After a year of constant pushbacks and delays thanks to COVID-19 shutdowns, Marvel Studios finally returned to the big screen this past weekend with the much-anticipated release of its latest film, “Black Widow.”
Directed by Cate Shortland, the film is emblematic of a James Bond-style spy thriller, with loaded action sequences and impressive character development for its leading protagonists. Coupled with Marvel’s classic, witty humor, the movie represents a strong debut for “Phase Four” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Set after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” the movie follows Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) as she attempts to evade the law, while grappling with the haunting shadows of her past. Forced to reunite with her childhood stunt family comprised of “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), “mother” Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), and “father” Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour), Romanoff aims to clear the red from her ledger once and for all, fighting to take down evil Russian boss Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and his Red Room espionage program.
The film does a great job exploring Romanoff’s early history and providing fans with insight into her work as a Black Widow assassin working under Dreykov. Long shrouded in mystery, Romanoff’s backstory has never received the attention it truly deserved, with here-and-there references to the character’s past over the years.
In “Black Widow,” however, Romanoff’s past finally gets the limelight, as the film adequately details the important moments that allowed her to grow into the Avenger she is.
One of the most significant themes of the film is the importance of family. To take down Dreykov, Romanoff must first look to the past to heal the fractures of her stunt family. Even as she repeatedly tells herself the whole thing was just a charade, Romanoff can’t shake the love and compassion she developed in those early years for her fake family. In the end, this realization helps her repair the damage to not only her stunt family, but also later her Avengers family.
While Johansson’s performance was excellent as usual, the breakout star of the film was Florence Pugh. Not only did she seamlessly transition into the role of Yelena Belova, I found myself thoroughly invested in her story. At times, her arc was much more compelling than the leading character’s. Irrespective of the scene or circumstance, Pugh’s performance stole the show and made me excited to see what Marvel has in store for her.
The film did have some weaknesses, however. After 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” Marvel fans headed into “Black Widow” well aware of Natasha Romanoff’s ultimate fate. While the movie does a great job at further expanding Romanoff’s story, her legacy would have been better served if the film were made prior to “Endgame’s” release.
Watching “Black Widow” before seeing her sacrificial demise in “Endgame” would have made the emotional impact of her death much more meaningful. It would have also brought her character arc full circle without having to jump backward after “Endgame.”
Additionally, the film handled the character of Taskmaster poorly, rewriting the character with an entirely different backstory from what we see in the Marvel comics. Moreover, the franchise changed Taskmaster’s gender, replacing the man from the comics with a woman in the role of Dreykov’s daughter. While I don’t have a problem with the MCU altering certain characteristics in their adaptations, to completely disregard Taskmaster’s comic origins feels like a disservice to the comic writers who spent years establishing the character.
Overall, “Black Widow” is an action-packed spy thriller that makes for an excellent return to the big screen for Marvel Studios. In many ways, the film marks a passing of the Black Widow mantel from Johansson to Pugh, setting up an exciting future for the character of Yelena Belova. While an earlier release would’ve added more emotional weight to Romanoff’s final actions in “Avengers: Endgame,” the film does a superb job providing the character with the solo movie she has so long deserved.
Fans can catch “Black Widow” in theaters now or on Disney Plus with Premier Access.