Movie Review: Black Widow
By Matthew Huntley
August 12, 2021
Of all the major Avengers characters within the ever-expanding Marvel Comics Universe, Black Widow has always been one of the most elusive, and, by extension, one of the most uninteresting (or at least uninteresting compared to, say, Iron Man, Hawkeye, or Wanda). Despite her constant presence and substantial roles in various “Avengers”-associated movies such as “Iron Man 2” (her first appearance), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and of course “Avengers: Endgame,” during which (*spoiler alert*) she sacrificed herself, Black Widow’s complexity has always been kept at bay and she has therefore come across more as a device than a full-fledged character.
You can imagine my excitement, then, going into “Black Widow,” because I assumed an origin story would finally flesh out this troubled soul and I would finally get to learn who she was, what made her tick, and how her past forged her into the formidable heroine she’d one day become. And while the movie does arguably develop Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff, and fulfills its obligation to give her a backstory, it still leaves much to be desired, because what it gives us feels, well, obligatory, as opposed to genuine. The movie has a “let’s just give the audience something” sort of vibe instead of a “let’s really think about this character and expand upon what viewers already know” sensibility. In the end, we may technically know more about Black Widow, but we’re not exactly engaged by her.
Admittedly, my perspective comes after seeing (just as most viewers likely will have) all the “Avengers” movies — ensemble and individual — and expecting each to be of high caliber narrative-wise and to possess superior entertainment value. And yet, I also know that, with their like structures and shared characters, not every MCU movie can be special in and of itself. Nevertheless, even though “Black Widow” shares the same narrative formula as its brethren — it certainly meets the criteria of a Marvel superhero movie — I anticipated it being deeper and more fulfilling than this.
One of the issues is the plot, which, instead of being based on what would probably have been a sounder and more compelling comic book storyline, feels borrowed from standard action movie fare. Watching it, I couldn’t help recalling other female assassin films such as “La Femme Nikita,” “Hannah,” and “Salt.” And even though the Black Widow character debuted in Marvel Comics decades before, making it possible these aforementioned films rehashed her instead of the other way around, it still would have been in the best interest of screenwriter Eric Pearson, working from a story by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, and director Cate Shortland to think of something more original for her to do other than perform death-defying stunts and embark on a mission take down a ruthless bad guy. We’ve experienced this plot one too many times before.
The story opens during a flashback, in 1985 Ohio, where a young Natasha (Ever Anderson) looks and acts just like any other kid, riding her bike on a quiet, serene street. Even though she appears playful, tomboyish, and carefree to her younger sister Yelena (Violet McCraw), Natasha is aware of a painful truth: her family, which also includes dad Alexei (David Harbour) and mom Melina (Rachel Weisz), is a ruse.
Mere minutes after the movie introduces us to Natasha and Yelena’s idyllic childhood, we learn Alexei is a Russian super-soldier named Red Guardian and Melina is a scientist and Black Widow—the name given to elite Russian female assassins who have graduated from the Red Room, a Soviet brainwashing and training program that takes non-consenting girls from their homes and families and to turns them into professional killers.
The Red Room is headed by the evil General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who, like so many megalomaniacs in action movies of this sort, is angry and despotic for reasons that aren’t fully explained. He prides himself on using his Widows to “control the scales of power…to start and end wars,” and after Alexei and Melina complete their mission in the U.S.—which was to steal intel from S.H.I.E.L.D. (the intelligence agency the Avengers report to)—Dreykov disbands their surrogate family.
Natasha, however, is old and mature enough to know what this means—that she and Yelena will now be forced to spend their formative years training to become Black Widows, have their physical bodies manipulated, and be robbed of their free will. And after having tasted normalcy in suburban America, Natasha isn’t about to take her new orders lying down. Eventually, she attempts to take out Dreykov, though she’s ultimately unsuccessful, and defects to S.H.I.E.L.D.
Flash forward to 2016 and Natasha has become Black Widow as we know her, with this solo adventure taking place between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War” as far as the overarching “Avengers” timeline goes. Basically, if the other Avengers in “Infinity War” were to ask Black Widow what she’s been up to recently, her answer would be the events of this movie.
But I’d imagine their interest in her story would be somewhat muted, because the events of “Black Widow” are nothing to write home about. The movie is traditional for the genre in that there are about four or five extravagant action sequences, comprised of the usual assortment of car chases; hand-to-hand combat scenes on the streets of foreign cities; aircraft rescues; dives across buildings; and countdowns to big explosions.
In between the stunts and special effects are the quieter, character-driven moments, including many with Natasha and the remorseful older Yelena (Florence Pugh), whose discovery of an antidote to Red Room’s brainwashing agent spurs much of the plot. Pearson’s screenplay also explores the idea that although Alexei, Melina, Natasha, and Yelena were recruited and ordered to be a family, that it was part of their job, they still formed real bonds with one another, making their reunion and present collective mission, which is take down Dreykov and thwart his take-over-the-world scheme, both professional and personal.
To be sure, “Black Widow” is always watchable. It’s exciting and entertaining in the sense that it holds our attention and feels familiar, and the actors provide their characters enough weight, nuance, and humor that makes us like them and care about what happens to them, even if it’s easy to guess.
However, the phrase that keeps popping into my head when I think about “Black Widow” is “merely adequate,” and at this point in MCU’s cinematic existence, “merely adequate” just doesn’t cut it and it unfortunately doesn’t translate into “worthy of a recommendation.” Had the movie prioritized its substance over its mostly routine action scenes, it could have amounted to something more distinct and meaningful.
In fact, some scenes and developments suggest that it might, such as when Alexei and Melina attempt to make heartfelt apologies to their surrogate daughters for abandoning them. Or Natasha and Yelena wrestling with the validity of their memories from a fabricated childhood. There’s also Natasha expressing remorse for disfiguring Dreykov’s daughter, Antonia (Olga Kurylenko), whom he has programmed to be the powerful super-agent known as Taskmaster. This latter development could have been leveraged further to make the Dreykov character better-rounded and more dimensional, but the movie chooses to water him down to common nationalistic tyrant.
Overall, “Black Widow” just sort of rolls out the way we expect, both in terms of its action and the movie serving as an MCU origin story. It flaunts its budget and provides its heroine enough history and context for us to know where she came from and how she came to be, plugging some additional narrative holes in the grander MCU saga here and there. But we walk away from it thinking it simply got the job done passably instead of believing it went beyond its call of duty and tried to do its job exceptionally. It’s too bad, because after what happens to Black Widow in “Endgame,” there’s probably not much reason for this character to get a picture all to herself again anytime soon, and so the great “Black Widow” movie remains to be made.