by SHAWN FLEETWOOD
Following a year of setbacks and delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Marvel Studios finally returned to movie theaters across the country this summer with the much-anticipated release of its latest film, “Black Widow.”
Directed by Cate Shortland, the movie reflects the style of an old-school spy thriller with exciting and suspenseful action sequences that leave the audience holding their collective breaths. In addition to the classic, witty humor that encompasses Marvel films, the feature symbolizes a strong debut for “Phase Four” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Set after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” fans find Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) on the run as she attempts to evade U.S. government forces following her siding with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) in “Civil War.” While managing to avoid capture, Romanoff is unexpectedly forced to grapple with the shadows of her past, which includes reuniting with her childhood stunt family comprised of “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), “mother” Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and “father” Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour). With her pseudo family at her side, Romanoff fights to take down evil Russian boss Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and his Red Room espionage program once and for all.
A primary aspect of the film that I thought was incredibly well done was the exploration of Romanoff’s early beginnings, providing fans with a look into her past work as a Black Widow assassin working for Dreykov. Throughout much of the MCU, Romanoff’s backstory has been shrouded in secrecy, with the subject only receiving short sporadic references over the course of several film appearances. In “Black Widow,” however, the heroine’s past finally gets the limelight, as the film adequately details the important moments that allowed her to grow into the Avenger she is.
Moreover, one of the most important themes pervasive throughout the film is the significance of family. In order to defeat Dreykov, Romanoff must first heal the broken ties of her stunt family. Even as she repeatedly tries to talk herself into believing that her first “family” was nothing but a facade, Romanoff can’t deny the love and affinity she developed for them throughout her youth. Ultimately, it is this understanding that eventually assists her in healing the fractures of both her stunt and Avengers families.
While Johansson’s performance was excellent as usual, the true breakout star of the film was hands down Florence Pugh. Not only did she seamlessly transition into the role of Yelena Belova, but her performance left me hungry for more of her character. Overall, Belova’s arc was much more compelling than that of the leading characters, with her comedic chops and strong emotional appeal giving viewers a new fan favorite to look out for in upcoming MCU projects.
The film did come with several weaknesses, however. Following the events of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” Marvel fans heading into “Black Widow” were well aware of Natasha Romanoff’s ultimate fate. Watching “Black Widow” before seeing her sacrificial demise in “Endgame” would have made the emotional impact of her death much more meaningful.
While the film does a great job at further expanding Romanoff’s story and providing her storyline with more meaning, her overarching legacy would have been better served had the film been made prior to “Endgame.”
Furthermore, I was not fond of the way the film handled the character of Taskmaster. In “Black Widow,” the film’s creative team completely rewrote the villain with an entirely different backstory from what we see in the Marvel comic books, replacing the man from the comics with a woman in the role of Dreykov’s daughter. While I don’t have a problem with the MCU altering certain characteristics of characters and storylines in their cinematic adaptations, to completely disregard Taskmaster’s comic origins feels like a disservice to the original writers who spent years establishing the character on the written page.
Overall, “Black Widow” is an action-packed spy thriller that makes for a thrilling return to the big screen for Marvel Studios. In many ways, the film marks a passing of the Black Widow mantle from Johansson to Pugh, setting up an exciting future for the character of Yelena Belova. While an earlier release would have provided more emotional weight to Romanoff’s final actions in the last Avengers installment, the movie does a terrific job at giving the heroine the solo film she has so long deserved.