Film Review – Black Widow (2021)

Rejoice, ye faithful, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back on the big screen so get those pens and paper ready for the latest crop of rumours, theories, and ferocious conjecture. It’s a strange time for Marvel going into their second fully-fledged female-led adventure after Captain Marvel (Ant-Man & The Wasp went part-way there), not just because of that fact but because fan and audience thoughts and musings have become so vast, so all-consuming that it is almost impossible to avoid them, or indeed join in. The studio has a plan, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to keep things schtum. Heck, we all feel like we’ve “seen” Spider-Man: No Way Home at this point.

But with Black Widow, we have the official kick-off (football on the brain at the moment) of Phase 4 of the MCU and unlike the preceding couple of films, there’s less pressure on this one in terms of secrecy as we join the action almost immediately after 2016′ s Captain America: Civil War. But that isn’t to say that zaps out any tension or intrigue, no sir, but while there are some genuinely impressive moments that far outstrip many we have seen in similarly-themed Marvel films, it doesn’t quite come together.

On the run after disobeying the newly implemented Sokovia Accords, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson – great as ever) is off-grid: allies scattered, emotionally bruised from the events that transpired in Germany, and bereft of her new family. Soon, though, it’s her own family that rears its head back into her life after an unknown assassin known as Taskmaster enters the picture. The masked killer was part of the infamous Red Room where Natasha trained as a Widow, as did her younger “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh) and “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz), while her “father” Alexei (David Harbour) also has a long-standing linkage. Are the Widows being controlled? Is Taskmaster a familiar foe? Or could HYDRA still have some tentacles in play?

Fans have been clamouring for a Black Widow stand-alone film for years with cries of “What happened in Budapest?!” ringing through forums and YouTube theories ever since and now they have some answers to the black hole sitting alongside The Infinity Saga. Whether or not this will be a slam-dunk remains to be seen (it will be) but as it stands, the film delivers all the booming entertainment you’d be expecting: some brutal but brilliantly shot action set-pieces will scratch that particular itch while the droller, pithier moments deliver big, thanks for Harbour and Pugh’s delightful turns that puncture the film brilliantly. It’s expertly handled by the superbly talented Cate Shortland, stepping into bigger territory after her indie efforts, but it’s her 2017 film The Berlin Syndrome that reverberates around the walls most with its themes of domestic abuse and dependence which helps inject some much-needed exploration of the characters, even if it falls foul of “origin story-itis” and never gets enough room to breathe.

Yes, this isn’t even close to being an “origin”, but it feels like one: lots of exposition, an intriguing yet bland villain (even more than most), heavy on dizzying action sequences, drips of mythology. There have been many fine examples, but it has never been Marvel’s strongest weapon in its arsenal and Black Widow follows a similar path, except there’s no real chance of a mythology-heavy sequel that would dive deeper, for we leave the film feeling we have still only scratched the surface of Natasha’s brave, stark life as a young woman, despite Shortland’s best efforts. What could – any maybe should – have been Marvel’s The Dark Knight in terms of exploration, of sombre but prevalent themes, of delving deep into psychologies and psyches, tearing the rule-book up, reverts to type too much and doesn’t bring us the emotional “send-off” that a later sacrifice deserved.

★★★


Action, Adventure | USA,2020 | 12A | 7th July 2021 (UK Cinema), 9th July (Disney+) | Marvel | Dir.Cate Shortland | Florence Pugh, Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone,