REVIEW: Black Widow (2021)

blackwidow_posterMarvel’s Black Widow finally hits cinemas next week, delayed from its original 2020 release by COVID-19 and – let us be honest – about seven or eight years late to begin with. Scarlett Johansson debuted as the international spy and assassin Natasha Romanov in 2010’s Iron Man 2, and has since appeared in an additional seven Marvel Studios features. The character’s Marvel journey ended in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, but despite palpable audience demand only now gets a solo feature. Thankfully this new adventure is well worth the wait – and it seems the right choice to have delayed its release until more people could see it in a movie theatre. This is big screen popular entertainment par excellence.

Set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow sees Natasha on the run from the American military. When an unexpected package pulls her deep into her past career as a Russian assassin, she is forced to confront old enemies as well as past regrets.

Personally I find Marvel Studios excels when it exploits the wide range of potential stories and genres available via its characters. Black Widow is an excellent example of this: while it inhabits the same fictional universe as Captain Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy, it feels much closer in style to Mission: Impossible and The Bourne Identity. It immediately sets Black Widow apart from much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the closest preceding film to its tone and style is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but if anything this feels more grounded. It also feels more self-contained than most other Marvel films; while an understanding of Natasha’s previous screen appearances will provide a fuller picture, Black Widow could easily be watched by anyone whether an MCU fan or not.

Director Cate Shortland does a fantastic job with the film’s healthy pastiche of the spy genre, but she also leaves plenty of room for scenes of character development and dialogue. It shows off why Shortland was such an inspired choice to direct the film: at first she seemed an odd appointment, but Black Widow arguably contains more time on developing its characters and relationships than any Marvel picture to date. Viewers hoping for wall-to-wall action may be disappointed, but the film benefits enormously from how well it expands and enhances Natasha in particular.

It is a great character to expand as well. In both comics and films Natasha is a stand-out character. Not only does she lack super powers she lacks a distinctive schtick; Hawkeye plays on his Green Arrow-like archery skills, but Black Widow has always been a straight-up professional fighter and secret agent. Without an easy hook for readers and viewers she has always relied on good writing and character work to succeed, and combined with Scarlett Johansson’s strong performances she has been a reliable and entertaining presence throughout the core Avengers movies. As a solo film Black Widow plays to both Natasha’s strengths and Johansson’s. As what is almost certainly going to be a one-off, it backs every emotional punch at once and is all the stronger for it.

Not that it does not leave story options closed. Surrounding Natasha in her final adventure are a host of strong, well-developed, and satisfying new characters and story threads. Chief among them is clearly Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova, as close to a sister as Natasha ever had. Clearly set up as a long-term replacement on the Avengers roster, she is thankfully both written and performed as a distinctive character – and one almost guaranteed to become a fan favourite. Pugh is a sensational actor, and a more than worthy replacement for Johansson.

Other great new characters include Stranger Things alumnus David Harbour as Russia’s own Captain America substitute the Red Guardian – who is played with both gusto and humour – and Rachel Weisz as scientist and mother figure Melina Vostokoff. Scoring Weisz for this pivotal role is a huge win for the film, given its more character-based focus. As the film’s chief antagonist Ray Winstone struggles a little to find a convincing Russian accent, but with an actor as entertaining as Winstone on screen I essentially did not mind.

Ultimately Black Widow is a film about male violence against women, and it is from a valuable perspective of women as survivors rather than women as victims. Long-term Marvel fans may remember a fairly excruciating exchange in Avengers: Age of Ultron in which Natasha described herself as a monster; that conversation is revisited here in a much stronger manner, and with much better outcomes. Black Widow is rock-solid proof of why Hollywood needs to hire more women to direct films.

Potential viewers should not be discouraged by talk of gender issues and male-on-female violence. The truth is Black Widow balances this subject matter with outstanding action sequences on a par with other recent espionage franchises and with considerably more humour. This is without question one of the funniest and warmest films Marvel Studios have made. It is a much-anticipated and well-earned farewell to one exceptional character, and a pitch-perfect introduction to another. Put simply: Black Widow is an absolute knock-out. There is another six months to go in 2021, but for now this is the blockbuster of the year.

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