Review by C.J. Bunce
It was without question Marvel’s biggest delay. Not only was Black Widow originally expected to arrive in theaters May 1 last year, getting a delay and never a proper theatrical release, it simply was Kevin Feige’s big misfire by not thinking to make it earlier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 23 movies. Content-wise it could have arrived around 2013 as part of the Phase II of the series, and ultimately must be wedged somewhere between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. For those not yet ready to return to theaters, it’s been a long wait. Finally Disney+ has dropped its $30 premium for its subscribers and Vudu and other streaming providers have it where it should have been, at a sell-through price of $19.99.
So how does Black Widow stack up with respect to the previous Marvel movies, and did Marvel make the best superheroine movie of them all with Scarlett Johanson’s solo movie? First of all, the big word to describe this movie is “surprising.”
Black Widow is a solid interpretation of the action and excitement of Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto’s standalone comics series we’ve celebrated at borg here before, including providing several iconic cover images and scenes straight out of the series. It begins in 1995 as a family tale, but the kind of family a young Russian girl who is going to be trained as as assassin might have. Director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson could have spent time recounting another La Femme Nikita or Anna or Red Sparrow, but happily for this picture they skip the gory details. It turns out Johansson’s Natasha had a family–sort of– that returns later in her story: Florence Pugh (The Commuter, Midsommar) as sister Yelena, David Harbour (Stranger Things, The Equalizer, Quantum of Solace) as dad Alexei aka Red Guardian (or Scarlet Dynamo), and Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, The Bourne Legacy, My Cousin Rachel) as mom Melina aka Iron Maiden. The casting of a younger Johansson is a bit off (it may take you a couple minutes to realize the blue-haired kid is a girl and the young Natasha). But the team has a strange chemistry that works–dysfunctional at its best.
We meet what will probably be the year’s best cyborg in Black Widow: Taskmaster, a borg creation of top Russian architect of the “Black Widow” assassin program Dreykov, another bland Marvel villain played by Ray Winstone (The Departed, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). The story of Taskmaster is one of many surprises the film gets right. If viewers try to predict the outcome of Black Widow—other than the knowledge film audiences have that Natasha eventually dies in Avengers: Endgame–they probably won’t get it right. The movie is surprising in its humor, in its sharp writing, in the chemistry of its actors, and its fun choices.
The best scenes follow Natasha trying to hide from William Hurt’s dreary Secretary Ross, that same government hack that has plagued the Marvel superheroes going all the way back to the first Hulk movie, way, way back in 2003 (then played by Sam Elliott, with Hurt taking over the role in the second Hulk movie in 2008). She’s hiding because, if you were paying attention, she was the only Iron Man betrayer not in the maximum security cell with Ant-Man, Hawkeye, and The Falcon following Captain America: Civil War. Recall when Natasha left Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers at the cemetery at the end of the film? This is evidently what she alluded to when she walked away. Here Natasha enlists the aid of O-T Fagbenle (Doctor Who, The Five) as ultimate go-to guy Mason, another one of those supporting characters like the cast of WandaVision that we’ll expect to pop up later in the movies or TV series.
Each of the four stars holds their own–Pugh is a fantastic, very funny little (as in short) sister with some real potential to become a great MCU character in future shows (her vest and posing scenes are great bits). Rachel Weisz is terrific as a great, possibly mad, Russian scientist. And Black Widow is absolutely David Harbour’s best work so far as our first Russian MCU superhero (who is full of spirit and yells a lot). Screenwriter Eric Pearson deserves plenty of praise for the dialogue in this film.
Of all the Catwomen and Wonder Women that have made it to the big and small screen, Johansson’s Natasha has certainly received the most attention, and her entire body of work should rank as the best of them all. As a standalone movie, only Captain Marvel bumps the film down a notch. Both Black Widow and Captain Marvel are great fun, especially getting to know Pugh’s Yelena–the next Black Widow of the MCU who is slated to co-star in all the episodes of the coming Hawkeye Disney+ streaming series (which is alluded to in a late movie coda scene). Black Widow is filmed as an international spy movie of sorts–it looks just like a James Bond movie cinematically, in its chase sequences, and big, explosion-filled action–different from but equal to the bigger-budget special effects in the space fantasy Captain Marvel. The films also beg comparison as Black Widow begins in 1995 and Captain Marvel is set entirely in 1995. Neither gets the 1990s quite right, and Black Widow does not have as memorable contemporary songs or musical score (in fact the version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” over a montage sequence comes off as repetitive and an annoying nod to the efforts in Captain Marvel to evoke the 1990s). Black Widow isn’t the top solo superheroine movie of them all, but it’s certainly a close second behind Captain Marvel, far surpassing the (admittedly small) list from DC and Marvel.
Don’t miss the additional features on the home releases, especially the deleted scenes, which only reflect that someone edited the final version for time. The cut scenes are all relevant and would have connected final scenes. Only a fight scene at the gulag is extraneous. Two features are short and familiar territory for anyone not seeing similar material over the past year, and the gag reel has the typical, expected goof-ups. Also, look for only one coda scene. You would have thought Kevin Feige or someone at the studio would have filmed dozens of quick Stan Lee cameos for the future, especially for a film just like this set in continuity in the past. It’s a shame they missed the opportunity again.