Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 20, 2021)
In the spring of 2019, Avengers: Endgame brought to a close a long, general narrative arc that originated with 2008’s Iron Man. Technically, summer 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home offered the first tale to face a post-Endgame restructuring of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but it tended to feel like an epilogue for that saga more than the start of something new.
I figured 2021’s Black Widow would become the first true “post-Endgame” flick, but because it takes place in the MCU’s past, it straddles lines. Widow opens in 1995, where we meet an Ohio family with secrets.
As it happens, the “parents” pretend to be married and are actually Russian spies. Their kids aren’t their own, and eventually this faux family splits.
This leads adolescent Natasha (Ever Anderson) and six-year-old Yelena (Violet McGraw) as pawns in the hands of General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the leader of the “Red Room” program that turns young girls into skilled assassins.
Fast-forward to 2016 and we find Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) right after the events of Captain America: Civil War. A battle there left the Avengers in disarray, and she exists as a refugee pursued by various forces.
The Red Room uses a mind-control system to manipulate all the “Black Widow” agents, and Natasha’s estranged “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh) involves her in a plan to use an antidote to free these women from General Dreykov’s yoke. This leads to a full “family reunion” when the “sisters” recruit “father” Alexei (David Harbour) and “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz) in their scheme.
It remains to be seen if the MCU will attempt another long-term arc ala the 2008-2019 run – well, it remains to be seen by me, at least. Perhaps Marvel has revealed formal plans to do this, but because I like to go into movies fresh, I’ve paid next to no attention to their upcoming releases beyond an awareness of various titles.
That went for Widow as well. Granted, I saw the trailers roughly 274 times, mainly because the movie’s initial release date of May 2020 got changed repeatedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not that these ads revealed a whole lot. Going into Widow, I knew it would involve Natasha’a family, but that was about it – heck, I didn’t even realize that they wouldn’t be her biological clan until I saw the final flick.
I also didn’t know Widow would take place during that 2008-2019 arc, and I admit that seems like an odd choice for a film that intends to launch the next era of the MCU. As I entered Widow, I figured it’d act as a prequel and take us to a time prior to Natasha’s stint as an Avenger, so the decision to plop the action in 2016 perplexes me.
For now, at least. Perhaps down the road this choice will make more sense – and the movie’s post-credits tease may offer some hints of how it’ll connect to the MCU’s present-day stories.
As it stands, Widow offers a pretty solid adventure in its own right. I admit I didn’t go into the flick with great enthusiasm, mainly because the title character never intrigued me a whole lot.
To me, Black Widow seemed fine as a supporting role in the various MCU films, but I felt little eagerness to see her kick butt on her own. This semi-disinterest stems from the fact I just never much liked the kind of “secret agent” tales that would seem to be Natasha’s forte, so I figured an entire movie based around those stories would probably not work for me.
However, Widow succeeds better than I expected. No, I won’t put it among the upper echelon of the MCU, but it’s definitely in the top half of these films, and perhaps even the top one-third.
The movie does require some time to really kick into gear, though. The first act concentrates on so much exposition that it can drag a bit.
Granted, a lot of this would feel unavoidable since Widow needs to churn out a bit of character/plot exposition. Sure, we know Natasha, but most of the rest of the roles and scenarios are new to us, and it takes some time to set up these elements.
The first act still throws out some good action, so it doesn’t dally solely with exposition. Still, the movie didn’t really grab me during that first one-third or so.
Once the movie unites the “sisters”, though, it improves considerably. Johansson and Pugh show good chemistry together, and this multiplies when their “parents” come back into the picture.
Even with all the action and mayhem, arguably the most fun moments here stem from the interactions of this “family”. The actors mix well and we get lively, entertaining scenes.
The action beats work fine as well, even if the narrative itself seems awkward and less than compelling. Not that I find a problem with Natasha’s overall mission, as it seems like a decent plot, but at its core, the story just feels like the sort of “stop the madman” stuff we’ve seen many times.
I also think Natasha can occasionally feel like a guest in her own movie. Of course, the title doesn’t specify that the film is about her, as we learn that General Dreykov’s program created scores of “Black Widows”, so perhaps it’s just an incorrect assumption to believe it should be all about her.
But given that Johansson is the lead and the name above the credits, this doesn’t seem like a massive leap. Natasha does play a large role, of course, but at times she feels oddly superfluous, like the movie exists more as a launching point for its new characters and less as an exploration of the one we know will die a couple of years after this story’s events.
Even with some erratic elements, Black Widow largely works, and it goes by surprisingly quickly given its length. Though the movie runs 133 minutes, it feels much shorter, and I regard that as a positive.
Ultimately Black Widow becomes a good but not great Marvel adventure. I find much to admire and enjoy here, but I just don’t think the movie ever approaches the level of the best MCU efforts.
Footnote: should you expect added material during and after the end credits? Of course you should!