There are minor spoilers in the review. So, only continue at your own risk if you are trying to avoid any context on plot points, characters, or the villain.
If there’s one thing keeping Black Widow from sinking into the lower tier of MCU films, it’s because of Natasha Romanoff, who is undeniably one of the three most important characters in the cinematic universe. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers may be the Avengers’ brains and hearts respectively, but it’s Natasha’s humanity that makes up for the team’s soul. More than any other Avenger, she’s the most flawed, carrying a darkness in her heart that gives the character a perspective on life that no one else on the team has. It’s probably no surprise that Natasha is the only Avenger to have a close and personal relationship with all the members of the original team except for Thor. Natasha has seen, experienced, and occasionally, carried out the worst things humanity has to offer but it’s her ability to rise above that pain to turn that darkness into something heroic and meaningful that makes her one of the greatest Marvel characters yet. As the film’s own mantra goes: “Pain makes you stronger.”
Filling in the blanks of a past we’ve only heard anecdotes of, Black Widow sees Natasha Romanoff on the run from the authorities following the Avengers’ disastrous skirmish at the Leipzig Airport. She’s looking for a way out of the craziness but before she can do so, she’s pulled back into it by her foster sister, Yelena. Natasha learns that the program that turned her into a killer is still somehow up and running. It continues to turn girls into assassins like her, despite the fact she put an end to it a decade earlier. So Natasha and Yelena employ the help of their adoptive spy parents, Alexei and Melina, to put a stop to the Red Room’s schemes once and for all.
The movie starts incredibly with a Black Widow history lesson I can only describe as a really good riff on The Americans, a show about a Russian family living a double life as KGB agents (which everyone should watch). Before the Red Room and the Avengers, there was Ohio in 1995, where a preteen Natasha spent 3 years living the life with her aforementioned family. It wasn’t a fancy life, mind you, but a life of comfort and love. Unfortunately, that life is brutally stripped away from Nat and Yelena when the secret spy identities of their parents are blown.
The ensuing chase scene is nothing short of horrifying as it puts the audience right in the shoes of two children seeing their happiness and innocence be ripped apart before their very eyes. The image of two kids crying, confused out of their mind as to why their parents have gunshot wounds feels almost too intense for a Marvel movie but it hammers one point home: these kids will never be the same after this. This set-piece and the opening credits that follow make for one of the MCU’s most powerful prologues as it uses striking imagery to set the stage for its potent thematics surrounding abuse and violence against children.
If the film’s opening has Marvel riffing on The Americans’ domestic Cold War intrigue, the succeeding set-pieces has Marvel tapping into the Bond/Mission Impossible sensibilities of the MCU’s world of espionage. Nat and Yelena are forced on this exhilarating goose chase through the streets of Budapest when they are ambushed by the Red Room. The entire sequence feels straight out of a Bond/Mission Impossible movie with its very European setting and crazy vehicular action. The same goes for that big snowy gulag prison breakout from the trailer. You can almost imagine Tom Cruise jumping off a helicopter into a fortress as an avalanche comes crashing down before him in real life. The action is engrossing enough that actually covers up a lot of the flimsier plot issues.
However, as fun as those scenes are, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I would have preferred them to dial up all the Bond or Mission Impossible riffs a lot more. More over-the-top equipment and spycraft; the MCU is weird enough to allow it. OT Fagbenle’s Mason doesn’t get to do much in this film despite being their tech guy and a sequence like that gulag breakout feels like the perfect way to utilize him as the Q/Benji Dunn analog. It’s a movie about a family of spies! Make it feel like a spy ensemble.
But thrilling action scenes mean nothing at the end of the characters in them aren’t engaging and Black Widow has some great characters. Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Rachel Weisz make up a wildly memorable ensemble as Natasha’s foster family of spies. They bicker, nag, hurt one another but intimately share a deep trust that feels compelling and never corny. The pitch-perfect chemistry they all have serves as the foundation for the film’s ideas of family, which I’ve always felt the Avengers films only gave us in mere doses. When this movie talks about family, it means it.
