Black Widow (2021)

Directed by Cate Shortland
Written by Eric Pearson

Where does Marvel go from here? After setting out on an industry changing journey in 2008 with Iron Man, Marvel went on to produce and release 20+ films, all interconnected, culminating in a singular achievement with Avengers: Endgame. Marvel has certainly had its detractors over the years, and many for the reason that the game-changing effects of the franchise on the way in which Hollywood now operates can be seen as a net negative. Add in the pandemic, and those changes seem to be accelerating, with streaming and limited series television seemingly taking away all the non-blockbuster programming from theaters. So where does Marvel go from here? With Endgame, they put a nice bow on the “Infinity Saga”, which saw Thanos, an indestructible space god, put the world and universe at risk. Where does Marvel go from here? Pre-pandemic, they did manage to release Spider-Man: Far From Home, a post-Endgame release which saw box office numbers drop. Heck, even I missed it in theaters partially due to Marvel fatigue. So where does Marvel go from here? I’ve asked that question four times now, and I sincerely mean it. After the accomplishment and stakes of the Infinity Saga, I don’t know where else there is to go. But revisiting a known to be dead character at a time between previous films seems like an odd choice to me.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), or Black Widow as she is better known as to fans, has had a complicated past, and one which we’ve gotten very little detail on. With Black Widow, director Cate Shortland gives us a look into what that past looks like, including spending time with her “family”, Romanoff was recruited and developed as a “Widow”, under the direction of Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a ruthless KGB manipulator who took orphan girls and turned them into killing machines. Still on the loose, Dreykov becomes the hunted as Natasha recruits her fellow “family” members to help bring down the monster responsible for all of their hardships. With her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), she helps break out their dad Alexei (David Harbour), or the Red Guardian, a Cold War era Russian rival to Captain America, and meet up with their mom Melina (Rachel Weisz), who still works for Dreykov. The team now assembled, they set out to defeat their foe, but must face a roadblock along the way in the form of Dreykov’s top agent Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko).

Timing is everything, and while Black Widow and Scarlett Johansson has deserved a stand alone film for a long time now, as one of the most beloved characters in the MCU, now, after her main timeline death, seems to be curious. Part of the charm of the character is her complicated, yet largely unknown past. The mystery of Natasha Romanoff, her shift from brainwashed KGB agent to Avenger is a good story, so I don’t fully understand the need to go back and fill in the details with this story. A separate adventure, showing her beat up some baddies and tie it in with some importance to the main storyline of the franchise? I’m here for it, but especially after all this time, Black Widow feels like a movie and story that is stale, and being told long past when it would have made a true impact. As a result, the films falls largely flat, and does nothing to get me excited about Phase Four of the MCU, and setting up the next overarching saga. And look, Kevin Feige and company pulled it off before, so maybe in 10 years I’ll look back and sing a different tune when it comes to Black Widow, but right now, it just feels unnecessary and tacked on.

That being said, there are a lot of elements of the film that are great and worth discussing. For instance, Scarlett Johansson, who has become one of the best actors of her generation, shines in the role once more. And the supporting cast is likewise very strong, in particular Florence Pugh who is a welcome addition to the MCU that I hope we will see much more of in the future. And given the character’s skills, the film plays as a pretty kick-ass action movie as well, with great fight scenes. The CGI perhaps showed a little to be desired given the high level of accomplishment in this field that we’ve seen before in the franchise, but perhaps my viewing experience at home on my television is cause for some of this concern. I would have loved to have the chance to see this on the big screen and see how it translates there instead.

Ultimately, this is a fine movie, and is buoyed largely by its strong central character which we’ve come to love, and the development of Yelena (Pugh) and the direction from Cate Shortland. Shortland is an Australian filmmaker who hasn’t done much, but in 2012 released one of my favorites films that year, Lore. I’ve been looking forward to seeing more of her and you can see her touch here on Black Widow, even as it operates under the corporate umbrella of Kevin Feige and team. But at the end of the day, my original question goes largely unanswered: where does Marvel go from here? Black Widow works as a stop-gap between the previous saga and the new, but I still have no sense of direction, no sense of which characters will break through and lead the new Avengers. We should get a lot of answers in the coming year, as films like Shang-Chi and Eternals are set to be released, each which has a great opportunity to set the stage for what is to come. As for Black Widow itself, fans will be entertained, and the character has deserved her own movie for a while now. But there is nothing here which will set it apart from anything else previously released, and realistically, I would rate it in the bottom third of MCU films to date.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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