Film Review: Black Widow (2021)

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone and Rachel Weisz

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Synopsis: On the run following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) returns to where her story began. Upon doing so, she must face the history and the horrors that shaped her into the assassin she became.

It’s been a long time coming, but Marvel Studios’ Black Widow is finally here, and after two years of prolonged build, it’s safe to say that Marvel’s fourth phase of films has began with a bang. Taking place in-between the events of Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow gives Scarlett Johansson her solo film in the MCU at the final hurdle, and her final outing as Natasha Romanoff delves deep into the questions pondered as far back as 2012’s The Avengers and 2015’s Age of Ultron, while simultaneously setting up for the future.

We begin in Ohio, 1995 in similar fashion to films from previous phases; we meet young Natasha Romanoff seemingly living a normal childhood with her sister and parents (the de-aged Harbour and Weisz). A happy family, we unsurprisingly learn soon enough that not all is as it seems, and it doesn’t take too long for young Natasha and Yelena to be taken to the harrowing Red Room, ran by the deplorable Dreykov (Winstone – he gives the accent his best shot) for experimentation and their ultimate duties. It’s upon and during their transportation where it’s made very clear Black Widow isn’t our typical MCU film. Alongside knowing the fate of the protagonist going into it, the most distinguishable sign that this is something different are the opening credits. That’s right, there are opening credits in a Marvel film, akin to what we’d see watching Bond, with Think Up Anger and Malia J’s sombre cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” soundtracking the journey. There’s an additional Bond reference later in the film, and fans of Roger Moore’s films should be quite pleased.

Knowing that we were confirmed to lose one assassin upon the end of this film, while saying goodbye to Romanoff with it, Black Widow successfully brings into the spotlight her sister, Yelena Belova – who is very impressively played by Pugh – and it certainly appears there’s a bright future ahead for her in these films. One minor criticism you might have coming out of the cinema is that while this gives us the long-awaited backstory of Romanoff and finally tells us what happened in Budapest (or rather Budapesht?), at times this does feel like more of a vehicle to introduce Yelena. Regardless, if Pugh can continue to superbly blend humour, emotion and fire for the rest of her time in the MCU, we should find ourselves happy that this film was executed in the manner it was. The only downside heading out of it and into the rest of her story is that we won’t see anymore of her palpable chemistry with Johansson – or Johansson’s chemistry with any of her cast-mates, for that matter. The two work brilliantly with their estranged ‘father’ Alexei, and David Harbour thrives in the role of a slovenly, ignorant imbecile, albeit one with Steve Rogers-level strength.

Already a departure from the norm, it’s no surprise that even though the action sequences are perfectly fine, choreographed magnificently in fact, this film that already leans towards the Bond and Bourne films takes an extra page from them with instances of slow motion and at-times cliché dialogue. The latter is hopefully something that will be corrected upon in future films written by Eric Pearson and directed by Shortland, but while I’d prefer these films to stray away from slow-mo, I can appreciate them staying true to staples of the spy genre.
One aspect of the spy genre that isn’t utilised to the full, however, is Lorne Balfe’s score. The initial trailer (way back in 2019) suggested a fantastic one with JNUARY’S “Replica”, and while there admittedly isn’t anything quite as mint as that, Balfe’s efforts are solid if bound to be a touch unmemorable. What’s been particularly noticeable in recent Marvel films music-wise is the increased use of commercial songs, and that continues here with the use of Don McLean’s “American Pie”, which nicely highlights the facade being lived by this ‘family’ in the opening as well as echoing Johansson’s farewell with the song’s final line.

Of course, the delay for this one due to the pandemic has allowed Phase Four to take shape away from the silver screen thanks to the three television series that were pushed forward on Disney+. WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki were (and are) thoroughly entertaining if a little imperfect in areas – some episodes are a little too short for my liking – but their importance was never to be understated given Kevin Feige’s comments that they’d lead into the feature films. Those comments have been justified now, considering they way Black Widow links into a fascinating aspect of one of them, and given the way it has done, it makes paying attention to the Disney+ series’ all the more important.

Equally a solo film answering questions perpetually asked about Natasha Romanoff and a solid introduction for the character set to replace her within the MCU, Black Widow is an enjoyable watch that nicely wraps up a character arc, while exciting us for the future all the while. Was it worth the two year wait following Spider-Man: Far From Home? Not to the degree that Avengers: Endgame was after what felt like a decade from the moment Infinity War ended, but where the penultimate film of Phase Three left me satisfied to the extent I’d have been fine never watching another Superhero film, now this one has ended September 3rd and Shang-Chi can’t come quick enough. So I think Black Widow serves its purpose fantastically.

Rating: 3.5/5

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