Operating as a disingenuous farewell to a character who’s been continuously shafted in the films she’s co-starred in, as well as a much more interesting look at who will be her replacement in the MCU, Black Widow works as long as viewers don’t think too hard on Marvel’s history with this Avenger. As an inconsequential spy thriller that gives Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romonoff—a.k.a Black Widow—the stage (kind of) she’s earned for over a decade since her on-screen debut in Iron Man 2, the story sets itself after the events of Captain America: Civil War and tries its hardest to come up with a justification for its own existence.
More than anything, Black Widow feels like a prolonged, self-congratulatory pat on the back by a studio that likes to reward itself for doing the bare minimum in moving the pendulum of progress forward for the medium. Here, they’ve given audiences the film we’ve been asking for since the introduction of Johansson’s character, and it’s directed by a woman to boot with a screenwriting credit from Jac Shaffer, who helped create the mostly fantastic WandaVision.
But Black Widow is both the weary sigh of executives giving in with a “See, we’ve given you what you want,” remark, as well as a half-hearted pseudo-goodbye for a character who was denied one, even following her death in Avengers: Endgame. The resulting film is…fine. It’s fun in moments and inventive with its fight choreography, but there’s a soullessness here that’s begun to permeate even the strongest Marvel titles.
We’re momentarily led to believe that there’s going to be something worthwhile buried in this shrug of a film.
Before we reunite with Black Widow following the devastating effects of Captain America: Civil War—which saw her would-be family splintering—we’re given a flashback into Natasha’s childhood, where she was hand-delivered to the KGB and raised to be a destructive operative. Soon, she’s faced with ties to her past with the two agents who raised her: David Harbour’s Alexei Shostakov (the Red Guardian) and Rachel Weisz’s Melina Vostokoff, along with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a fellow Black Widow who, up until they were all separated when she was six, believed them to be a real family. While there’s plenty more going on about webs of destruction that lay the groundwork for the story, it’s those makeshift family ties and the performances of Harbour and, especially, Pugh, that pushes this film into anything greater than hot air.
Distressingly, we’re momentarily led to believe that there’s going to be something worthwhile buried in this shrug of a film. The start is promising, buzzing with a bleak outlook that’s upsetting both on the basis of how the injustices depicted are shown as well as what it means in regards to the character we’ve come to care about over the years. It’s the context that’s been flirted with, but never openly addressed, that reevaluates Natasha’s trauma and isolation that led to her working with the Avengers and then, perhaps most fascinating and frustrating, her reckless and self-sacrificing move in Avengers: Endgame. It’s that level of needed, grim backstory, along with some brutal and impactful fight sequences early on, that grants viewers some brief optimism, especially when it comes to a particularly bruising scene between Pugh and Johansson.
That optimism is soon leveled, however, as we begin to settle into the pace of the story, the self-righteous course correction of the screenplay by Schaffer and Ned Benson, and a muddled and convoluted third act. Directed by Lore’s Cate Shortland, she tries to give the film an edge with spy thriller aesthetics, and there’s the opening scene and credits that are a little too close to replicating those in the FX series The Americans. But once again, a director’s style is ironed out to achieve that sameness effect of most Marvel properties these days. For every interesting decision she or the script makes, the film never veers too far off course from its regular, drab visuals, most evident in its nonsensical and incoherent fight sequences that rely too heavily on over-editing and gray set pieces.
The film being “just fine” isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.
While Harbour is certainly fun in his role as Alexi and delivers on some of the funniest moments through detailed, physical comedy, it’s Pugh who truly, rightfully, steals and anchors Black Widow. It is both to the benefit and detriment of the film to have her onboard. It’s fantastic, because utilizing her wide array of skills means allowing a strong comedic, dramatic, and physical actor to play to all of her strengths and then some, delivering a performance that is as charismatic as any introductory hero role.
But it’s a double edged sword, because her strengths and the natural intrigue around Yelena, along with the obvious set up for her to take on the “Black Widow” hero mantle, means that the actual star of the film is forced to take the backseat, as she has been doing for the last decade. It’s a shame, too, because Johansson feels more comfortable now in the role than she ever has, barring “Endgame,” a film which contained one of her best turns as the character.
The film being “just fine” isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, as plenty of Marvel films have been “just fine,” but also enjoyable enough that you’ll sit through them with commercial breaks if they show up on television (Captain America, Thor, and Captain Marvel come to mind.) No, what’s so impossibly aggravating isn’t just that the film should’ve been more than fine, especially with the resources Marvel and Disney have at their disposal to enlist the strongest talents with their overflowing wallets. It’s that sanctimonious messaging coming through the script, which reaches into the grab bag of “girl power” motifs as a way to both gloss over their own mishandling of the character—which even the star has pointed out—while simultaneously behaving as if that is at all any sort of achievement for a studio that could have afforded to be much more progressive from the start.
Black Widow deserves an audience, especially ten years ago when it should have first premiered.
It’s not that Black Widow is a bad film. It’s serviceable with some nice performances. The problem is that the film is unbearably self-conscious with an image it’s trying to project and a belief that somehow, the audience will be too dumb to catch it.
Black Widow deserves an audience, especially ten years ago when it should have first premiered. Instead, it arrives now as a careless, vacant afterthought that is little more than a bridge to the next wave of money-making for a monolith of a company that’s weaponized their films as a means to project insincere and duplicitous messages of empty progress. In trying to be a statement, rather than a film, it’s managed to be very little of either.
Black Widow premieres July 9th in theaters as well as available through Disney+ with premiere access. You can watch the trailer here.