvel, the only two true women-led properties within the franchise are now flashback prequels—a glaring reality that makes matters worse because it shows there were stories to be told the whole time and Kevin Feige, et al. simply chose to wait. And wait. And wait. And … wait.

How can we not therefore see Cate Shortland‘s film as anything but a response to fan outcry rather than an organic entry planned years ago? The easy answer is that the studio needed an entry point for Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) to take up the mantle now that Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is REDACTED, but that could have been accomplished via the upcoming Hawkeye television series without much additional effort. No, this was a make good. And while that’s not entirely horrible for the finished product—there’s a lot to like at the end of the day—it’s impossible to ignore. Johansson does have a producer credit and got one more go-round, though, so it was at least a deserving send-off spearheaded by her initiative. Kudos for that.

Let’s look at it objectively then. The events of Civil War have left the Avengers fractured with Natasha and Captain America proving to be the only ones left on their side not in jail. General Ross (William Hurt) hopes to rectify that, but as we know from his previous appearances in the franchise: he’s not the most difficult man to duck. So Black Widow decides to lay low, off-the-grid. She heads to Norway, gets set-up with a trailer and generator in the middle of the woods (by O-T Fagbenle‘s newcomer Mason, a private “fixer” of sorts), and discovers her sister (Yelena) is in trouble. If that familial revelation is surprising, know that there’s ample reason for wanting to leave her past behind beyond what we’ve already been told.

This mission is personal. The man Natasha thought she killed when escaping Russia (Ray Winstone‘s Dreykov) isn’t dead and in fact has insulated himself to become untouchable thanks to her attempt. Yelena was one of his mind-controlled assassins who’s since been awoken by a gaseous antidote she hopes to use on the rest of the women forced to fight for his agenda. And the only way to even think about finding Dreykov is to approach the two people they know who might still have a connection: Fake Mom and Fake Dad (Rachel Weisz‘s Melina Vostokoff and David Harbour‘s Alexei Shostakov, aka Red Guardian). Think “The Americans” with a lot less complexity and a lot more James Bond-like supervillainy. The two who facilitated their conscription are their last hope.

It’s their messed up familial dynamic that Black Widow excels at most because it allows for pathos and comedy while also providing the room for explosive set pieces along the way. Alexei is in jail, so that means a prison break. Yelena is a defector, so that means a robotic bounty hunter known as Taskmaster throwing a shield Captain America style. And Dreykov’s operation is so black ops that getting to him won’t be without the necessary infiltration plan and improvisation when things prove harder than assumed. Screenwriter Eric Pearson‘s job (from a story by Jac Scharffer and Ned Benson) is ultimately about finding ways to tie emotional beats into action extravaganzas regardless of smooth transitions or ample enough room for the former to breathe despite the latter.

Alexei is a pompous ass who makes up stories so he can become the hero he could have been if Dreykov wasn’t pulling the strings. He can’t help trying to play both sides, though, where it comes to caring for the girls and admitting their three years together was a waste of his talents. Melina is an eccentric scientist who always seems like she’s hiding a secret—a woman who genuinely believes she does have a foot in both worlds. She approves of the “Red Room” program making Natasha and Yelena strong while also hoping they would retain the heart they showed as children. And Yelena is a younger, pluckier version of her severe sister. The way she rags on Natasha and calls out her hypocrisy is great.

I could have watched Johansson, Pugh, Harbour, and Weisz sitting in a room together, bouncing frustrations, guilt, and nostalgia off each other, for the entire two hours and fifteen-minute runtime if that’s what Shortland and company had in store. Their rapport is that good. The mix of having these interestingly off-kilter personalities despite having been indoctrinated since birth leads to a lot of laughs and even some tears when the sobering reality of their failure to actual help anyone other than themselves is revealed. Yelena has a line where she admits the only real happiness she ever felt was in that three-year lie when they were living together in Ohio. How can that pain not hit home when delivered by one Oscar-nominee to another alongside Weisz’s Oscar winner?

Casting has been Marvel’s strongest suit since the beginning. They knew any wild science fiction scenario could be sold if someone with legitimate acting chops was doing the selling. It’s been such a huge factor in the universe’s success that bringing in Olga Kurylenko for a role half her age only ends up being more of a sore thumb than it would have on its own (something that shouldn’t be the case since she’s the only actual Russian amongst them all). When a twist is predicated on the passing of time, don’t do something that forces me to start doing the math in my head that proves you screwed up. It’s not surprising, though, since a lot of what occurs is more concerned with “what’s next” than “now.”

That’s the unfortunate reality of prequel fillers. The current stakes are low no matter how much suspense you inject. We know Yelena is needed later and we know (or at least we should since these films can’t exist in a vacuum) Natasha was needed for what already happened. We therefore watch to spend time with them more than wonder about their fates. For all intents and purposes, Black Widow isn’t even Natasha’s film. It’s about the program more than the person and an origin tale for Yelena more than a one-off adventure for her Avenger. And honestly, I like that similarity to “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”. Expository bottle episodes are as crucial to comics as crossovers. Not every detour is a waste of time.

[1] Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff and Florence Pugh as Yelena in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW. Photo by Jay Maidment. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.
[2] (L-R): Yelena (Florence Pugh), Alexei (David Harbour) and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo by Jay Maidment. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Melina (Rachel Weisz) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

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