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Black Widow Review

June 30, 2021 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Black Widow Natasha Yelena Image Credit: Marvel Studios
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Black Widow Review  

Directed By: Cate Shortland
Written By: Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson; Based on the Marvel comics and characters
Runtime: 134 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language, and thematic material

Scarlett Johansson – Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Florence Pugh – Yelena Belova
David Harbour – Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian
Rachel Weisz – Melina Vostokoff
Ray Winstone – General Dreykov
O-T Fagbenle – Rick Mason
William Hurt – Thaddeus Ross
Ever Anderson – Young Natasha
Violet McGraw – Young Yelena

Marvel’s long-awaited solo adventure for Natasha Romanoff, the Avengers’ Black Widow, has finally arrived. Scarlett Johansson finally takes center stage for Black Widow, and overall, it’s a decent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The plot is a little dated in light of recent events and Natasha Romanoff’s eventual fate. That said, director Cate Shortland assembles a strong geopolitical spy thriller to bring Johansson’s Black Widow to the screen one more time.

Black Widow begins with a fairly striking sequence showcasing a young Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson) living in seeming domestic normalcy with her beloved sister Yelena (McGraw) and cared for by their “mother,” Melina (Weisz). However, it’s all a facade for an elaborate ruse of espionage. Natasha is ripped from her quiet, albeit fabricated, life of seclusion and forced into the spycraft servitude of the Red Room. What nicely separates Black Widow from some past Marvel iterations is its depiction of some rather harrowing imagery and subject matter. Cate Shortland sets a tense mood with these early sequences. There’s also an impressive opening credit sequence tracking Natasha Romanoff and the Red Room’s history set to a broodier cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Considering opening credit sequences such as this have become a dying breed of sorts, it was nice to see one show up in Black Widow.

Events pick up for Natasha in what’s clearly set after the majority of the events of Captain America: Civil War. She’s still on the run and a federal fugitive from Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (Hurt). While Natasha is trying to lay low and stay off the grid, a chance encounter with a deadly assassin called the Taskmaster puts her on a collision course for a reunion with her long-lost “sister,” Yelena Belova (Pugh). Yelena has managed to break free from the Red Room’s control, similar to Natasha’s escape in the past. Now it’s time for the Black Widow to exorcise some past demons and confront the darkest parts of her history.

For starters, it was great to see a Marvel movie like this in theaters again. Cate Shortland asserts herself very well considering this is her first major blockbuster outing. However, her past experience with heady independent dramas such as Sommersault and psychological thrillers such as Berlin Syndrome actually pays off quite well for Black Widow. The action scenes are fairly well shot and put together, and the combat and editing are easy to see and follow.

Scarlett Johansson is great in this role, so it’s fun to finally see her take center stage in her own story. As the cinematic introduction for Yelena Belova, best known as the second Black Widow in the Marvel comics, Florence Pugh is easily the breakout star here. Johansson and Pugh have created a great, fun relationship between two would-be sisters. Their chemistry works, and their lively dynamic carries the narrative.

The most disappointing aspect of Black Widow is the utilization of longtime Avengers and Marvel Universe rogue, Taskmaster. Long have fans waited to see a live-action motion picture version of Taskmaster. Unfortunately, this one turns out to be little more than a rotten carrot. It’s a pointless deviation that could have served many other Marvel characters. Using Taskmaster in this fashion is highly questionable. The issue will likely be debated in essays, videos and more for years to come. While Marvel Studios pretty much wrote the book on how to create a satisfying superhero movie, along with a sustainable long-running franchise, their onscreen villains tend to be lacking.

Taskmaster is a cool villain with a power that’s a unique puzzle to solve; a master technician and hand-to-hand fighter who can mimic or predict and read any fighting style. There’s a slight homage to that ability, but it’s not used to maximum effect here. In addition, the cinematic version of Taskmaster has none of the sardonic and wry personality that adds to him being such a memorable character in the comics. Sadly, Taskmaster, one of the most underrated rogues of the Marvel pantheon is wasted here, and that’s an utter shame.

The other central villain at work in Black Widow is Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov. It’s a rather underwhelming, one-dimensional, one-note character. Winstone’s attempt at a Russian accent is woefully bad, along with his performance as a Soviet-Era holdout baddie. There’s a rather obvious reference in Black Widow to another popular spy movie franchise that’s ironically amusing, considering the villains in that franchise are typically more memorable or charismatic at this point — with some exceptions of course. Winstone is a talented actor, but it’s a dull performance.

David Harbour is little more than this film’s comic relief as Alexei Shostakov, Russia’s equivalent to Captain America, known as the Red Guardian. Alexei adds little to the plot of the overall movie, other than garnering laughs with his fun and charismatic character.

The film digs in hard on the theme of Natasha’s dysfunctional “family” which she lost before turning to her Avengers family. Deep down, Natasha is searching for redemption and absolution for her past sins, which is a powerful message felt throughout the film.

Considering this is a prequel story set primarily in 2016, more could have been done to service what lies ahead for Natasha. So, this isn’t quite the grand swan song for the Natasha Romanoff Black Widow that it should be. Granted, had this film been made several years ago, Florence Pugh might not have been involved, and she’s the best new addition to the MCU cast.

While far from being one of the best installments of the MCU, Black Widow is still a fairly decent outing, propelled by spirited performances by Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh’s characters. Coupled with strong direction and action, it made for an exciting cinematic experience, which is needed now more than ever.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Black Widow is a solid installment as a solo adventure focused on Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, and serves as a satisfying introduction for Florence Pugh's new Black Widow, Yelena Belova. It's not close to being one of the best installments of the MCU, but it does have some decent action, some fun performances and a few striking and unsettling, well-put-together sequences by director Cate Shortland. Unfortunately, the film's villains and the depiction of Taskmaster fail to elevate the film to a higher level. Instead, a great Marvel character is wasted, and that's a shame. Regardless, despite coming rather late, Black Widow served as a nice outing at the movies.