A year without Marvel… Just the thought of it seemed impossible after the glorious, 23-movie onslaught of the last decade, but 2020 proved we could make it through a year without our favorite spandex-clad superheroes on the big screen.
While no time would be good for any studio to take a forced yearlong hiatus, if it had to happen, the timing couldn’t have been better for the MCU. With “Avengers: Endgame” and its epilogue, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in the books to wrap up Phase 3 of the series and close out the Infinity Saga, all eyes turned to a long-awaited solo film for one of the first Avengers. Only, no one realized just how long-awaited it would truly be.
Now, “Black Widow” has finally arrived. It’s difficult to feel too detached from the last 23 films, considering this one is set in between two of them and we all saw the titular character bite the dust, yet “Black Widow” delivers a satisfying farewell to Natasha Romanoff, while effectively setting the pieces into motion to help usher the MCU into its next phase. Despite adhering closely to the Marvel formula, “Black Widow” manages to incorporate enough new tones and genre twists to keep it from feeling like just another entry.
Set in a post-“Captain America: Civil War,” pre-“Avengers: Infinity War” window, “Black Widow” finally gives Scarlett Johansson’s beloved Natasha Romanoff the solo film and backstory fans spent years begging to see. On the run and isolated from her Avengers family after breaking the Sokovia Accords, Nat has settled in Norway to lay low. A violent visit from the new big bad Taskmaster quickly ruins those plans, though, forcing Natasha to return to Budapest to confront her Black Widow past.
Along the way, Natasha’s estranged super-spy family reenters the picture. Newly freed from the mind control of the Black Widow program, Nat’s sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), joins the cause in Budapest to help track down those responsible for their creation and free the rest of the Widows. While “parents” Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) aren’t around for the entire ride, they certainly prove their worth when they are in the picture – both strategically and emotionally.
Most Marvel plots from recent phases have often required multiple paragraphs to elaborate on all of the intricate details and plot devices woven into the storyline, but in “Black Widow,” the studio returns to a more direct and streamlined narrative. This approach feels unique to this entry in the franchise, considering it’s somewhat of a return to the “Origin Story” of the early days, but with a fan-favorite at its core, none of the heavy lifting to establish a world or character is required. The simplicity has its benefits – particularly when summarizing the plot for a review – but it also comes at the cost of being called “conventional” or “typical,” which is a fair assessment.
After everything the MCU fandom has been through in the past few films – from major team-ups in “Avengers” movies to major team-ups in solo films pretending they aren’t just “Avengers” movies – reverting back to the solo film of days gone by could be a challenge. With fans conditioned to expect multiple heroes converging in the same film, how can one Avenger possibly deliver enough satisfaction alone? It turns out, drawing inspiration from one of your most beloved solo film’s is a great strategy.
Without feeling as if it’s trying to be a carbon copy, “Black Widow” channels the same gritty, international espionage thrills that made “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” such a hit. Considering Natasha’s “powers” are fairly grounded in reality, the film’s action feels that way too, relying heavily on tactical hand-to-hand combat rather than the extremes of other MCU films.
Another way to make “Black Widow” a guaranteed success is to load that cast with prestige actors. The film adds Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz and two-time Emmy-nominee David Harbour to Marvel’s ever-expanding lore, but to no surprise, it’s Oscar-nominee Florence Pugh who steals the show. “Black Widow” positions Pugh’s Yelena Belova, a fellow Widow, as the natural successor to fill the gap left by her late sister. If that’s the path Marvel chooses to take, then the Black Widow mantle is in incredibly safe hands. Pugh strikes the perfect balance between fierce and funny, delivering some of the franchise’s best one-liners and instantly cementing herself as a fan favorite.
The biggest issue with “Black Widow” comes in the form of its villain. While the trailers certainly make it seem as if Taskmaster will be the film’s big bad, the notoriously badass comic book villain is overhyped and under delivered. Instead, Taskmaster is simply doing the bidding of a higher power, who ends up falling more in line with the bland, underdeveloped villains of early Marvel films. As a result, the film’s ultimate clash comes with less of payoff, but the true story here all along was always about Natasha and her family, rather than whoever may be coming after them.
Despite its somewhat conventional nature, “Black Widow” marks a successful return to the big screen for the MCU and delivers a long overdue yet satisfying ending for a fan favorite.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.