Marvel’s BLACK WIDOW review by Mark Walters – Scarlett Johansson finally gets a solo film

Marvel’s BLACK WIDOW review by Mark Walters – Scarlett Johansson finally gets a solo film

We’re going to assume by now you’ve seen AVENGERS: ENDGAME, and know that Black Widow didn’t survive the events of that film. In fact she and Tony Stark / Iron Man both perished while attempting to undo what Thanos did. So it was a bit of a surprise when rumors started flying that a BLACK WIDOW movie would be one of the next big films from Marvel Studios… in fact, it was a bit strange as for the longest time Marvel hadn’t “officially” announced it, so it was only a rumor for several months. But then it was very much real, and thanks to Covid it was very much delayed… multiple times. Directed by Cate Shortland (BERLIN SYNDROME), the cast includes Scarlett Johansson (as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour (as Alexei Shostakov / Red Guardian), William Hurt (back as Thaddeus Ross), Ray Winstone and O-T Fagbenle. So was it worth the wait, or too little too late?

The film opens with a flashback, something becoming a frequent trope of Marvel Studios films, this time showing a young Natasha and her sister Yelena living with surrogate parents (played by Rachel Weisz and David Harbour) in suburban America, but told they quickly have to leave as apparently their cover has been blown. This means the girls will be taken to the “Red Room” to be raised while their “parents” will be given other jobs… in short, the “family” life is over. Cut to several years later, and we’re now in the time following the events of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, with Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) being a fugitive on the run, living in secret with her friend and resourceful assistant Mason (O-T Fagbenle). Her estranged sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) is living in Russia under the control of Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who runs the Red Room, and sends his “Widows” out on assassination missions. Little do these young ladies know they’re being controlled against their will and awareness by way of high-tech DNA manipulation. On her latest mission to capture and kill an escaped Widow, Yelena is caught off guard when her target unleashes a gas that brings Yelena out of her brainwashed state, and helps her understand that all of the Red Room Widows were being forced to follow orders. Natasha eventually makes her way to Yelena, and now they must work together in an attempt to free the other Widows and bring down the Red Room once and for all, and to do so they’ll call upon their former surrogate parents, now older and very different. Dreykov has a secret weapon too in the form of a cybernetically-enhanced killing machine called “Taskmaster”, that can emulate any fighting style it witnesses.

If you’re looking for standard superhero fare then BLACK WIDOW will likely disappoint you, but if you’re into spy thrillers and espionage then this will surely satisfy. The film almost feels like a James Bond entry, so much so that there’s even a scene in it where they’re watching 007 on the TV, sort of a self-referential nod that the filmmakers know exactly what kind of movie they’re making. Director Cate Shortland excels with the characters, really delivering great moments for the actors and great chemistry between them. The bickering sister dynamic between Yelena and Natasha is quite fun and entertaining, and keeps the production from feeling like it’s taking itself too seriously. While Scarlett Johansson is quite good in the lead, we’ve seen her play this character so much now that it feels basically like an extension of what came before it. There’s nothing shockingly new or surprising here, but if you liked her in the previous films then you’ll likely find her equally enjoyable here.

The two biggest treats in the movie are Florence Pugh and David Harbour. Pugh’s characterization of Yelena is extremely endearing and at times quite amusing. Harbour is hilarious and charming as The Red Guardian, a sort of failed Russian answer to Captain America that never became what he hoped to be, but finds a second chance in his efforts to help his pretend daughters and rejoining with his surrogate family. Rachel Weisz sadly isn’t given as much to do, and her character ends up feeling a tad underwritten. The same fate falls on Ray Winstone, who as a villain isn’t terribly strong or well-developed… this is a frequent problem in the Marvel movies, which is surprising as the comic book villains on the page are usually often great. Winstone’s Dreykov feels like a cookie cutter bad guy going through the motions, given a somewhat personal motivation late in the film, but it’s just not strong enough of a plot twist to make him memorable or iconic. O-T Fagbenle as Mason is another character that felt like it needed more to do, as when he’s on screen he’s very enjoyable, but his time in the story seems very limited and at times rushed. The character of Taskmaster, another fan-favorite of the comics, is visually cool and impressive, but again not given much substance beyond what’s there in the fight scenes.

The action sequences are intense and exciting, but for some they might pale in comparison to the magic-filled battles of THE AVENGERS movies, or other Marvel cinematic fare. Again, prep for a spy thriller and NOT a superhero movie and you should be fine. Perhaps my only major complaint about BLACK WIDOW is its run time, which is a hair long at two hours and 13 minutes, but what is there is quite entertaining. Also understand, this movie was made for a very specific reason, and that was to introduce and establish elements that will play an important role in the future of Marvel movies. There is a mid-credit scene that very much speaks to that. While I like the character of Black Widow, this does sort of feel like too little too late, and compared to some of the other Marvel movies it’s so much more grounded in reality, which I don’t think is a bad thing but can’t help but wonder if it might be underwhelming to most moviegoers. It’s also interesting that while there are definite connections to previous Marvel films, this production feels very much like its own movie – its own story that doesn’t rely on other stories or other character to tell its tale. I liked BLACK WIDOW, probably enough to see it again, but I also don’t think I’d rank it very high on the overall list of Marvel films. That said, even an ‘average’ Marvel movie is still more impressive (usually) than most Hollywood blockbuster entries these days.

Here’s is my review presented on this week’s episode of THE BIG FILM SHOW:

BLACK WIDOW opens in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9, 2021

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.