It seems somehow fitting to return to the cinema for an MCU movie, and I'm really glad we managed to catch Black Widow before it was shuffled aside for their ridiculous, post-pandemic release schedule – though I'll remain a little mad at Disney for sweeping it under the rug like this.
Not just because Black Widow is a film that fans have been wanting for years; once which somehow only managed to get made after the main character was already dead! (I wonder why... *cough* Wonder Woman *cough*) But also because it's genuinely good. Sure, it's not an immediate entry into the Marvel "greatest hits", but it more than holds its own against most of the solo-hero outings whilst giving a really interesting character a lot more development and backstory. I mean, did we need to know why Widow is wearing a particular vest in Infinity War? No, not really. But was finding out that one of her early missions was as a Soviet sleeper cell in the mid-US with a fake family that included Russia's answer to Captain America as a dad pretty interesting and cool? Hell yeah!
In fact, I'd say Widow did three things really well:
- The "family" dynamic, with each fairly broken individual falling somewhere a little different on the spectrum of how they felt about each other, but in ways that made sense and provided some unusual dynamics;
- Giving the titular character space to really grow and emphasise the "found family" drive that fuels them through the whole Infinity War/Endgame saga;
- And, strangely, allowing a nation other than America to have equally impressive intelligence outfits, technological capabilities, and dysfunctional power dynamics. Honestly, I was really surprised at how closely the "Red Room" operation mirrored aspects of S.H.I.E.L.D or the American military, as shown in other films, and how that downgrades the US from the position it's often held as "world police" unironically within the MCU. Neat 👍
That said, I didn't need the Red Room to literally be a brutalist helicarrier... I mean, it was a fun-enough twist, but I feel like they could have maybe managed something that a) fits the flashbacks we've seen in films like Age of Ultron a bit better, and b) wasn't quite so recycled. In fact, that reliance on old ideas was a bit of a problematic trope throughout, and I definitely feel like the writers were a little rushed to get the script out the door ASAP so just leant back on gimmicks we've seen before, like the S.H.I.E.L.D face cloners. Black Widows also survives a few scrapes that are a little too ridiculous and might have been better avoided by showing her quick reflexes and superior intelligence. A good example is the initial rocket launcher attack – no human lacking superpowers walks away from that explosion as easily as she does, but she could have seen the flash in the rearview mirror and dived out of the vehicle, changing little in terms of plot but remaining a touch more believable. See also the multi-storey fall in Budapest, and arguably the subsequent swim through glacier-fed, Arctic Norwegian waters.
But these are minor irritations in a film that generally succeeds. It succeeds in crafting an interesting and fairly original story. It succeeds in allowing Black Widow scope to grow, whilst fleshing out her character much more. It succeeds in setting up a potential replacement, not just in terms of character but also casting; Scarlett Johansson will be a hard act to follow, but Florence Pugh's Yelena is an interesting and enjoyable character who I'd be happy to see take up the mantle. It even succeeds in treading a slightly novel path between action and humour, villains and heroes, good and evil, that most Marvel films don't even attempt. Jokes are cleverly meta (particularly Yelena's ribbing about Natasha's hero poses 😂), threats like Taskmaster have interesting twists (I really liked this interpretation of that character), both villains (Ray Winstone's Dreykov) and heroes (both "parents", Red Guardian and Melina) have dubious moralities driven mainly by a desire to be remembered, and very few actions throughout the movie are simple, with characters more often operating in grey areas that befit a hero like Black Widow nicely.
The result is a movie that is better than it needed to be, but perhaps not quite as amazing as Scarlett Johannsen deserved. A lot is made of how actors like Hemsworth and Downey Jr have become the definitive variations of their comic counterparts, but I think ScarJo has left a mark so indelible on Black Widow that it's hard to separate them, in ways that few others in the MCU have managed. But hey, most MCU movies go up in estimation on rewatch, so perhaps I'll revise this statement and end up counting Black Widow amongst the greats. It's certainly a fantastic start to the latest Phase and a good indication that the MCU still has interesting stories to tell.