After suffering unrelenting delays from its original May 2020 release date, Black Widow has finally arrived. While it certainly was not one of the most high-profile hype-type movies that Marvel Studios has put out, the film found itself in a very unique situation where the long wait and shuffling project release dates led to countless trailers, featurettes, interviews, and plot leaks along the way. The result is a release that felt somewhat stale, yet had the force of being the first MCU film in two years and the first feature film of Phase 4. Take out the cumbersome surrounding circumstances the film had to dance through, the movie itself is an above par solo outing that finally gives a proper rendition of the MCU’s first female superhero. Black Widow is not without its flaws, however, and the film particularly loses momentum in its final third. Overall, though, it is packed with action, brought an impressive cast of characters, and drives through the plot heart-first in a way that gives the story a harder-hitting purpose without (for the most part) turning mawkish.
One thing that still stands out is that the audience is never given a true briefing on Natasha Romanoff’s history as a Black Widow pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. There is certainly more alluded to in Black Widow, but generally the film assumes that the viewer has a steady grasp of the relatively fleeting kernels of knowledge they’ve received on that incrementally since 2010. But oh how far we have come since Iron Man 2. Making her MCU debut as essentially a bombshell who can fight, the character has developed in a much more desirable way leading up to her finale in Avengers: Endgame. Black Widow wants to fill the void that is the MCU between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. In doing so, the movie has to balance a desire for very aggressive and important character development with the knowledge that this is Nat’s last hurrah. Consequently, there are overt tactics used to make us think “oh man, we’re really going to miss her.” But the film still plays out as a genuine and self-contained story—rather than forcing Black Widow on the audience for the fun of it, the 24th MCU movie arguably just gave the character an open canvas to realize her feature potential without much difficulty.
The film opens with Natasha freshly on the run after the events of Civil War. Despite this in the background, the whole story of Black Widow stems from a three-year period of time wherein young Natasha and staged little sister Yelena Belova were part of an undercover Russian family playing American in Ohio in the 1990s. Their “parents” were supersoldier “Red Guardian” Alexei Shostakov and scientist and Black Widow Melina Vostokoff. After their return to Russia, the family goes separate ways, and Natasha and Yelena are sent separately through the Black Widow program. While reflecting on her parallel feelings surrounding the Avengers break-up, she is forcefully reunited with Yelena, who has just recently broken free of chemical mind control as a Black Widow. By attempting to hide the mind control antidote with Natasha, the two inadvertently end up in the same cross-hairs of the mysterious and foreboding villain, Taskmaster, and hatch a plan to take down the Red Room and its leader Dreykov. While both women were notably successful and prolific assassins, the real “red ledger” focus on Natasha in the movie is her supposed murder of Dreykov’s young daughter in her assassination attempt on him as part of her entrance to S.H.I.E.L.D.
From here, the plot is relatively predictable and straightforward. The real work in Black Widow comes from the characters. As the original “family” reunites, it is obvious how strong the chemistry between the four is, but Natasha and Yelena’s relationship definitely shines brighter than any other. Natasha is ultimately arguably the most ordinary, or perhaps, mentally balanced of any of the primary characters. She’s serious, practical, morally upright, and goal-oriented. Yelena is similar, but she is still so close to her mind-controlled Black Widow past that she is much rougher around the edges. Still, her dry sense of humor and proclivity to make light of serious situations makes her extremely likable without diminishing her edge. Alexei is almost entirely a gag both as a washed-up Russian superhero who fantasizes about being superior to a Captain America who knows nothing about him and a terrible goofy father figure. Melina is so deadpan that at times the character comes close to being bland, but her flatly delivered humor lands at the right moments and does well to complete and balance the quad of characters.
While the events of Civil War are major plot points in the MCU at large, they serve mostly as thematic backdrop for Black Widow’s focus on family, belonging, and friendship. While we knew Natasha had previously said that she had no family until the Avengers, the movie spotlights just how important the concept of family is to her. Obviously, she realizes she had another family in the form of the brief staged one in Ohio, but if anything, it all circles back to her place as an Avenger. There are absolutely constant references and jokes about her being an Avenger. We know that we will not be seeing Natasha with her Russian family again, and ultimately we know she dies sacrificing herself for her Avengers family (and of course the universe). So, the parallels the film draws between the Avengers and the Russians arguably mainly bolster Nat’s character as an individual worthy of being an Avenger—despite her past, she still has heart and compassion for those close to her, particularly teammates. The struggles of the Russians—particularly Yelena—as isolated individuals lacking true connection and meaningful relationships is a mirror for past Natasha, and they reflect the gradual journey she has had since Iron Man 2. The reunion of the Russian characters is really the product of Natasha’s nature in this way, and her processing of the Russian family’s 1995 break-up and the Avengers’ 2016 break-up propels her character into one with more depth and emotion to lock on to in her superhero context.
For that reason alone, it is a bit frustrating that this movie was released as a prequel to Infinity War and Endgame. Her death in the latter would have packed more of a punch had Black Widow already been released. It also would have provided some post-Civil War plot substance that the MCU truly lacked. Even though Black Widow did not technically start MCU’s Phase 4, it is a little odd that the first film of the Phase would be a prequel. Still, it is nice that there was some Civil War to Infinity War gap acknowledgment, and the movie was able to stir up enough emotion by using Natasha’s upcoming death to its advantage at times.
Where the film was strong in characters, theme, and emotion, it was strong in roughly the first two-thirds of the runtime. The final act fell a bit flat. For one reason, the villains were ultimately disappointing. Dreykov had little screen time and was more of a concept throughout the movie, and Taskmaster was completely underutilized. The Taskmaster reveal as Dreykov’s daughter that Natasha almost killed was tepid and made it a bit too easy for her to redeem her entire character. Yes, she is an Avenger, but she is also Black Widow and a former assassin—it was not particularly necessary to absolve her of the sins that make her character strong in the first place. The theme starts to shift here as well, and becomes more about the heinousness of the Black Widow program. The story was always geared towards ending the Red Room, but the transition from family-focus to Widow-focus was not seamless. Still, the ultimate crime was probably the underutilization of Taskmaster. An extremely interesting concept—they can mimic any fighting style or ability that they watch, including Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Panther, etc.—is only pulled out for relatively brief scenes. While the hand-to-hand combat and action inBlack Widowis impressive, it could have really been taken up a notch if the Taskmaster ultimately had a larger role, even if just as a fighter. Lastly, the scene where the Red Room is falling out of the sky felt overdone and out of place with maybe subpar visual effects.
The post-credits scene delightfully re-introduces Valentina Allegra de Fontaine from her The Falcon and the Winter Soldier debut and sets up Yelena as a future major character. Florence Pugh’s performance as Yelena was definitely a highlight of Black Widow, so it is exciting to know she will be seen more down the road. It also sets up her involvement in the upcoming Hawkeye series. The connections being drawn between the worlds of the notoriously two “lamest” Avengers will hopefully allow their respective stories to grow and develop in much more exciting ways.
At the end of the day, Black Widow is a truly enjoyable solo movie, and Natasha Romanoff very deservedly gets to leave the MCU in stardom fashion. The film delivers the type of action we would expect to see with Black Widow, but it also brings in delightful characters with genuine chemistry who actually anchor the movie and will likely be what viewers remember most. The emotional heart that was weaved throughout the film overall played out harmoniously and enhanced the story, though it cannot be fully ignored that at times—particularly towards the end—it could come off as pretty corny. While the final act and villains left enough to be desired, Black Widow ultimately deserves ample acclaim as an exciting, entertaining, and satisfying solo outing and final bow for such a major character.