by Robbie Jones
Blockbuster releases took a hit in 2020, as the biggest films of the year were pushed back when cinemas worldwide were closed; one of the most significant of these delays came with the decision to push back Black Widow and Eternals, the two newest entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has released at least one film every year since 2010. Obviously, we don’t need to discuss the constant presence and overall impact of the MCU – mainly because it’s all anyone talks about anyway – but it’s an undeniable staple of the cinematic conversation these days, so a year without movies for the first time in a decade is pretty significant. Maybe we weren’t willing to admit it at the time but, in retrospect, even the most avid MCU lovers can admit that the time away from that universe has actually been a welcome one.
In addition to the oversaturation that many people already feel is a problem with this genre, 2019 saw the release of Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of the Infinity Saga that brought an overwhelming end to the thread of the MCU that started in 2008, followed by Spider-Man: Far From Home which immediately dealt with the film’s impact and left us with a cliff-hanger that put the wall-crawler in danger. To jump from those straight into the next slew of films would have potentially been exhausting, so having that year off actually gave fans a little time to breathe and reflect on the series as it stood before cracking on with the next chapters, even if we still missed our favourite superhero content. The MCU made a triumphant return in 2021 with WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and Loki, a trio of streaming hits released on Disney+ to acclaim from fans and critics alike, reminding us how big the universe is and proving that it can still get bigger. With those under the belt, it was time to get back to the films, and the first of four releases for 2021 finally comes to us in the form of Black Widow.
Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow takes us back to the fallout of Captain America: Civil War, where Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from General Ross after the disaster that became of the Sokovia Accords. Thinking she may have finally found peace, she is targeted by a mysterious new villain called The Taskmaster, and contacted by her younger sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). She’s been under the spell of the manipulative General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and, now that she’s freed, she needs Natasha’s help to free the rest of the women trapped in the Black Widow programme from the Red Room, the place where these women are brainwashed and tortured into becoming perfect assassins. Having spent years thinking she’d already destroyed Dreykov and the Red Room, Natasha’s horror prompts her to reconcile with her sister and reconnect with their “parents”, Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), to stop it once and for all.
It was already rewarding getting to see a new MCU film after that break, but even more rewarding when it’s one of their best. Black Widow is a thrilling spectacle; an enticing spy film packed with tremendous action sequences and grounded with a family dynamic as endearing as it is entertaining. For her first action film, Shortland has a keen eye for what makes an action sequence work, and combined with cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, they provide some of the best grounded fight scenes and chases this franchise has to offer. Thrills aside, it’s the four leading characters that make up the heart of the film; there’s plenty of fun to be had as the family bicker but, despite the questionable means in which they were put together, the connection between them is rooted in something very real and meaningful.
Some of the film’s best moments involve the characters, specifically Yelena, coming to terms with the reality of their past together and ultimately fighting together to prove that family goes beyond blood. It’s not a theme that hasn’t already been done in the MCU, but it’s perfectly executed. David Harbour is wonderful comic relief and Scarlett Johansson has never been better in the role, but the film’s standout performer is Florence Pugh. A surprise to no-one who’s been following her work the last few years, Pugh nails the vulnerability, naivety and heartbreak Yelena carries with her in the film. With her involvement in future series, it makes sense that they would use this film to introduce Yelena and let her run away with it, and avoids feeling like a disservice to Johansson –who is finally getting the solo outing she deserves, but then sharing it with another actress – because the connection between the two leads feels incredibly authentic, even better than some we’ve already had in this franchise that have been around longer.
Black Widow finds its strengths not in teamwork or superheroes, but sisterhood. Family itself is a key theme as well, but there’s something more specific to it with these two at the centre of it. Shared pain and shared growth, the understanding of what came before and what needs to be done to stop it happening again. In that sense, the stakes presented in this film feel like some of the most drastic in the MCU. Perhaps it’s not as big or as disastrous as wiping out half the universe, but it’s terror and devastation on a more human level. By reducing the size of the threat, it expands even further, and that sets Black Widow apart from the franchises’ recent outings.
Whilst there is a lot to love about Black Widow, the film is burdened by the ever present feeling that we’re getting too little, too late; Natasha has been a fan favourite for over a decade, and her personality and backstory were just screaming for a solo outing. Fans wanted it for years and we finally have one, but not until the character has already been killed off in another film. They had no choice but to regress to the character at such a different time for when she passed, to tell a story that would have been ideal right after Civil War, when the film takes place. Of course, an earlier release might have meant losing out on this great director, stellar cast and whatever accent Ray Winston is trying to achieve here, but at least we wouldn’t be left feeling like the character was nothing more than an afterthought.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is not devoid of passion, but to not give it to us until after the character is already dead in universe and there’s nothing left to explore is such a kick in the teeth, and retroactively makes her death scene in Endgame (already the wrong choice in that scene) even worse.
Despite all that, Black Widow is a fantastic achievement for this universe, standing alongside the best of the franchise in terms of its filmmaking, emotional dynamics, and performances. We’re three TV shows and a film down in 2021, and still another three to go before the year is out. Let’s hope they continue being this strong, and that our enthusiasm doesn’t fade.
Black Widow is out in cinemas now and on Disney Plus!