Individually, the three newcomers make for the best new additions the MCU has seen since maybe Thor: Ragnarok. David Harbour is Alexei Shostakov, an out-of-commission superhero who can’t stop reliving his glory days. He’s brash, dumb, lumbering, and egotistical but he’s got dad-like silliness to him that softens his rough edges. Harbour leans hard on his patriarchal role and really feels like a father to these kids at certain points. The character is, unfortunately, the butt of trite overweight jokes but the actor’s cuddly charm makes it palatable.
Rachel Weisz is so fun in this as a former Red Room scientist named Melina Vostokoff. She has all the mom trademarks checked but adds in this hilarious layer of friskiness to the role. Melina and Alexei genuinely feel like divorced parents about to fall in love again, much to the chagrin of their kids and Weisz’s spunk makes it a blast to see. But beyond the fun, she also taps into the character’s regret and loneliness. While on the surface a fun mom, Melina carries a lot of baggage in her heart and you feel it in the moments when she gets serious.
I wasn’t convinced when word came about that Florence Pugh was to be the potential successor to the Black Widow mantle but this film proved me wrong real fast. Pugh is a godsend as Yelena Belova, bringing a childlike pathos to this world of spies. She’s deadly with a pencil in her hand but is likely to draw a cute picture with the same pencil she murdered you with. She’s cold and calculating with words but may also cry when you tease her. Pugh makes the balancing act look way too easy. As the runt of the family, Yelena has an unspoken reverence towards her famous Avenger sister but also a lot of deep angst as to how their lives panned out differently. Yelena’s dynamic with Natasha is contentious and prickly in just the right parts. You will wish that they were in more movies together.
And then there’s Scarlett Johansson, who has truly become the best version of the character. Her decade-long performances as Natasha Romanoff have recontextualized the character in ways that deepen your perception of her appearances in the comics. The only other MCU actor I can say that for is Chris Evans, whose version of the Sentinel of Liberty is idealized in live-action. Now, I don’t think Black Widow is necessarily Johansson’s best go at the character – the two Captain America films are where you see her shape the character with her chops – but she is, unsurprisingly, great in this. The actress has embodied the character for so long now that she’s at a point where she can just autopilot it and give us the character’s greatest hits. Luckily, she doesn’t do that. There are some fun touches to Natasha in this film that we’ve never seen before and you can see how much fun Johansson had with the character this time.
Black Widow feels like a roller coaster on descent for its first half. Exhilarating set pieces are attached at the hip and little momentum is lost. Every moment feels punctuated with some crazy ambush happening on screen. Its second half, weirdly enough, has almost no momentum and feels more like a roller coaster that gets stuck halfway just as you’re about to hit that crazy loop. You’re left hanging and waiting for things to pick up back to where it was. It’s a truly odd way to pace the film that it almost feels lacking at parts. Like some set pieces leading up to the climactic third act were missing.
Despite its successes, the MCU for some reason, still can’t get over bad third acts. You have a handful of good ones such as the Doctor Strange and Civil War climax but a chunk of them are still egregiously bland. Black Widow is unfortunately part of that bad batch. There are some nice sleight-of-hand tricks here and there that make it exciting for a moment but it quickly becomes tedious as you realize how artless and ham-fisted the conceit comes together. Much of the third act is poorly staged, plotted, and executed.
The entire premise of what the team sets out to do against the big bad Dreykov, frankly, sucks and is totally uninspired. For one, there’s no ticking clock which, in turn, shortchanges the premise and stakes, making everything feel inert and without urgency. A character is forced to do something boneheaded to give the mission some tension but ends up feeling like a plot hole more than anything. The big climax also doesn’t give the main heroes anything exciting to do. Red Guardian is just kind of there, Yelena strolls through a bunch of corridors, and Melina hacks a computer. That’s boring! These are super spies infiltrating an evil lair filled with a dozen more evil super spies. Why is there nothing interesting going on?
