While the current global pandemic has been the most catastrophic event in the life of anyone living today, and hopefully always will be, there have been a couple of positive effects: multiple vaccines developed in record time and, for some at least, a new appreciation for our shared activities, including sporting events, having meals together, and going to the movies. In fact, an argument could be made that the pandemic, and its subsequent forced hiatus, was a good thing for both Marvel and parent-company Disney with the launch of Disney+ and its initial offerings of Marvel content. Lockdowns and quarantine likely placed more eyes on WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier than likely would have been during more active, less desperate-for-entertainment times. Just the same, pushing their release schedule back allowed the MCU needed breathing room between the epic conclusion of Avengers: Endgame, and its coda Spider-Man: Far From Home, before beginning the universe’s next phase. A film like Black Widow with its smaller scope could easily have been lost between larger, more consequential films, as Ant-Man and the Wasp and Thor: The Dark World were. Instead, a year away has made the MCU feel like an old friend reminding of better times. It’s fitting then that this next phase of films, focusing first on smaller origin stories, begins with an origin story concerning one of those old friends.
Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has long felt like a missed opportunity in the MCU. Not that the character and star haven’t had time to shine, just that her best moments have come in someone else’s story. While never as big of a name, or book seller, as Captain America or Iron Man, Natasha Romanoff has her own long-standing legacy worth exploring and celebrating. Similarly, while never offered the same meaty Marvel material as Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson is an accomplished and talented actress whose starring vehicles (Ghost in the Shell, Lucy) haven’t lived up to expectation. Thus Black Widow is a welcome edition to the MCU if only for finally establishing both character and star as independent from “the big boys.” And all she had to do was die.
Unfortunately, it’s hard not to view Black Widow itself as a missed opportunity.
For the audience, knowing that Natasha will survive long enough to sacrifice herself removes any sense of danger from her solo adventure, almost trivializing the struggle we see on screen. Meanwhile, for the filmmakers, not only does previously established continuity limit what they can do, but by acting as an apparent curtain call for the character, there may have also been an obligation to keep the film as upbeat and breezy as possible. What could have been an intense, Bourne-like spy thriller instead feels like a softer, risk-averse, some would even say Disney-fied film that pokes at but doesn’t deepen in its themes of control and free will or chosen and natural families. As with other Marvel films, there is a lot of darkness behind Black Widow, but where Endgame emphasized that darkness for a time, Winter Soldier allegorized it, and Thor: Ragnarok made jokes about it, there’s a feeling that everyone behind Romanoff’s outing were scared to make her last appearance anything other than triumphant. The intention of making Natasha’s sign-off positive is understandable, but it doesn’t make for the most engaging film.
Of course, Black Widow never would and never could match the last two Avengers movies for grandeur or Civil War and Black Panther for story and cultural significance respectively. It’s to their credit that the filmmakers don’t try to make yet another universal threat to a universe we already know survives. For what it is, Black Widow is another strong entry in the Marvel B-tier cannon. Johansson continues to play the character well, showing the development from where she was in Civil War to where she would be in Infinity War and even re-enforcing some of the changes seen in Endgame. Florence Pugh as well turns in a strong performance, differentiating Yelena from Natasha through acerbic jokes and criticism. After beginning as a determined patriarch, David Harbour’s Alexei well portrays a man who has spent trying years struggling to hold onto the peak he reached two decades before. Most of the best material in Black Widow comes from seeing the dynamic between these characters and how each of them viewed their time as a family. There is a pleasant banter that’s a refreshing break from the typical barrage of Marvel quips.
Oddly, it’s the more unintentional themes that are the most compelling. At this point in the MCU timeline, the Avengers are celebrities, with people constantly asking Natasha about their status and why no one else from the team is with her. In one scene, Yelena even remarks about Natasha being a role model for little girls all over the world. We’ve rarely seen Avengers interact with the regular world of the MCU, with perhaps only one scene in Ragnarok and a few episodes of Falcon and the Winter Soldier (including one development from that show that questions some of Black Widow). Romanoff’s place as not only a regular human fighting alongside gods, androids, and super soldiers, but also as the only woman on the original team, would make her a fascination in that world and it would have been intriguing to explore that a bit more, especially within the context of a spy thriller. How do you continue to be a secret agent when the entire world knows you’re a secret agent? This isn’t to mention the origin of the Red Room or the similarities between Russia’s Widow program and Wakanda’s Dora Milaje. Meanwhile, on a meta level, Black Widow could have even addressed the character’s impact on real world female fans and the criticism for her sacrifice in Endgame. While the most apparent themes in Widow – control and family – have been explored ad nauseam, these other ideas remain undiscovered.
Black Widow includes many of the same strengths – characters, performances, and action sequences, plus a fascinating villain – and troubles – questionable effects, unreliable accents, general unimportance in the grander scope – as other B-level Marvel origin stories. It must also be noted that the biggest mystery in the entire movie is spoiled in the opening credit montage. As well, while the filmmakers tried, Black Widow doesn’t feel like a fitting tribute to the character. It feels more like it’s building to a next story that we know will never come. At least not for Natasha and Scarlett.
That said, it’s still wonderful to see the Marvel Studios opening and hear that Avengers fanfare again. It’s been a long time, and one that the audience needed to catch our breath. In that, perhaps Black Widow is the perfect film to help us return to the MCU. Like Iron Man, it’s a low-stakes, character driver film. The starting point should never be too big as to prevent subsequent films from growing. An old show biz adage says: Always leave them wanting more. The saddest thing is, with Natasha Romanoff, we already know there isn’t.