Film review: Black Widow (2021)
Bottom line: A fun if middling entry in the MCU filmography.
Full disclosure: I’m a full-on Marvel fanboy. One may argue—and I do—that the run of films from 2008’s Iron Man to 2019’s Avengers: Endgame constitutes the greatest display of studio-driven filmmaking in the history of the movies. Twenty-two interlocking films telling one overarching epic story, culminating in the final defeat of arch-villain Thanos. Thirty main characters, literally hundreds of supporting characters, dozens of directors and screenwriters, all tasked with realizing the overarching vision of producer Kevin Feige. Nitpicks aside, Feige’s ability to maintain series continuity while juggling dozens of overlapping storylines—Marvel’s version of Loki’s Sacred Timeline—is worthy of He Who Remains himself.
The first three “phases” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were unprecedented. No studio has ever pulled off such a feat, and no studio is likely ever to do so again—including Marvel. Before we can judge the kickoff of the MCU Phase 4 with the September release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Feige and company have delivered a long overdue and bittersweet coda to the story of the first female Avenger: Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha Romanov, AKA the Black Widow. In terms of its overall MCU ranking, Black Widow falls squarely in the middle of the pack. For fans of Johannson’s Romanov, however, it’s a fitting if muted sendoff for the character.
On the Sacred Timeline, Black Widow takes place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which saw the Avengers splintered, with the Tony Stark-led faction operating under the Sokovia Accords and the Steve Rogers-led faction either in jail or on the run. Hiding out in a safe house in Norway, Romanov plunges into new danger and intrigue when her long-lost “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) delivers the film’s MacGuffin: A mysterious briefcase filled with vials of glowing red serum. Why serums in Hollywood action movies always glow is a question I’ll leave for you to ponder.
The arrival of said briefcase sends Romanov on a globe-trotting mission to confront her past as a Russian assassin programmed to kill by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone delivering a truly terrible Russian accent), the mysterious director of the “Red Room.” Romanov’s pursuit of Yelena leads to a reunion with the two Russian sleeper agents who posed as her parents while raising her in Ohio: Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), AKA the Red Guardian, the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America; and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who helped Dreykov create the Red Room training protocol. The mission of this reunited team of super-spies: Find Dreykov before he unleashes a plague of mind-controlled Black Widow spies to wreak havoc upon the global order.
What follows is two hours of what we now recognize as Marvel assembly-line product, with a Jason Bourne-inspired midsection followed by a climactic and explosive battle in the villain’s lair straight out of Roger Moor-era James Bond. It’s all fine: the action is fine, the one-liners are fine, the direction is fine, the climax is fine, even if the villain’s plan is ripped off from the 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The performances are what elevate the proceedings: Johannson’s wry and world-weary take on Romanov, Harbour’s comic relief, and particularly Pugh’s star turn as the hotheaded heir to Johannson’s slot in the MCU. Success breeds success, and Marvel’s ability to have their pick of veteran A-listers and exciting newcomers provides built-in protection against a run-of-the-mill script, which Black Widow’s script certainly is. Are the film’s performances better than it deserves? Most certainly—but that’s the Marvel advantage.
So, Black Widow is fine, if in no way transcendent. We’re all conditioned to expect a certain baseline of quality from Marvel products, the same way we expect a baseline of customer experience from Target or Starbucks. At this point, it would be shocking if Marvel released a truly terrible film; the last true dud was Thor: The Dark World, released eight years ago.
Still, Black Widow highlights what could become a recurring problem with Phase 4 of the MCU: the franchise’s insatiable need to use its latest film to set up the next one. In effect, that need reduces Scarlett Johannson to a supporting player in her own movie. The film’s purpose is not to explore the character of Natasha Romanov the way the Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor entries explored and deepened those characters; rather, its purpose is to introduce Pugh’s Yelena Belova, the new Black Widow. Pugh is a rising star, and it’s exciting to think of her presence in upcoming MCU releases. But it’s a problem when your film’s titular heroine is the least interesting character in her own movie.
But: Like I said, I’m a Marvel fanboy, so I enjoyed the ride. If you’re on board with the MCU, you’ll have a good time. If you’re Martin Scorsese, then Black Widow is the latest harbinger of the cinematic apocalypse. Neither reaction is wrong.
Ranking: As always, we place each new MCU entry into our overall ranking, which is true and inviolate. Black Widow enters at number 16, leaving the Top Ten unchanged.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
3. Avengers: Infinity War
4. Thor: Ragnarök
5. Captain America: Civil War
6. The Avengers
7. Iron Man
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
9. Black Panther
10. Avengers: Endgame
11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
12. Spider Man: Homecoming
13. Ant Man
14. Doctor Strange
15. Spider Man: Far from Home
16. Black Widow
17. Ant Man and the Wasp
18. Avengers: Age of Ultron
19. Captain Marvel
21. Iron Man 2
22. Iron Man 3
23. The Incredible Hulk
24. Thor: The Dark World
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.