Black Widow review: Family comes first in action-packed spy thriller

(L-R): Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) in Marvel Studios' BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
(L-R): Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) in Marvel Studios' BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. /

Ten years after her Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in Iron Man 2, and further delayed for a year by the pandemic that must not be named, at long last, O.G. Avenger Natasha Romanoff’s solo film Black Widow is finally here – and it only took a decade to hit theaters.

An integral part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a beloved original member of the world’s most famous superhero team, Black Widow is a long-overdue film for a character that means so much to so many. Though it’s lacking the signature ‘oomph’ that Marvel’s best films deliver, Black Widow is a sleek, action-packed spy thriller with plenty of ethos – a fitting farewell for Johnasson’s iconic hero.

Set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow follows super-spy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) as she dodges an international manhunt to find and capture the remaining members of Team Iron. She’s pulled from hiding when she receives a mysterious package from her estranged sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), and the two sisters team up with their former covert ops ‘family’ – Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) to take down the red room once and for all.

Black Widow comes at a strange place for the character of Natasha Romanoff, in large part because of the obvious issue that Romanoff died during the events of Avengers: Endgame. As such, Black Widow fights an inherent uphill battle to remain urgent and compelling – merely because the audience already knows a) what happens to the character, and b) that the events of the film have virtually no ramifications, considering the rest of the MCU continued without so much as mentioning them. As such, instead of mapping out the next chapter in Natasha’s story, the film instead opts to give audiences more insight into her past. In that respect, it’s clever to center Black Widow around her upbringing and family, because so much of the intrigue and draw of her character is how little we know about her mysterious past.

That past almost entirely consists of previously unmentioned relationships with her former ‘family’ – Alexei, Melina, and Yelena, all of whom worked for the Red Room and/or Russian covert ops for years prior to Natasha breaking away and joining S.H.I.E.L.D. Of the three new characters, the standout is without question Florence Pugh’s Yelena – a snarky, at times archetypal bratty younger sister who is, yes, reminiscent of Pugh’s Oscar-nominated turn as Amy March in Little Women. It’s a niche she has down pat, though – because a vast majority of the film’s funniest and most emotionally impactful beats come courtesy of Pugh’s spirited performance and Yelena’s refreshing fire – a nice contrast to her cool-headed older sister. Though Black Widow can never be truly replaced, the strength of Pugh’s performance here makes her an exciting new player in the MCU, and a welcome face presence wherever they’re sure to use her next.

Natasha’s ‘parents’ Alexei and Melina are more of a mixed bad, though, and don’t always work as well as the Yelena/Natasha dynamic. Harbour is the film’s obvious ‘comic relief’ element – and though he is funny, the shtick does somewhat overstay its welcome  – though balanced well enough with heartfelt moments of connection, mostly with Yelena. Weisz’ Melina, on the other hand, is the weakest link of the quartet – though the arc attempted with her character is certainly a compelling one on the page, the film doesn’t devote quite enough time to reach its maximum potential, and Weisz’ performance feels phoned-in, which doesn’t help smooth over the writing flaws.

Then, of course, there’s Natasha Romanoff herself – who was surprisingly unremarkable considering this is her long-awaited time to finally get the limelight all to herself. She wasn’t outright bad by any stretch of the imagination, but after waiting so long (and knowing Johnasson can turn out a truly incredible performance with the right material), her time here feels a little underwhelming. Though her performance isn’t outright stellar, it’s not entirely Johnasson’s fault, either –  many of the character beats don’t land like they should (for all characters, not just Natasha) because of the lackluster script – the film’s biggest detractor by a wide margin.

Speaking of the script, it does make the write call by positioning itself as a grounded spy thriller as opposed to a bombastic high-flying superhero flick like some other action origins – it’s a smart choice for a her of Natasha’s scale/temperament. But even adjusting for the more deliberately somber tone, the bare-bones plot and shoddy pacing rob the film of quite a bit of its urgency. The story at the core should be a haunting, deeply personal tale about Natasha’s past, her family, and patriarchal control over women’s bodies, but the writing is so flat the narrative ends up feeling watered-downland one-note – a disappointment considering just how deep the dies go for Yelena and Natasha in particular.

Not helping the situation is the villain of the piece – who is without question one of Marvel’s weakest baddies ever. The head of the Red Room, Dreykov, is utterly unremarkable and spends most of the film hiding out in his lair – leaving the dirty work to his thug Taskmaster. Taskmaster, on the other hand, is a fan-favorite baddie smart choice for a villain to go up against the non-superpowered Natasha – but the film doesn’t properly make use of Taskmaster’s mirroring combat ability.

Though the film as a whole understands that Black Widow should be a spy thriller and not a  large-scale superhero romp, somehow the fight scenes didn’t get the message. Instead of sleek, spy-style hand-to-hand combat that features Taskmaster’s unique skillset, the film opts to forge ahead with explosion-heavy fight scenes that needlessly up the scale. The action set pieces feel like a holdover from other MCU films, and out of place for the tone the rest of the film is trying for.

All in all, though, Black Widow does right by Johnasson and Romanoff where it counts – at long last allowing her to connect with her past, her family, and end the MCU surrounded by loved ones when she entered the franchise in utter solitude. Though the writing leaves something to be desired, between Pugh’s charisma, the sense of closure it gives the character, and the compelling (if not properly explored) story at its core makes it a fitting farewell for a beloved hero.

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