Black Widow movie review: Natasha Romanoff deserves better
Black Widow is in many ways a consolation movie — made after much criticism and pressure from the fans, and it feels like just that — a movie for the sake of one which not only adds little to the MCU, it does little for this character.
castScarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone
Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow always deserved better.
One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most overlooked characters, the Avenger was first introduced in Iron Man 2 as a painfully sexualised superspy, before gradually being given more depth and significance through the subsequent Captain America and Avengers movies. That is, before her heartbreaking death, sacrificing herself on Vormir in Avengers: Endgame (one of the very few ‘actual’ deaths in the MCU which is notorious for bringing characters back to life all the time).
Marvel’s latest movie Black Widow is a prequel, designed to give Nat her own (long overdue) standalone movie, and finally give us the story of her origins. Drakov’s daughter, Budapest, the Red Room - things we have heard casual passing mentions of in previous movies are finally explored and explained. Directed by Cate Shortland (MCU's first solo female director, which took them a mere 13 years and 24 films to get to), Black Widow is a sincere effort but an unremarkable one. Throw in the baggage and stakes of serving as the final farewell for the beloved character, and it is a disappointing one.
Despite its earnest intent of finally giving Natasha her due, the movie does not rise above strictly... serviceable, ticking the all too familiar basic blockbuster boxes.
It is in many ways a consolation movie — made after much criticism and pressure from the fans, and it feels like just that — a movie for the sake of one which not only adds little to the MCU, it does little for this character.
The film is set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Romanoff is on the run from General Ross, who continues his crusade to round up the Avengers who defied the Sokovia Accords. And of course, as the unwritten rules of superhero movies dictate, just as she goes into hiding after one adventure, a new one immediately comes to find her, this one tied to her past. Granted, it is a trope that comes with the territory of these movies but here, I was particularly aware of it because there just is not enough going on to absorb you or distract you from its conveniences.
With the Avengers, the surrogate superhero family she discovered — now tearing at the seams, a new threat forces her to seek out her surrogate spy family she was assigned. The undercover Russians-posing-as-Americans fake family she grew up with, made up of Alexei (David Harbour), Melina (Rachel Weisz), and ‘younger sister’ Yelena (Florence Pugh). These are people from the life she abandoned, with whom she must team up once again to make amends for her past and finally bring down the Red Room that created her. In terms of what it is going for, Black Widow follows the blueprint of Captain America: The Winter Soldier in everything from its stakes and villains to its (relatively) more grounded setting that is more super spies than superheroes.
The first 20 minutes, which see Nat in hiding, were, for me, the film's strongest. For one, they are actually about her, before the plot takes over, and somewhat sidelines her. We see her isolated and alone, still coming to terms with her world being torn apart and the Avengers imploding. It is the rare period of calm before the template superhero storm.
From thereon in, the proceedings may be centered on her old life, sure, but it is more focused on those around her. Black Widow is part a ‘getting the band back together’ movie, and part a launch vehicle for introducing Florence Pugh’s one-liner-spewing assassin Yelena into the MCU, who will assumedly take on the mantle of Black Widow from here. She will no doubt be considered the greatest triumph of the movie by many, but for me, her character represents its greatest failure. Marvel doing to its characters what it has done before — if you can’t fix it, reboot it.
Through Nat’s strained equation with her newly reunited fake spy family, the movie tries to delve into the trauma of having your childhood stolen and forming real attachments with strangers for whom you are 'just a job.' But I could never quite buy the extent of their connection or more importantly, their pain — here reduced to tired quips and bland banter.
Then there are the force fitted action sequences, many of which are less earned and more unnecessary. They seem to exist to merely give the film more bigness, rather than be organic to the narrative. At times, you can feel the words “insert big set piece here” written into the script. Just after her first encounter with Taskmaster (a new deadly assassin on the scene), and shortly before her second, Nat tracks down Yelena, the sister she has not seen in years. And the first thing they do for no apparent reason — is fight, because... that is just how assassins say hi I guess? Later on, there is a largely enjoyable prison break sequence, but for reasons unknown, it is followed by a massive CGI avalanche. Not to mention the all too familiar finale — another CGI-heavy contrived climax which takes place within a giant structure that seems to explode for half an hour.
And of course, most Marvel movies must come with an inbuilt villain problem. The new big bad, Taskmaster, is a relentless, brutal, mind-controlled assassin with a mysterious link to our protagonist’s past. Sound familiar? Taskmaster feels lazily sketched out of the Winter Soldier blueprint minus the formidable presence and with a more predictable payoff reveal. There is also the famed Draykov (Ray Winstone armed with a shaky Russian accent). He is a baddy that works well on paper — the white man literally controlling an army of women against their will — but amounts to little more than a really really bad guy who monologues about his grand evil plan.
There are moments in which you do get a sense of what this movie could have been. The new Nat going back to her old world. The distant, adaptable-to-a-fault former spy who is anyone the situation needs her to be, who has slowly developed compassion and connection, and learnt to rely on others and be a part of something greater. I just wish that was delved into more.
In the end, as a “it’s been a while since we’ve had the big MCU movie experience” Black Widow is never not enjoyable. But as a movie trying to give a beloved and consistently overlooked character a fitting send 0ff, it does not hit the mark, and proves to be little more than a massively mounted, middling reminder of one of the MCU's greatest failures. Natasha Romanoff still deserves better.
Black Widow is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
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