I remember back in July 2019 how happy I was after Spider-Man: Far From Home to have some distance from the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a bit. Marvel’s Phase Four was not scheduled to kick off until May 2020, with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow finally getting her own feature film. That wait turned out to be a lot longer and as I write this it has been two full calendar years since audiences have seen a feature-length installment in the MCU. And while I’m happy these movies are back, and while Black Widow gave me a lot of what I really like about the MCU, it would be a lie not to acknowledge there are some problems going on here.
Black Widow focuses on Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) circa 2016, after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Natasha is being pursued by a dark force intent on taking her down once and for all, and to confront this villain she will have to confront her past – this includes her family or the only family she knew growing up, Yelena (Florence Pugh), and parental figures Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz).
So, this is the second Marvel project this year (after WandaVision) that is primarily about trauma and characters that repress trauma in order to get the difficult thing done. And it’s a relief the first project back for the MCU is something decidedly smaller scale. I always enjoy these films more whenever the fate of the universe isn’t at stake. And director Cate Shortland really makes this big, expensive blockbuster feel intimate and personal, and yet at the same time like a sleek 007-esque spy thriller with a lot of lean, unfussy camerawork and (with the exception of the finale) action that has a surprisingly analog nature to it, and feels light on CGI. It feels like a human being directed this, as opposed to the Marvel Machine and that’s something I can definitely appreciate.
Scarlett Johansson is coming off a year where she joined a short list of actors who were nominated for two Academy Awards in the same year for separate movies. While she’s doing terrific work, in the fight scenes, sure, but especially in the more quiet, dramatic moments, Natasha can’t help but feel like a bystander in her own movie. After Black Widow’s death in Avengers: Endgame, many fans were curious why we were doing this movie now. Fans theorized the Black Widow film would set up other stories involving Natasha or bring her back somehow, and I’m going to just say flat out that it doesn’t. It feels like a farewell to this beloved character who got short-changed right up until the end, even in her own movie. The loss of Natasha stings and lingers over this entire movie, and I can’t help but think she deserved better. This all feels like too little, too late.
Black Widow is very much a passing of the torch movie, and while part of me finds that annoying, it means we now we have the ever-charismatic Florence Pugh as Natasha’s sister Yelena, and she just about steals the entire movie. You should definitely expect to see her again within the MCU. A large part of the joy of Black Widow is watching the quippy banter between Natasha and Yelena, and it’s kind of disappointing that this will likely be the only time we see the two characters teaming up. The script is primarily focused on their past trauma and what their relationship was, and now that we’re past all that exposition, it would be cool to see the two sisters go on missions together, but I guess that’ll never happen.
Rachel Weisz and David Harbour are very fun to watch as Natasha’s parental figures, and the film has a much stronger grasp of the concept of family than you’d expect. David Harbour is going full camp, and he’s a delight. Weisz is having fun with the action scenes, but it’s worth pointing out Florence Pugh’s accent work is far superior to Weisz’, who has been doing this kind of thing much longer than Pugh.
Ultimately, Black Widow is an impressive and somewhat frustrating endeavor. Impressive in how willing it is to move away from the tropes so often associated with the MCU and to move into something darker, but frustrating in the too-little-too-late-ness of it all. A Black Widow solo film should have happened back in the early 2010s, and it’s depressing that she’ll be the only character in the MCU to have ONE solo movie. Knowing this is the last we’ll see from this character kind of cuts the joy of Black Widow finally being front and center in her own movie. Future Marvel projects are teased, and yet this feels less like an episodic film and more like a standalone story, which is definitely a positive in my book.
However, as a piece of entertainment to be consumed, Black Widow has lots of thrilling stuff to offer. Even the feeling of watching the 30-second Marvel Studios logo in a cinema after not seeing it for two years felt weirdly cathartic, like coming back home, and I say that as a casual fan of these movies. Black Widow is available this weekend in theaters and for an additional $30 fee on Disney+, and even though I had some problems with the movie, I would absolutely recommend going to see this on the biggest screen you can find this weekend. We don’t quite achieve the audience euphoria of the climactic Avengers: Endgame fight scene, but certain moments come pretty close. And it’s great to be back.