Black Widow Review: Better Late Than Never

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After a year without any Marvel movies, Black Widow finally arrives in theaters July 9 with anticipation high and a lot riding on whether it can bring audiences back to indoor cinemas.

While it remains to be seen if Black Widow will inject some much-needed life into the pandemic-starved Hollywood box office, the film exceeds expectations with a fast-moving adventure that finally gives Scarlett Johansson’s Avenger the solo chapter she deserves.

Directed by Cate Shortland from a script penned by Thor: Ragnarok screenwriter Eric Pearson, Black Widow is a prequel tale of sorts that’s mostly set in the period of the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. The film follows Avengers’ superspy Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) as she’s forced to confront the dark secrets of her past and the relationships she put behind her.

Time travel

Despite the film’s backwards leap in the MCU timeline, Black Widow does a surprisingly good job of feeling not only timely, but comfortably situated in Marvel’s live-action universe. Although the bulk of the story unfolds between Civil War and Infinity War, the film’s narrative is book-ended by scenes that make it clear not just when the story is set in relation to those films, but also how it’s likely to shape the MCU going forward.

Plucking at the intertwined narrative threads of the MCU — particularly with such a well-established character — could easily become a recipe for disaster, but Black Widow never feels shoehorned into the Marvel universe. The film delivers the sort of stylized action and clever moments Marvel fans have come to expect while also growing out of the established, fictional history of the MCU in an organic way.

Star power

In what’s likely to be her swan song as the Avengers’ secret agent, Johansson carries Black Widow with the comfort level one expects from having portrayed the character in eight films across more than a decade.

Marvel’s superspy has a knack for holding her own in a crowd of larger-than-life aliens, androids, and even gods, and although the supporting cast in Black Widow isn’t exactly superhuman, she continues to hold the spotlight in a film filled with memorable performances.

Johansson’s ease in handling both the action sequences and the character-developing elements make Black Widow feel every bit the veteran hero in the film, as she effortlessly dispatches crowds of enemies with her signature flair and diving (sometimes literally) into danger. She’s come a long way since her 2010 introduction in Iron Man 2, and Black Widow plays well as a reminder of why she’s so fun to watch in the MCU, as well as a grand finale for her story arc.

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Marvel's Black Widow movie.

Sister act

Among the film’s noteworthy supporting cast members is Oscar-nominated Little Women actress Florence Pugh, who makes her debut as Yelena Belova, a fellow spy Natasha viewed as a sister when the pair were children.

Pugh is expected to take over the mantle of Black Widow in the MCU at some point down the road, and the film sets up that transition with plenty of comparative (and combative) moments between Yelena and Natasha. Both actresses fill their characters with a physical and psychological strength that makes them seem superhuman, even without any special powers or abilities.

Although the two spies share many qualities (including brutally efficient grappling techniques), Pugh’s Yelena also manages to feel distinct from Johansson’s Natasha, making her potential future in the MCU that much more intriguing. The extra time Yelena spent in the program that originally turned Natasha into a trained, obedient killer has left Yelena harder and less sympathetic to the world around her, and she gives us a glimpse of what Natasha might have been like before she allied herself with SHIELD and the Avengers.

If Pugh does indeed become the new Black Widow, the film makes a strong case that the character’s legacy is clearly in good hands, and it will be interesting to see how Yelena’s experiences shape what she’ll become in Marvel’s movie-verse.

Rachel Weisz, Scarlett Johansson, and Florence Pugh sit at a table in a scene from the Black Widow movie.

Family matters

Joining Pugh in the supporting cast are David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov and Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff, Natasha’s father and mother figures, respectively, from her early years in the shadowy organization that trained her.

Harbour is, unsurprisingly, one of the biggest scene-stealers in Black Widow, delivering some of the movie’s funniest moments, both visual and verbal, as the former Russian hero Red Guardian. His positioning as the Soviets’ Cold War-era equivalent to Captain America offers plenty of opportunities for humor and — given the current geopolitical state of things — an exploration of how Marvel’s world of superheroes and supervillains might have developed during that particular competition for global dominance.

Weisz plays a more understated role in the film, but still manages to make the best of her limited screen time.

David Harbour in Marvel's Black Widow movie.

Villains rule

One of the biggest secrets leading up to the film’s premiere is the identity of Taskmaster, the primary villain of Black Widow, whose ability to mimic anyone’s fighting style makes them a uniquely powerful enemy.

The film does a nice job of keeping that element a surprise, and an even better job at showcasing Taskmaster’s uncanny ability. Marvel fans will likely recognize many of the signature moves, poses, and reactions Taskmaster displays during each fight scene, with the character effortlessly transitioning from the fighting style of Hawkeye to that of Captain America, Black Panther, or Black Widow herself over the course of a single fight. Every scene featuring Taskmaster feels like a series of Easter Eggs hidden for eagle-eyed Marvel movie fans, and the way Black Widow blends these elements together in the same character really is an impressive feat.

The villain Taskmaster shooting an arrow in Marvel's Black Widow movie.

Endings and beginnings

The experience of watching Black Widow ultimately feels a little bittersweet. On one hand, the film is a fun, fast-paced, visually stunning adventure that not only offers a much-needed reminder of what we missed during more than a year without any new Marvel movies, but also gives one of the Avengers’ underserved icons some long overdue time in the spotlight.

On the other hand, the film feels like a bit of a tease, giving us one wonderfully entertaining adventure at the end of the character’s run to show us what we could have had all along if Marvel had invested more heavily in Black Widow early on. For fans who have been calling for a Black Widow solo movie for the last decade, the validation of her ability to carry a great Marvel movie likely feels a lot less satisfying at this late stage.

Nevertheless, Black Widow is a rewarding sendoff to Johansson’s Avenger, highlighting all of the reasons why she’s such an important figure in the MCU while adding more layers to her legacy, both earlier in her timeline and looking ahead to the future. Maybe most importantly, however, Black Widow is a movie that feels like it was worth the wait.

Marvel’s Black Widow premieres July 9 in theaters and on the Disney+ streaming service with Premier Access (at an additional cost).

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