“Every time we make a film, it is with the expectation of delivering on a promise of an experience.” This line, delivered by Marvel boss Kevin Feige to Rotten Tomatoes last week, is a perfect distillation of the mega franchise he’s stewarded for the last 13 years. Especially as the MCU has widened it’s scope, ventured to space and recruited a cast of the greatest actors of multiple generations, their projects have felt less like movies than events. But now that Disney+ has opened the door to more character driven stories, the formula feels like it’s shifting.
Way back before being indefinitely delayed by the global pandemic, Black Widow was supposed to launch an ambitious Phase 4 that featured, for the first time, official MCU television shows. In 2020, Scarlett Johansson’s long awaited solo adventure would have kicked off a new era, instead it parachuted into a Phase 4 well underway.
In a way Black Widow’s delayed release is ironically poetic, it was always destined to be a film out of time. The last appearance of Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) was her redemptive final sacrifice to acquire the Soul Stone in Avengers: Endgame. To find her alive and well in a story that takes place years earlier would have felt incongruent regardless of the delay. At least now they have the excuse.
Opening on the tranquility of suburban Ohio in the 90s, a young, fiery Natasha and her faux family of Russian agents are forced to flee their adoptive home. None of the bunch want to leave the domestic bliss they’ve been feigning for the last three years, but Nat is especially concerned. Old enough to remember what Russian General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) did to her — and countless other young girls — yet too young to push back, Nat is most concerned about her sister Yelena facing a similar fate.
Black Widow’s opening sequence is thrilling, in text and subtext. American agents chasing down Nat’s family is the most exhilarating action piece of a very action packed film while the sequence’s subtler moments promise an exploration of fraught family dynamics for an established, but under-interrogated character. Unfortunately the opening credits are where Widow peaks.
After a credit montage depicting the grotesque conditions and treatment of the young girls kidnapped into the Widow Program and shuttled off the the Red Room for training and brainwashing, we are transported to the year 2016. Just after the events of Civil War, Natasha is on the run until she is called back to action by her long lost sister Ylena (Florence Pugh) to help take out the villainous Dreykov and his contract killer Taskmaster. What ensues is an action packed, espionage infused adventure through Russia forcing Natasha to confront her past and reconnect with a family she’s never let go of inside.
In concept that sounds like exactly like the type of Black Widow movie that would excel. In practice, just about every component of this movie falls apart after the opener. Action falls flat, stakes feel too low and the ultimate resolution feels fleeting. This film’s failings fall to one consistent problem: it’s a movie out of time and place.
Truly, a Black Widow film that released chronologically — somewhere in between the Wars, Civil and Infinity — would have been infinitely better in every way save one: the ability to cast Florence Pugh as Ylena. This is hardly a hot take, but the problems created by making this film a flashback go far beyond the simple fact that we know what happens to the protagonist. Of course that alone takes a lot of the stakes out of the free falling climactic set piece.
Really the problem with a posthumous Black Widow adventure is that her arc as a character had already been resolved by her fateful action in Endgame. Johansson’s Widow — post the overly sexualized Iron Man 2 version — has been defined by regret and guilt. Over appearances in every Avengers film and two Captain America adventures, audiences had a pretty good understanding of “the red on her ledger” and her sacrifice felt like a meaningful resolution.
That’s not to say that Natasha didn’t deserve her own story, she just should have had it years ago. What’s left is a redundant action flick that does nothing to advance a character whose story had already finished yet has very little interest in building out it’s supporting cast. Which is unfortunate, because the acting talent on board is tremendous.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Florence Pugh is incredible as Ylena. This should be no surprise to anyone who has seen Little Women or Midsommar. Her character is undoubtedly the most well defined of anyone other than Natasha, but that definition comes almost entirely from Pugh’s sheer force of charisma. David Harbour is having a cultural moment and his Red Guardian is funny but entirely one-dimensional. Still, that’s one more dimension than Rachel Weiss gets as Natasha and Ylena’s fake mother Melina. A film whose cast is its greatest strength fails to use them adequately.
Wasting the talent of Weiss, Harbour and Pugh is more than just disappointing though, it actively detracts from the themes introduced in the early moments. Black Widow wants us to believe that the bonds of family are unbreakable but it’s never willing to test that idea against the girls’ feelings of abandonment and isolation. Case and point is the very weak representation of villain Taskmaster. Had Weiss donned the suit, it would have created a more meaningful conflict, forcing Nat to face off against her childhood loss directly. Instead the reveal of Taskmaster’s identity is a colossal dud, doing nothing to advance the plot.
It’s deeply unfortunate that fans waited so long for a Black Widow film that, when it arrived, let down the character. At the very least this film, forgettable as it is, should serve as a coming out party for Florence Pugh in the MCU — her post credits appearance alone has this reviewer excited for a certain upcoming series. Simply the return to MCU blockbusters on the big screen should be enough to get fans excited, but that’s not enough to lift Black Widow to something more than lower tier Marvel. 5/10