Scarlett Johansson’s final outing as the Black Widow may not please ardent MCU fans, but director Cate Shortland delivers an entertaining action film subverted in a family drama
Black Widow is set in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the King of Wakanda, T’Chala, in the film Captain America: Civil War. Natasha is forced to open up old wounds by reuniting with her estranged family, Yelena (Florence Pugh). Alexie (David Harbour), and Melina (Rachel Weisz).
Natasha Romanoff’s debut in Iron Man 2 as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow was almost a lifetime ago. The demand for a standalone film for the character fell to deaf ears for almost a decade, and there was a feeling amongst the Marvel Cinematic Universe faithful that the Black Widow may have missed her chance to shine in a standalone film. However, the success of Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, and the eventual success of Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larsson, gave fans renewed hope that Marvel’s favourite trained assassin would get her own feature film.
When the film was eventually announced by Kevin Fiege, it was expected to be one of the biggest superhero films of all time with a female lead — one that would surpass even DC’s Wonder Woman. However, the pandemic and the various disruptions caused have derailed any potential success the film may have enjoyed, and could end up being one of the lowest-grossing Marvel movies since Phase 1 of the MCU.
To realise her vision, director Cate Shortland opted for the shaky camera filming technique which is a departure from a vast majority of the MCU productions. This is surprising, considering most MCU movies follow an identical template in terms of sound design and cinematography. The filmmakers have also toned down the generic slapstick comedy often associated with MCU productions. The chemistry between the actors in the narrative was greatly benefitted by the movie’s engaging screenplay.
Even though the film is essentially about Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow, it is ultimately more of an origin story for Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova. Pugh’s dynamic character is the heart and soul of the movie. In fact, her performance was a standout in the film while Stranger Things star David Harbour’s performance as Alexei is also an integral part of the narrative. Despite Rachel Weisz’s strong performance, her role was ever-so-slightly diminished. The core theme is family, and unlike the forgettable Fast & Furious franchise, where it is repeatedly forced into the narrative no matter how ridiculous the context, Black Widow settles for an authentic portrayal of a dysfunctional family of assassins.
Despite its many positives, the film is held back by its fight sequences. The Bourne franchise inspired hand-to-hand combat sequences that failed in execution. This is surprising considering the film gives the impression that it is the spiritual successor to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The main drawback of the film is, however, the lack of a convincing villain, which has plagued most of the Marvel productions apart from its Netflix television shows such as Wilson Fisk from Daredevil, Kilgrave from Jessica Jones and Billy Russo from The Punisher.
Ray Winstone is an exceptional actor and there are moments where his performance as the primary antagonist, Dreykov, excels but his character arc as the big bad Russian villain is generic. There are also moments where his inconsistent Russian accent gives way to a cockney accent.
The film’s underlying message of human trafficking perfectly blends with the narrative, but the attempts at exploring the ideas of controlling free will, and how it could lead to an Orwellian nightmare are poorly executed.
Black Widow may not be the most perfectly executed superhero film, but it is certainly superior to some of the overrated MCU fares. It is also an elaborate setup for the Disney+ original series Hawkeye starring Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton and Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop, with Florence Pugh set to reprise her role as Yelena Belova.