Black Widow (2021) – Reel Review

Director: Cate Shortland | 2h14mins | Action, Sci-Fi

Set just after the events of Captain America: Civil War, on the run Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) attempts to completely fall off the grid until she unexpectedly comes face to face with her past; Her ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) and their ‘parents’ Alexia Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz).

Every review you’ll read of Black Widow – whether they loved or hated the film – will say the same thing; it’s long overdue. Johansson has been a key part of the The Avengers and general MCU since her inception in the Iron Man trilogy, and though loading and cocking a handgun in the wide shots doesn’t look as impressive as The Hulk or Thor’s Hammer, she has been integral to grounding many of the fantastical aspects of the universe and helping to humanise many of the not-so-human characters.

Despite knowing her eventual outcome in Endgame, exploring the past of Romanoff has always been one of the more interesting components to her character; it has a darker and more serious tone that few others relate to. Much of it comes out in Black Widow and is fantastic to finally see this side of her character realised on screen, though potentially the biggest point of contention is the dramatic levity throughout as some important issues are put aside for the sake of a joke. This isn’t new to Marvel films but the moments that could have elevated Black Widow further are less consequential than they could have or should have been. That being said, there’s a lot to like.

The film opens on Romanoff with her undercover family in Ohio during the 1990’s, and after this extended flashback we catch up with Natasha on the run from every government worldwide. There’s many years we don’t see but feel through Natasha and Yelena’s interactions, the effects of the infamous Red Room are haunting throughout despite the aforementioned levity. Sometimes we’re given exactly what happened, and sometimes it’s more suggestion, but both work well to explain the torture these women went through.

This secret training programme run by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) for the Soviets abducts young girls from around the globe and indoctrinates them into being world class assassins. Rachel Weisz was one of the first, physical and mental torture was the chosen methology, but Yelena had a mind control agent used, enlisting Natasha to help them free the others from the Red Room with the synthetic gas that neutralises it. 

Many of the films within the MCU have blurred into one, feeling more like an extremely expensive TV show than a film, but Black Widow is a solo films that stands on its own.

Where the film really shines however, is in the families relationship, not just in the writing but the cast having the perfect chemistry. Little squabbles and snide comments throughout keep the film moving at a brisk pace even when the narrative slows to a crawl. Harbour nearly steals the show as Alexia, an ageing veteran originally meant to be the antithesis of Captain America (and though never meeting, constantly brags of their battles over the years). Though near scene stealing, he doesn’t quite take limelight from Natasha, and more importantly Yelena, as Black Widow does feel like an introduction to her character.

It might seem reductive to use Romanoff’s long overdue solo film to act as a setup for more MCU characters, but in reality it actually works well. We already know the fate of Natasha from Endgame, so quite a few of the more tense sequences lack much of that tension, but it feels more like a passing of the torch and a great emotional connection for the new addition, making her next appearance far more interesting as we’ve yet to see their fallout to Natasha’s death.

Outside of this, Cate Shortland has a really strong sense of direction for the action sequences, especially for a MCU film. It’s no secret that the editing and direction of Marvel films is choppy and confusing to say the least, and though from time to time Black Widow falls victim to the sheer intensity of CGI used, there’s a much better sense of what is actually going on throughout, with the camerawork keeping the action at a higher pace without cutting every split second.

For some the inclusion of Taskmaster might be disappointing in comparison to the comics, but within the film itself the character works relatively well – underexplored but an interesting addition none the less. Ray Winstone’s Dreykov might have one of the worst Russian accents you’ve ever heard but as the real villain of the film is far more menacing and interesting than many outside of the large antagonists like Thanos, proving further than Winstone is one of the best bad guys around today. 

Many of the films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe have blurred into one, feeling more like an extremely expensive TV show than a film, but Black Widow is one of the solo films that stands on its own without too much need to watch the 20 something films before it. It has a little more to say and discuss than a usual comic book film, and though it forgoes some of the heavy themes for comedy a few times it’ll likely go down in the upper echelon of the ever growing Marvel catalogue. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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