Despite its place in the overall Marvel/Disney release schedule, Black Widow is very much a Phase 3 film. Your appreciation of that will, of course vary.
The film, directed by Cate Shortland from a script by Eric Pearson (itself from a story by WandaVision‘s Jac Shaeffer and Ned Benson), takes us back to the situation following Captain America: Civil War. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is in hiding from Secretary Ross (William Hurt) for her violations of the Sokovia Accords just when an echo from her past returns in a rather explosive fashion.
And, we have to tell you, Black Widow blows up things but good.
In fact, after a drought of explosions, chase scenes, and hallway fights, the film is a tonic for those braving the theaters — although we highly recommend using the Disney+ option despite the seeming expense — and hoping for all the Marvel spectacle they’ve been missing the last couple of years. At the same time, though, it eschews the more grandiose and cosmic Marvel trappings for a spy flick. It is a natural enough choice considering the character’s roots in espionage, but don’t assume this is going to be the studio’s answer to a Bourne film. Instead, it offers a key hint to its tone early on as we discover Nat has watched the James Bond film Moonraker enough times to memorize its quips. That film’s sometimes silly mood makes its way to Black Widow in a generally effective way. Although, we imagine most people will favor the well-executed action scenes of Black Widow over Moonraker‘s overt camp.
Buoying the action and occasional silliness is the one-two punch of Johansson and Florence Pugh as estranged “siblings.” In truth, they were both part of a Russian deep cover program growing up, but the ambiguous authenticity of their “family” is a running theme throughout the picture. As the film unfolds, though, the pair are a joy to watch as they reconnect, quip at one another, and even fight in one of the film’s early action beats. If Nat’s circumstances were slightly different, we’d look forward to seeing this pairing again in a sequel.
Instead, though, the film maintains the finality of Nat’s choice in Avengers: Endgame.
Doing so has a profound effect on the film. For one thing, her fight scenes have no jeopardy — we know she will survive because we’ve already seen her die five-or-so years after the events of this film. Second, it places her emotional arc in a strange light as she can’t really do anything with it. Also, it doesn’t really inform the character as we saw her in either Avengers: Infinity War or Endgame. Although, one expects that when this movie is watched in its proper place — between Civil War and Infinity War — her choice to rescue members of Team Cap because of her experiences with Yelena (Pugh) and her deep-cover “family” may play better. But here, as the first “Phase 4” film and Marvel’s return to theaters after a pandemic-enforced hiatus, it feels oddly blunted.
Beyond its place in the overall Marvel scheme dulling some of its impact, it features a handful of standout performances. Pugh is an absolutely delight and we look forward to her recurring as the new Black Widow. Similarly, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are wonderful as the father and mother of this ersatz family. Some of their interactions may come off a little too polished and unexamined, but the dynamic is wonderful in the few scenes they get before the action returns. In fact, we would’ve loved more scenes of them (along with Pugh and Johansson) as a group of people trying to figure out whether or not they are a family. The question seems to be the one the film really wants to take on, but it isn’t really conducive to a big Marvel set piece.
Which brings us to the villains, Red Room director Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and Taskmaster. Although the fights with Taskmaster are top notch, the ultimate secret behind the character lacked some impact — particularly as it is telegraphed during a flashback to “that time in Budapest.” Granted, if Taskmaster returns as an agent of a certain Contessa, there may be room to develop the character some more.
Dreykov, meanwhile, joins Iron Monger, Malekith, and Whiplash as one of the least compelling Marvel villains put on the screen. While his overall scheme has some terrifying implications, the character himself feels so removed from everything. Because the film establishes Nat as a young teen in 1995, the Red Room cannot be a Soviet plot — although we would make the case it easily still could be — and thus Dreykov’s plan feels ill-considered. There’s a power-for-power’s sake/Cobra Commander vibe here that just doesn’t work. Also, in terms of the larger Marvel world, it feels like there was a missed opportunity here to establish how organizations like the Red Room and the Ten Rings co-exist. Would Wenwu (Tony Leung) really not know about the Widows?
But, to a certain extent, Dreykov is just a plot device to get to the real meat of the main characters’ and the reforging of their sibling bond. On that front, he serves his function admirably as the film always excels with Nat and Yelena.
And, who knows, maybe the Red Room will yet serve some purpose in Phase 4.
Nevertheless, it is possible to walk away from Black Widow feeling a little let down. It is quite solid in its own right, but feels oddly timed as part of the ongoing Marvel tale. It also makes you wonder what the landscape would look like had Johansson starred in a Marvel film four or five years ago. And although it is possible to tell more stories with Nat — a full account of the Budapest operation or a story set during the five-year gap are just two sequel ideas — there is a sense of missed opportunity here that cannot be avoided. Nevertheless, Black Widow is a fun film and, maybe for the moment, its best just to focus on that.
Black Widow is in theaters (and on Disney+) now.