Before she was saving the world with Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Captain America, founding Avenger and kick-ass spy Black Widow (aka Natasha Romanoff) was…well, what was she doing? It’s a question that Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fans have been asking since Black Widow made her franchise debut in Iron Man 2 (2010). Her past was shrouded in mystery, making her the ideal character for a solo spin off movie, and Scarlett Johansson brought such strength and emotional depth to the character that we couldn’t help but ask for more. A Black Widow movie couldn’t just be an exposition on the character’s past. It needed to give her the chance to stand in the spotlight and get some much-deserved screen time. It needed to be unique, action-packed, and emotionally satisfying. It needed to add meaning to the character and allow fans to appreciate Black Widow’s role in other MCU movies even more. As fans waited years for such a movie, these expectations only grew. After one extra year of waiting due to the pandemic, MCU fans will finally get what they’ve been waiting for on July 9, 2021. The question is, does Black Widow live up to years of fan expectations?
First and foremost, I’d say the studio made the right decision to postpone the release until theaters could open safely. Although Black Widow is years overdue, it’s important enough to warrant a postponed cinematic release. It’s not that Black Widow is a groundbreaking action flick that can only be appreciated fully on a giant screen, but there’s something to say for the experience of seeing such a highly anticipated movie in a dark theater, away from the distractions of home and surrounded by eager Marvel fans. The jokes are funnier when you laugh at them with a crowd. The plot twists are more surprising when you experience them alongside members of the fandom. Black Widow is more culturally significant than cinematically artful, and seeing the movie in a theater (especially after theaters have been closed for so long) allows you to take part in a significant moment in entertainment history.
Now, for the movie itself. Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Black Widow, who is forced to relive personal traumas and question her identity as a power-hungry figure from her past seeks world domination. She’s joined by three spies who each played a significant role in her training as an assassin: Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), and Alexi Shostakov (David Harbour). While the foursome share a common past, the last 20 years have taken them on very different paths. Tensions run high as they seek to find common ground and stop the villain before it’s too late.
So, does the movie live up to expectations? First, Black Widow needed to give Natasha Romanoff some screen time away from her fellow Marvel superheroes and focus on her as a character outside of the Avengers. It needed to provide an in-depth look at the character, explore her complexities, and add meaning to her role in the other movies. In these categories, the movie succeeds. Although its plot is a generic superhero story about good vs. evil, Black Widow goes beyond Natasha’s role as a spy/hero and explores her relationships with others as a human being. It provides meaningful info about Black Widow’s past and presents the character as a dynamic person whose flaws sometimes get in her way. Natasha and Yelena engage in a sister-like banter that gives the movie some of its most crowd-pleasing one-liners. Yelena is quick-witted, deadly, and feisty - and she can also see right through Natasha, making her the perfect companion (although, it's difficult not to see Pugh in this role as Amy March from Little Women with a Russian accent). Their interactions highlight Black Widow’s best and worst qualities, exploring the character in a new way.
The four leads provide a humorous family dynamic that we haven’t really seen in other Marvel movies. There’s the goofy dad character who keeps messing things up, the collected mother-figure who always has a plan, the independent older sister whose pride gets in her way, and the emotional younger sister who doesn’t want to be treated like a child. The jokes and dialogue that come out of this family dynamic aren’t particularly original (I mean, come on, it’s Marvel), but that’s why the studio casts such talented, well-known actors in these movies. It doesn’t really matter which characters they play or how well those characters are developed, but it sure is cool to see Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, and David Harbour in a Marvel movie. That being said, the talented cast brings a lot of substance and significance to their characters that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
Fans also expected Black Widow to be unique. The movie meets this expectation, for the most part. Black Widow provides a new set of characters for fans to love and takes the Marvel action to a new setting. It tries to be an espionage film filled with spies and conspiracies, something that we haven’t really seen in the MCU. The opening credits sequence in particular sets a darker tone that leads us to expect a spy thriller. But as the plot picks up, the movie sinks right back into the MCU style that has come to define the films. It has the same brand of humor, the same character archetypes, the same hero’s journey, and the same balance between action and drama. No matter how hard it tries, Black Widow can’t escape that Marvel movie style. This is not necessarily a bad thing, although fans who were hoping for something completely different (like me) might be a little bummed. While each installment of the MCU has its own unique features, they all share some common traits that bind them together into a cohesive whole. There’s a distinctive dialogue style and pacing that gives all the movies the same feel, making it easier to see how they fit together in the same world. The only difference is that this time, Natasha Romanoff is the one in the spotlight.
In theaters and available on Disney+ with Premier Access July 9, 2021
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."