[Review] Black Widow (2021) by Marcus Wilturner

Since her comic book debut in 1964, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. The Black Widow has grown from duplicitous spy to double agent to the ultimate superhero. Starting off as a villain against Tony Stark, her character quickly switched sides, defecting from Russia to the United States and became affiliated with nearly every team and organization you can think of, mostly calling S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers her home.

Whenever there was mysterious conspiracies afoot or the occasional need to save the country OR the world, The Widow was right in the thick of it. Because of this, she’s evolved to one of the premiere, long-standing characters in Marvel and comics as a generational medium. So when it was time to bring a founding heroine into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Kevin Feige sought to shift the super-spy from comic panels into adaptation territory. Hence her live-action debut in Iron Man 2 (2010).

Even though the casting of Scarlett Johansson was not the choice many would’ve made, myself included (Emily Blunt was my choice for years), it remained a strong debut nevertheless. While a bit over-sexualized to appease horny and sexually frustrated fans, Scarjo’s showing captured the mystique of the character well, and easily became one of the best parts of the infamous sequel.

With the debut landing strong, Widow was featured in plenty of MCU films, each story adding layers to the spy’s goals and convictions, giving Scarlett plenty to work with in turning her into a full-fledged, three dimensional character. Soon, her portrayal silenced the haters and made doubtful fans warm up towards the depiction significantly. Once that happened the collective fanbase couldn’t help but throw this query to Feige and the rest of the studio; “Where is Natasha’s solo film?” At that point, nearly all the original avengers and new blood got a film; Thor, Cap, T’Challa, Ant-Man, Strange, The Guardians, and even the difficult-to-land-because-of-sony-rights Spidey.  Everyone except for her. Needless to say, this sin needed to be rectified.

Well after years of developmental stagnation, build-up, buzz, work, delays because of the pandemic, and even the character’s onscreen death, The Widow’s solo project is finally released. Better late than never I suppose.

After the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), Natasha is on the run from Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after violating the Sokovia Accords with Cap and his team. Once getting to another country free from Ross’ jurisdiction, she tries to lay low, but is attacked by an assassin who can mimic her AND the other avengers’ moves in bizarrely seamless fashion (TASKMASTER!) After barely escaping, Nat discovers the assassin’s true target was a mysterious dust sent by her estranged sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). Soon, she tracks down Yelena and learns that the dreaded Red Room, a secret soviet facility responsible for training highly specialized spies, is still active, and using mind control to produce deadlier and more subservient Black Widows. After rescuing their imprisoned “Father” Alexei Shostakov a.k.a. The Red Guardian, (David Harbour) the trio set out to destroy the facility and kill the man responsible for the entire program; General Dreykov. (Ray Winstone).

Unlike other connected films involving a singular character, Widow’s tale is essentially about her traumatic past, coming to terms with the decisions and mistakes made on the path to becoming an Avenger. There’s even an examination on how hypocritical it is that she’s even a hero to begin with, considering her red ledger origins (and the ridiculous posing). Because of this, there’s a level of confusion, uncertainty, and even vulnerability on display with her, something we’ve only seen glimpses of in past films. And it works in adding another very personal layer to the character’s identity and overall development.

While this is about Widow’s past coming to light, it’s also a reveal on the harsh realities of the Red Room and what it’s like to be forced into a dangerous life of deception, espionage, and death. Human trafficking, kidnapping, torture, executions, psychological conditioning, and even invasive surgery are just some of the methods used by the program for establishing control over helpless victims and vying for dominance over the world. You could tell Marvel Studios, director Cate Shortland, and writer Eric Pearson wanted to push the boundaries a bit with the PG-13 rating and showcase the maturity of the story. They succeeded in more ways than a dozen.

When it comes to the action, the formula is a bit shifted this time around. Grounded, nearly free of the grandiosity and spectacle we know the studio for so well (Save the exciting third act), yet keeps the thrills exhilarating and more brutal than expected. Since this is a spy actioner, there’s also clear influences from the greats; James Bond, Ethan Hunt, and even the old-school ferocity of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) thrown in for good measure. Definitely an area this film shines in.

Another shining factor is the performances. While nearly everyone was solid, unsurprisingly enough the highlights were Pugh’s layered turn as the spunky, sarcastic, and deadly Yelena and Harbour’s strong yet selfishly flawed Alexei. Everyone’s chemistry was on-point with Johannson acting as the driving force of the entire affair. Being no stranger to leading a film, and as mentioned crafting this character since the debut long ago, she handled everything like the pro she’s been for years.

On the negative side of the spy game, the special effects were a bit iffy in parts. Could’ve used a bit more fine tuning. Also Ray Winstone wasn’t as imposing of a main baddie as he needed to be. Definitely one of the weaker antagonists in the Marvel catalog. Not his fault as he wasn’t given much to do in the grand scheme of things. Also considering this story takes place in-between Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) it honestly should’ve been released chronologically. Seriously. It should not have taken this long for this tale to be made.

Bottom line, even with the better-late-than-never circumstances, the Black Widow’s cinematic swan song is easily one of the MCU’s finest solo entries. Gripping, engaging, fast-paced, poignant, tragic, and packed with emotional growth, this is a great summer fare that checks all the boxes and reminds an anxiously returning audience that Marvel can still deliver the goods on the big screen as much as it’s currently delivering on the small screen. With Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), What If …? (2021) and Eternals (2021) around the corner,  Phase 4 is officially underway! And it is implicitly marvelous. Nuff Said.

Rating:

Review written by Marcus Wilturner.

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