Marvel is back in theaters with Black Widow, the long-awaited—if you count the people like me who have been waiting since The Avengers in 2012—solo film for the spy-turned-Avenger. Directed by Cate Shortland, the film features a story by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, with a screenplay by Eric Pearson. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as the titular character and is joined by a stunning cast Florence Pugh as Yelena, David Harbour as Alexei/The Red Guardian, and Rachel Weisz as Melina.
In Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow confronts the bloodier parts of her ledger when she finds herself pulled into a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past. Pursued by the force she deserted and the terrifying mimic, Taskmaster, her enemies will stop at nothing to bring her down. This element pushes the action, embracing the hand-to-hand combat the character is known for and expanding on it.
But action sequences and set pieces aren’t the only elements in the film that are worth commenting on. In Black Widow, Natasha is forced to deal with her history as a spy, which she thought she left behind. That said, it’s the human elements of her past, specifically the broken relationships left in the wake of her move to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D and eventually become an Avenger. The focus on rebuilding the bonds with the people she left in her rearview mirror makes this film become more than just another superhero film. Especially because it embraces the darkness at the core of the character and where she came from.
To be honest, I’ve been a fan of Black Widow as a character in Marvel canon since before she even entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in Iron Man 2. But what drew me to the character was her past, the darkness she came out of, and how she made a life outside of it while still being able to look back. That said, the MCU has done its best to sanitize her character. Sure, we know something happened in Budapest and there is red in her ledger, but her past is only ever alluded to. Now, in Black Widow, her past is on display, and all of the blood that comes with it.
With Natasha canonically dead after Avengers Endgame, it’s been hard for some fans to find a reason to watch this film, which takes place between the events of Avengers Civil War and Avengers Infinity War. Her story is over. And while I firmly believe that Black Widow should have been released before the latter of those films, it’s clear that her character having completed her arc allows for the darkness of her past to be confronted in detail. This is where Yelena, comes in.
Yelena, in the comics, has carried the Black Widow mantle. So it’s only fitting that we get the chance to explore the Widows program that Natasha came from through her. Through Yelena, we get to see what happens when you couldn’t escape. On-screen Johansson and Pugh have a sisterly bond that feels authentic. Their quips, their fights, and the connection the two actresses have as Natasha and Yelena is the strongest part of the film.
Additionally, Yelena is a standout character in her own right. As Yelena, Pugh displays a dry humor and physicality that just works. In her character, we even get moments discussing the forced sterilization she and Natasha underwent. The conversation comes from a place of heartfelt reflection and, on the other hand, the dry humor of someone who isn’t looking to see her anger reduced to the “time of the month.” Pugh is perfect in her role. She is charismatic in every scene and on top of that, she also handles action sequences wonderfully.
In fact, the action sequences throughout Black Widow are some of the best for a female-led superhero film. In others, there is excessive use of slow motion, a focus on ranged combat, or too much time spent on adding “I’m Just a Girl” instead of letting the women on-screen go hard and fast and with the same lens that their male counterparts get. This isn’t to say the action is perfect, especially given that there are several moments of rough CGI in certain Taskmaster shots, where it’s clear that it’s not a double in the role. That said, the film lets its women fight and trusts them to do the choreography.
To accompany the action is a rousing score that blends classic MCU staples like Natasha and the Avengers theme with robust Russian-inspired pieces to fit when characters are fighting who are more tied to the country than Natasha is. The score helps push the action to the next level and makes the moments of spectacle in the film feel epic in nature.
For all the good it does though, especially in the way of story, Black Widow does have some issues. While Pugh’s dry humor works, the physical gags in the film don’t always land. Some cut the tension just right, but others feel out of place in a narrative focused on confronting darker elements. More precisely, some of the physical humor looked to be suited for children where the anger-filled shouting of “shit” and “douchebag” did not.
All in all though, Black Widow embraces the history of the character—the good and the bad. Yelena specifically calls out the forced posing that Natasha does and even notes that while both of them are killers, only Natasha is the only one who little girls look up to as their hero. This core element of the film is what makes it perfect for comic book readers, while the spectacle will satisfy MCU fans who have only ever watched the films. This balance is hard to strike, but one that Black Widow does well. Sadly, the film is way beyond its time of relevancy and I can only imagine the impact it could have ahd if the MCU had trusted the character to carry a solo film all those years ago.
Black Widow is playing nationwide in theaters and on Disney+ with Premiere access July 9, 2021.
Black Widow embraces the history of the character—the good and the bad. Yelena specifically calls out the forced posing that Natasha does and even notes that while both of them are killers, only Natasha is the only one who little girls look up to as their hero. This core element of the film is what makes it perfect for comic book readers, while the spectacle will satisfy MCU fans who have only ever watched the films. This balance is hard to strike but one that Black Widow does well.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.