Marvel’s long-awaited return to theaters finally arrives in the form of Black Widow. Taking place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow bridges the gap for what Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was up to during her years on the run. Her mission takes her from Ohio to Budapest and Russia, where her former family unit is introduced: her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), her father Alexei (David Harbour) and her mother Melina (Rachel Weisz).
Black Widow has had an uphill battle from the outset, with its main character having died in Avengers: Endgame. This battle isn’t helped with the addition of a year-long delay and that it’s the kickoff to Marvel’s four theatrical film release slate this year. It’s even worse when you consider that the film was supposed to be the kickoff of the MCU’s fourth phase. I hate to say it, but Black Widow loses that battle. That’s not to say that the film is all bad -- it’s not. The film is mostly middling but has standout moments and characters, none of which having to do with its titular character.
It’s hard to argue that this film is coming at the right time for this character, as it’s obviously years too late, coming well after the character’s MCU-relevance has passed. The MCU has become a more global threat-oriented series and having a film about one of the original Avengers pursuing a personal vendetta seems like something from the first or second phase of Marvel releases. So, while this film doesn’t fit the character in its scale, as she’s just a normal human being, it also doesn’t fit her in a different way. As Black Widow is a trained assassin and spy, you’d assume this film would be more akin to a Jason Bourne or Mission: Impossible spy-thriller, but that is sadly not the case. The potential of what a Black Widow film could be if treated like one of the films from those series is extremely disheartening seeing what we actually got. Black Widow is in a weird limbo between wanting to be a family-centric personal film and a large-scale global threat film like her fellow heroes face while not fully embracing either of the two.
Scarlett Johansson is mostly fine here, but is oddly not even the best or most interesting character in her own film. Florence Pugh’s character, Yelena, is by far the best and most entertaining character in the film, stealing every scene she appears in. This film also seemingly sets her up for a long future in the MCU, which I’ll gladly accept. David Harbour is the second of the standout characters, portraying Red Guardian, a communist spin on Captain America. He’s a fun addition to the MCU and someone I hope gets more screen time in a future project. Rachel Weisz is mostly good in her scenes, of which there are far less than her co-stars, but has trouble pulling off the badass and respected assassin she’s supposed to be.
The villains of the film are also extremely underwhelming. Taskmaster is handled exceptionally poorly, which is especially disappointing considering the potential of the character in the MCU. Taskmaster is a villain who, in the comics, endlessly researches and mimics his enemies to match their moves and predict their actions. In Black Widow, they turn the iconic comics villain into a nothing more than a needless plot-twist hiding behind the film’s actual, much more lame, villain. The MCU has long had a problem with presenting compelling villains, something seemingly fixed and acknowledged with the previous two Avengers films and Spider-Man: Far From Home, so it’s strange to see such a massive step back.
The actual filmmaking on display here is average. Cate Shortland’s direction is flat, the camera is mostly stagnant and unmoving, the colors are almost always muted and the score feels like an impersonation of other spy films; which is fitting considering the composer is the same as Mission: Impossible - Fallout and the next two films in that series. The action scenes range from great to acceptable, with a chase scene in Budapest being the highlight.
At its core, Black Widow is a competent action film that will most likely entertain a general audience. Whether or not that audience will remember anything about the film after a day or two will remain to be seen. It says a lot about what is marketed as a family-centric film, something it obviously wants to be, when it’s most emotional and affecting moment comes after the credits have rolled.