Review: Black Widow (2021)

Premiere Impressions

In terms of serialization, Black Widow is an interesting step sideways for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is a sequel, prequel, and spin-off all rolled into one. Chronologically, the film follows the MCU’s original bad bitch, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), on a side quest that takes place in between the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It’s a lot to keep track of.

Why tell a story of Natasha from the past for her first big solo outing? Well, for those of you keeping up with the Marvel series, you may recall that Natasha is a little bit, uh, dead after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019). In order to progress the MCU narrative forward then, we return to the past, where Natasha must reunite her pre-Avengers pseudo-family (Yelena [Florence Pugh], Red Guardian [David Harbour], and Melina [Rachel Weisz]) in order to take down the Red Room while she is being hunted by a new masked foe, Taskmaster. It’s a lot to keep track of.

For those who have been patiently waiting for a Black Widow movie, your time has come. This is Black Widow’s movie, just not the same Black Widow you’ve been waiting for. Yes, Natasha is the protagonist, but in the context of world building and story progression, this is Yelena’s movie. As many of the recent Marvel adventures have done (see Falcon and the Winter Soldier) or are preparing to do (see Thor 4), this is another “passing the torch” movie. Luckily, Yelena is a treat. Pugh is, unsurprisingly, fantastic in the role and will make an excellent addition to the incoming class of Avengers. That being said, it is a bit disappointing to see so much of Natasha’s movie dedicated to not Natasha.

One of the common—and justifiable—criticisms of Black Widow as a superhero is her lack of powers. The action sequences in the movie therefore go out of their way to demonstrate just how thrilling MCU action sequences can be without finger-zaps and beep-blorps. The focus on hand-to-hand combat is a refreshing change of pace from previous installments, especially with such crisp choreography.

The action sequences also highlight Taskmaster’s greatest strength as a villain. Some lesser Marvel villains aren’t so much with the fighting, but Taskmaster is a force. They stalk Natasha around the globe and strike whenever they’re in reach. Taskmaster is kind of like the MCU’s Michael Meyers, complete with creepy murder-mask-breathing. That being said, Taskmaster isn’t quite used enough and (vague baby spoiler) for the like fourteenth time, the true villain ends up being an old guy in a suit. I agree that old dudes in suits are shady (it’s like, have you ever just tried jeans?), but it would be nice if one of the super cool villains actually got to be super cool.

Taskmaster’s “power” is being able to mirror the fighting style of the other Avengers characters. This power points to one of the film’s most obvious negatives. Even for an MCU film, Black Widow’s references to the Avengers are a bit taxing. Understandably, some of these references, mostly those to the Sakovia Accords, are there as a chronological reference point—to remind you that this movie takes place after the events of Civil War. However, the majority of them feel like verbal clutter. The incessant references to Captain America, Iron Man, and those other muscle jocks contribute to the downplaying of Natasha’s own significance. I don’t think any single person in the audience of Black Widow did not understand that the character was an Avenger before they sat down.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • I can’t encourage you enough to take a bathroom break during the opening credits so you can skip the most misplaced cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
  • What is it with superhero prequels giving origin stories to articles of clothing?
  • Even though the fight scenes are great, the climactic fight does feature the dumbest thing I’ve seen in a Marvel film: pheromone tactics
  • I don’t want to spoil it, but the post-credit scene does confirm that the MCU series on Disney+ actually do connect back to the movies

The Final Tea

If someone was to ask for the textbook example of an MCU film, I would point them to Black Widow: the action sequences are stellar, the comedy all lands, and the references to other characters and movies are abundant. Nothing about Black Widow is particularly groundbreaking or special, but it is a lot of fun and is very MCU.

Oh, also, please go see this in a movie theater, not on your phone for $29.99.

GRADE: B+

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