A film about Natasha Romanoff in her quests between the films Civil War and Infinity War. (from IMDB)
Now over a year since its originally planned release of May 2020, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is here: Black Widow. This prequel/sequel of sorts follows in the wake of 2016's Avengers fallout, Captain America: Civil War, with the super spy Black Widow on the run from General Ross and his team as they try to apprehend Natasha Romanoff for violating the newfound Sokovia Accords. Black Widow serves as somewhat of a bridge between Civil War and 2018's Avengers: Infinity War, without it necessarily leading right up to the events of that film.
Ever since being introduced in 2010's Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson's Natasha had slowly become a significant part of the Avengers team, even if she hadn't had any special superpowers or anything. (But that didn't stop her from kicking butt.) By Avengers: Endgame, she had arguably become the heart of the Avengers, and her ultimate sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame became the topic of much controversy. Whether or not it was already part of the grand plan for the movies is unknown, but Marvel made sure to appease fans by granting Natasha her own solo movie in the wake of her retirement in Endgame, and Black Widow is the end result.
Black Widow is a unique Marvel film because it's actually different than most of the Marvel entries so far. If there's a film that it comes close to, however, it's definitely 2014's Captain America: Winter Soldier, in which Natasha actually played a significant role. But Black Widow takes the spy fugitive traits of that film and makes an entire movie out of it. This movie answers the question of what a Marvel movie might be like if it emulated a James Bond or Jason Bourne film. And even though it even contains actors from both franchises (and even shows Natasha watching a Bond film at one point), it just naturally captures that globe-trotting, undercover secret agent feel that those modern spy films deliver.
Although this is Black Widow's story, she's not alone. The opening scenes give some back story about her upbringing, and we're introduced to new characters that served as Natasha's undercover family in 1995. We meet her little "sister," Yelena, who ends up playing a significant role in the rest of the story, as the two reunite as adults, with Yelena played by rising star Florence Pugh. And like any Bond, Bourne, or Marvel film, things turn into a kind of group effort. Without spoiling the story and surprises within, Black Widow's entourage includes Stranger Things' David Harbour as Alexi - AKA The Red Guardian, and Rachel Weisz as Melina. Harbour provides much of the film's comic relief without overdoing it, and he's a real highlight of the film. Pugh is also surprisingly great as Yelena, and also is one of the best parts of the film. (I say "surprisingly" because I couldn't stand her character in the recent adaptation of Little Women.) In fact, most of the characters around Scarlett's seem to naturally upstage her a bit - in presence and character. But as much as I do like her as an actress, Scarlett has never been a big leading lady kind of star. She definitely does her best here as Natasha, and does turn in a good performance with memorable moments, but it's really the sum of the characters in the film that make Black Widow work as well as it does.
I also have to say that Ray Winstone works well as the film's central villain, Dreykov. I've hated him in nearly everything I've ever seen him in - especially Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but he plays Dreykov right here. I actually would have loved to have seen a character like Kenneth Branagh's Sator from Tenet as the villain here, but Winstone does his best to provide a foe that is similar in size and subtleties (and subtlety has never been Winstone's strong suit).
The pacing and feel of Black Widow is a little schizophrenic, which is almost the film's undoing. It often feels grounded and gritty when the chase is on, but then the film balloons into these over-the-top effects-drenched action scenes where non-superhero character accomplish the impossible with near ease, evading disaster at usually the last possible second. For example, a prison sequence unfolds into an avalanche that threatens the lives of hundreds of people in the valley below. And the film's climax is a bit overlong and a sort of rehash of Winder Soldier at times, with the impossible happening over and over again. It doesn't sink the film, especially because there are so many highlight moments before the big finish, but it is unfortunate. I would have loved to have seen the movie keep things more grounded instead of catering to what one might expect from a Marvel superhero movie. (Again, Natasha isn't a "superhero," so try to imagine Bourne or Bond doing much of what you see in the climax and you'll see what I mean.)
The content is pretty rough for a PG-13 Marvel movie. They clearly aren't catering to the younger audience for this movie. While it's still pretty clean when it comes to sexual content (there are just some subtle remarks from Alexi about Melina, and Yelena's blunt descriptions of how the Widows' reproductive organs had been torn out), the violence is upped a few notches, matching what you'd expect from the more mature Jason Bourne movies. The first time we meet Pugh's Yelena, she's slashing an agent with a knife, and then stabs them in the stomach, twisting the blade in a really violent motion. The censors must have had a say, however, as the victim's clothes only ever look "wet" and not soaked in blood as you would expect. Another scene shows a big man losing in an arm-wrestling contest with Alexi, where Alexi shatters the man's wrist and we see it limply hanging at the end of his forearm for a moment. Another scene shows a person fall from a building and land on the ground with a visibly broken knee (the leg is bent the wrong way, and we see this a couple times), and then they commit suicide by zapping themselves in the face and we see half of their face is charred. A lot of the action involves cuts and blood on faces, and we see a few views of a person's deformed face with dramatic burn scars on them. The climax also shows a lot of violent fighting, with stabbings, hand-to-hand violence, and more. It's not a light action movie by any means.
When all is said and done, though, Black Widow is another solid entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While it's unknown where the Marvel movie universe will be going from here (and how much will be marred by the growing tension in social politics), it's safe to say that the Infinity Saga is a pretty good batch of 24 films (I realize Black Widow is technically part of "Phase Four," but it fits in the first three phases of movies nicely), and continues Marvel's cinematic winning streak.
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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