Marvel Studios’ Black Widow is finally in theaters (and Disney+), and it has been a turbulent road to get here. After numerous delays, the first film in Disney’s ‘Phase Four’ slate is finally out for the world to see. Natasha Romanoff has always been a supporting (albeit major) player in the Avengers and Captain America films. However, now she finally has a whole film dedicated to her story. The result is a heartwarming film that overcomes most of the cliches that are to be expected from Marvel Studios.
In the midst of multiple Disney+ series already being released, it’s odd and at the same time refreshing to wind back time in the MCU. Having already discovered new corners and characters in shows like WandaVision and Falcon, we have our first theatrical release in two years and it’s a prequel that takes place before even Infinity War. Black Widow is relieved of some pressure of answering fans questions like “what’s next?” in no small part thanks to its place on the timeline. It more or less serves a different purpose than other recent MCU projects.
Still, Black Widow follows the formula to these films carefully. Still, Cate Shortland manages to make her mark on the MCU with her sharp directing and character work. With a script from Eric Pearson, Shortland gives the film a different and distinctive feel in its opening act. There’s a certain level of intensity and emotion given to the film’s setup. It shows Shortland’s impressive grasp of character work. The authenticity on display in Black Widow is most relevant in this opening section.
From that point forward, despite how often the film falls back on typical MCU tropes, it still shows glimmers of that authenticity. That is in no small part thanks to Cate Shortland in the director’s chair. Her vision is still distinct enough to save this film from being another cliché blockbuster.
Another saving grace of the film is the cast. Scarlett Johansson clearly understands her character at this point in her career. Moreover, she is able to bring to the table her charismatic and cunning take on the super-spy. Taking the spotlight and being the driving force of the supporting cast is a new position for her as well. Scarlett fills that role in wonderfully. This is the Black Widow you’ve come to know the past ten years. If there’s any performance for Scarlett to end it on, it’s this one. She has never been more relaxed and confident in the role, and it works wonderfully for this film.
David Harbour and Rachel Weisz bring a certain charm and help audiences buy into the ‘dysfunctional family’ angle the film tries to sell you on. Harbour in particular as Red Guardian provides most if not all the levity for the film. The passion that he brings into the role is palpable on screen and overall is a great addition to the MCU. Weisz on the other side of the spectrum is stoic, serious, and monotone to balance things out. An interesting aside would be to consider that maybe both Alexei and Melina somewhat represent the two sides of Natasha’s own personality, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Then, there is the highlight of the film. Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova, Natasha’s “younger sister” and a Widow herself. Pugh’s character is as much the emotional heart of the film as Natasha herself, and that’s just a testament to how incredible Pugh’s performance is. Her character arc is the most intriguing as well. Her emotional struggles serve as the emotional crux of the film and help drive Natasha’s character arc to its own tipping point by the end of the film. A lot of the emotional beats rely on Johannsson’s chemistry with Pugh, and it works perfectly. Yelena is an exciting new addition to the MCU with a bright future ahead of her.
On the technical side of things, Gabriel Beristain’s cinematography has a warmth and intimacy to the camerawork that pairs well with the film’s focus on family. The extra focus on character’s facial expressions and body language helped to convey their emotions and carry some of the weight in the more dramatic scenes. Lorne Balfe also provides a memorable score for the film, with some epic vocals to pair with the spy-fi beats/orchestra.
While the first act was filled with intimacy and authenticity, the second and third acts of Black Widow fall victim to some typical MCU fare. Still, Shortland’s grasp on characters remains tight no matter what expected story beat may follow. The same also goes for the film’s antagonist, the Red Room, and their leader, played by Ray Winstone. His motivations and development are as cliché as it comes. However, it’s his emotional connection to Natasha that elevates this Marvel villain. On the subject of Taskmaster, he is more of a physical threat than anything else. Moreover, any real emotional connection comes much too late into the film’s runtime to matter all that much.
Overall, Black Widow wraps up nicely, coming up with a satisfying, albeit rushed conclusion. This is one of those rare (and possibly first) times in an MCU film where we already know exactly how a story ends. Moreover, the conclusion was always going to feel a bit off. Shortland and co. do what they can, and it’s enough.
Black Widow is an excellent entry in the MCU, filled with incredible action and even some intimate character work sprinkled throughout. Mainly, that of Florence Pugh as Yelena. I must reiterate that she stole the show. Cate Shortland is able to execute her vision and thanks to that, Black Widow has a level of authenticity missing from some of the MCU’s weaker outings. All in all, it’s a great time at the movies. Black Widow finally got her story told and it’s layered in grit, family, spy action, and, beneath some of the tropes, is a lot more layered than you’d expect. – Ernesto Valenzuela