Marvel Studios have spun an impressively intricate web to create their cinematic universe; all the little bugs have their own spot on this web they can call their own, from ants to wasps, and even a spider too. Strange now that after all these years they’ve only just given this little spider a strand that she can make her own. Traditionally, the character of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) could be found snuck into Marvel flicks as little more than a friendly sidekick that tags along for the ride. More often than not she can be seen jumping ship once the actual antagonist makes their true appearance against the actual main character of the story. It’s as though her character has been stationed on a 10 year espionage mission with the directive of avoiding her own public appearance. Alas, here we are, the moment of truth – but is it too little too late?
Well, if you observe Black Widow purely from how it fits within the grand plan of Marvel Studios cinematic web, it inevitably swings back to this question… Why is a character’s book being reopened when her demise is already set in stone? Well, that question would hold a lot more weight if this film were made for the character of Natasha Romanoff, spoilers; it kind of isn’t. I mean it is, make no mistake, this is her story, but at the same time, it isn’t. Natasha isn’t discarded or ignored in this film, this is her film, however, she’s clearly not the true reason this film was made. The true reason? The character of Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a little sister of Natasha’s. This film serves a dual purpose – to honor Black Widow as a character and to sneak in an origin story in preparations for Natasha’s replacement model – Yelena.
Now, ignoring the underhanded reality that this film is an undercover origin story, what we’ve actually got here is an admirable spy thriller that ultimately smokes its competition. Alike films such as Red Sparrow (2018), Salt (2010), and Anna (2019) all fall within this strangely popular category of born to kill female agents trained under some Russian organization. In spite of all of these flicks attempting to find an edge through either excessive violence or sexual content; Black Widow decides to entrap its audience through good old fashioned character development. We see the character of Natasha more human than ever before; alongside her is her sister Yelena, and parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) – all of which are given satisfying enough development in garish Russian accents. Yes, this is largely one of those “we’re getting the band back together” sort of films, but instead each character spends their time trying to outplay each other in who can win the coveted ‘tortured past award’.
Speaking of tortured pasts, this is perhaps Natasha’s moment to shine, as you finally uncover what happened in Budapest and why she decided to nosedive off a cliff on Vormir. Though the truth behind it all comes at a cost. Unsurprisingly Natasha is revealed to have a bloody past with no small amount of brutality and tragedy, but for every sin Natasha has seemingly committed, the film makes the decision to reverse or eradicate the true consequences of those sins. For example, she did something wrong, but that something didn’t really happen – ergo, her sin has no consequence. It’s as though the writers wanted to clean up this character’s ledger before they finally said goodbye to her. The venom that this film could’ve administered felt diluted by a desire to make her death a wholly honorable choice and not the bleak escapist one that Avengers: Endgame (2019) so solemnly implied. Ultimately, this all matters very little in the moment to moment scenes throughout the film, as this film is primarily about righting wrongs and building relationships, and it does all of that with ease.
This film works largely due to the addition of Yelena (Pugh) and the darker grounded structure it kept within its first two acts. The moment Black Widow goes airborne in the third act it feels like the direction is in free-fall with no sight of the ground. Things are kept in check mostly by the budding chemistry between Yelena and Natasha, as they quip at each other like any pair of sisters would. Yelena also exhibits a far greater comedic range and more relatable personality for audiences to get attached to. Natasha has always been a withdrawn and emotionally stunted personality that is written to be so, primarily due to her complicated past. It’s perhaps for the best that audiences get a character with more of a spark. The future is looking optimistic with the character of Yelena as a replacement.
Distancing itself from the MCU, Black Widow presents a more grounded visual landscape, with close hand-to-hand combat and relatively low stakes that add to the thematic weight of the film. The hand-to-hand combat can be compared to the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; however, with little time to flex its potential in this area. Taskmaster, mimicking our protagonist, provides some engaging fight sequences. Scarlett Johansson gifts us with her final act in showcasing her athletic ability as Black Widow, as we are treated to an array of complicated fight sequences. Though I do take issue with the CGI used whenever a character is mid-air or falling as they look incredibly animated and the movement doesn’t quite feel naturalistic.
Black Widow embraces the worldwide adventure story that it is as the film is shot in multiple locations around the world with all exhibiting different elements. These locations are used to set up some interesting action set pieces – whether it is an isolated prison in an avalanche or a high intensity car chase in Budapest. However, the film exhausted its real-world locations by the third act as we are subjected to an environment that feels far too common for the MCU – there was a higher potential to provide a more interesting location for this. Replacing Alexandre Desplat, Lorne Balfe was tasked with composing the score for Black Widow. He uses a blend of somber piano key pieces and string based ensembles which helps capture the darker tone this film is trying to achieve. While the score is different to what you’d be accustomed to hearing in MCU films it doesn’t stray too far from the Marvel tree where the act delves into more instrumental orchestra based tracks similar to what we hear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Mission successful? Yes, I think so. Black Widow may not tick all the boxes but it keeps its crosshairs focussed on doing the character of Natasha Romanoff justice, while introducing a new Widow that could potentially outshine Natasha herself, despite her legendary status as a founding Avenger.