Bad third acts don’t always come with bad villains but Black Widow comes with a doozy in the form of General Dreykov, who is the latest in a long line of boring MCU baddies. Dreykov is the guy behind the Red Room and is essentially responsible for bringing Natasha, her family, and all the Widows into this violent world. He is, in all respects, evil incarnate: a trafficker with zero regard for human life. He may even give Thanos a run for his money in the MCU’s Worst Dad race.
However, Dreykov being evil isn’t what makes him wack. Countless movie villains are truly evil that is engaging to watch on screen (Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, is an all-timer). Writing in a tragic origin isn’t the way to go either, as nothing is redeeming in regards to human traffickers no matter their backstory. The problem is that he’s played awfully one-note by a grumbling Ray Winstone, with a kind of pathetic anger that old man has when his viagra doesn’t work. The movie has big Bond energy so why not make a Bond character out of Dreykov? Make him go broader and kooky. Give him some distinction beyond his grumbles. He has the craziest evil lair that would make any Bond villain jealous and an army of deadly assassins at his disposal. There’s no need to play the character straight. He can be the evilest character in the MCU but be still entertaining to watch.
But enough about Dreykov as he’s not really the villain we all paid to see. We’re all here for Taskmaster, who is inarguably one of the most exciting villains the MCU has ever attempted to put on screen. The trailers did a tremendous job of selling the character’s gimmick of being able to mimic any single action in real-time. It’s an ability that has stumped way too many Marvel heroes in the comics and the mere thought of seeing it in live-action was exciting to just think about. If the Winter Soldier highway fight blew everyone away, what’s Taskmaster going to be like in live-action?
The answer is: pretty underwhelming, specifically in the ways the character is underused in the film. The direction they take with the character is actually pretty exciting. I won’t spoil it as it has been the big talking point since they chose to keep the character’s identity a complete mystery but it is the kind of reimagining that completely feels fresh and perfect for the MCU, albeit somewhat unexplored. The problem with Taskmaster is that they don’t give the character that much to do. Taskmaster shows up to fight in all the trailer scenes and then some. The trailers give away roughly 70% of the character’s big action beats and leave almost nothing exciting for us to discover with the exception being the character’s identity. Mind you, this is the comic fan in me complaining. The character’s mileage for some comic fans may vary but I reckon a huge part of the populace won’t mind.
That the character doesn’t feel like a cerebral fighter only exacerbates the frustrating lack of action. In the comics, Taskmaster’s whole schtick is that he can read, predict, and counter any move his opponent makes, making him not only a complete physical threat but a mental one. He’s a supercomputer that can kick your ass. In the fighting game community, we call his schtick downloading; the instance of fully understanding and predicting (or downloading) your opponent’s game plan. That idea is lost in this film, as it renders Taskmaster as somewhat of a computer but one that doesn’t need to be understood or as I put it, downloaded. The character is treated like a fighter simply a few notches above Natasha but one that doesn’t require a whole new set of skills to beat. The combat isn’t bad, by any stretch, but the way it lacks feels like a disservice to a character who is known for kicking everyone’s ass at an impossible level. Here you’ll see Taskmaster mimic some of Natasha’s moves here and there but it’s a footnote. There’s no sense of awe, struggle, or even tension in overcoming the character. I’m convinced Natasha had a harder time fighting Bucky.
Now, Black Widow is not a bad film per se but it’s also not a great one. What the movie gets right is full of promise but what if whiffs on feels frustrating. If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, you can look at that as a positive as the film does have a solid foundation of great ideas. Cate Shortland successfully made a film that does the character’s legacy justice, with a honed-in cast that elevates the film’s themes on family, and a story expands the world in exciting ways. But if you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person like me, you may be dissatisfied at how the film falls short of being a great MCU movie, especially in the back half where the seams of the film come apart. The third act is painfully dull, the film’s flagship villain is criminally underused, and it doesn’t embrace its spy trappings as much as it should have. It’s a fine MCU movie but with just a stronger emphasis on blockbuster spy fun, a tighter third act, and a generous take on Taskmaster, Black Widow could have been a truly great one. Though there probably is a variant of this film in our multiverse where it’s one of the best modern spy films.