Black Widow (2021) Review: Girlboss, Gaslight, Gatekeep
Updated: Jul 13
After quickly becoming a fan favorite since her initial Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in Iron Man 2 (2010), Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is finally granted a movie dedicated to her past.
Marvel Studios' return to the big screen is as stuffed with airborne stunts and CGI explosions as it is tonally unsure of itself. The origins are far overdue and introduce new characters to supplement a story that should have been told years ago. While there is no clear-cut villain nor adversary, Romanoff, and her "sister" Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), set out to take down the Red Room: the ruthless assassin academy that turns orphaned girls into 'Widows.' An unsettling opening credits montage displays just how unforgiving the Red Room is.
Pugh shines as Belova and she quickly steals the show away from Johansson. Her dry cracks leveled out with emotional bursts give depth to the newcomer as she breaks into the MCU. It feels as if Johansson is set up to become a supporting character in her own movie. In fact, it's never elaborated as to how Romanoff earns her alias of the "Black Widow." She may be sitting on the sidelines instead of standing in her own spotlight, but it's Johansson's most likable performance as the deadly assassin to date. David Harbour's Alexei "Red Guardian" Shostakov is simply portly comic relief with baggage weighing him down. There is room to introduce the Winter Guard as Shostakov relives his glory as the "Red Guardian" despite Marvel's complete declination to do so. If the filmmakers would have slowed down to flesh out a fuller-feeling family dynamic, there would have been richness found in an off-beat fractured foursome as Rachel Weisz's easily forgettable Melina Vostokoff joins in.
Black Widow feels a bit out of place when set into the MCU timeline, and while it satisfies the age-old question as to what happened in Budapest between Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Romanoff, it feels misaligned by wedging itself between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It does, however, give a nod to Romanoff's blonde bob and army green tactical vest which she sported in Avengers: Infinity War. It also insights Romanoff's fierce loyalty to those that she cares about and the lengths that she'll take to remain dedicated to what she feels is right.
The plot seems to pile up on itself as one conflict leeches onto the next. Self-aware humor diffuses bloodless violence that loses its punch through dizzying slow-motion cuts in overabundance. The third act becomes one prolonged stretch of hand-to-hand combat and demolition alike, greatly taking away from the focal points of what Black Widow sets itself up to be. There is an effort to dissuade the hypersexualization of Romanoff that has been cast upon her since her comic book emergence. Johansson has been known to speak on the objectification of "Black Widow" throughout her MCU career, and Black Widow proves that Romanoff is more of an action hero than a disposable love interest.
There's reignited affection for the camera-ready, arachnid-posing Avenger as she returns to seek revenge. Maybe not Marvel's most poignant piece, Black Widow is a suiting sendoff to Johansson's presence in the MCU. Marvel's long-awaited return to cinema is an unpunctual treat and a stifled superheroine stand-alone.
*There is one mid-credit scene.*