Review: 'Black Widow' works, but just feels stuck in the past

Black Widow
Posted at 12:00 AM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 00:00:41-04

Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. Twitter: @tomsantilli, Facebook & Instagram: @filmsurvivor.

It's not all "Black Widow"'s fault. This long-awaited Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) feature film was supposed to have reached theaters back in May of 2020, but well...you know. Had there not been a pandemic, this movie would have seen release just under one year after the Phase Three final chapter, "Avengers: Endgame." And while the additional year of waiting has perhaps allowed us to enjoy the Marvel Disney+ TV shows a bit more ("WandaVision," "The Falcon and Winter Soldier" and nearly all of "Loki"), most Marvel fans are getting increasingly impatient as they await some forward traction with the over-arching story.

And while "Black Widow" is supposedly the first feature-film of Marvel's Phase Four, it doesn't feel like it. It does finally give Scarlett Johansson's beloved Black Widow character time to shine, a scene-stealer who has to this point just been a team player, appearing throughout other hero's films as one of two (along with Hawkeye) human Avenger members. But her new stand-alone film feels like it could have been released five, or seven years ago...a good but not great Marvel film that feels disappointing only because fans - I'm assuming - are chomping at the bit for things to move on from "Endgame."

Grade: B-

We know that the MCU will take us to new places, stories and characters eventually...they've earned that amount of trust from us. "Black Widow" in some ways suffers from the fact that it now comes after "WandaVision" and "Loki," two series that hint at the future of what the MCU will become and where it's going, matched with terrifically daring and unexpected storytelling. In other words, fans are more interested in the Quantum Realm, the TVA and the coming "multi-verse," than they are a swan song for a character that isn't going to factor into anything moving forward.

On it's own, "Black Widow" is a good action/spy movie, which at least tonally separates it from other MCU films. It does take itself more seriously than nearly every other MCU film, which makes it a bit less fun overall (there is a good running gag making fun of Natasha's iconic "hero pose," but that's about it for comedy). It finds Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) in the aftermath of "Captain America: Civil War," and while it does not play as an origin movie, it does give us some background as to her character and what led her to eventually become an Avenger.

Her entire life started as a lie...the couple she knew to be her parents, Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour) were actually Russian spies, and Natasha along with her younger sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), are recruited into the Red Room, a secret Soviet training program for young women. She learns that the leader of the Red Room, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), is still out there, and that many of the "widow" operatives have been chemically-altered to kill. Her father, now imprisoned, is some sort of superhuman (mutant?) who calls himself the Red Guardian, and Natasha reluctantly has to reunite with her sister and father to take down Dreykov and the Red Room for good.

The film features a cool villain from the comics, Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), a villain who is able to mimic the fighting styles of her opponents. Stay for the end credits to see a familiar face recently introduced in "The Falcon and The Winter Soldier" series...aside from this short, underwhelming scene, this movie gives no contribution to the future of the MCU...

...other than Florence Pugh's Yelena character. Yelena is a bit edgier than Natasha but just as much of a bad-ass. She is surely the future "Black Widow" of the MCU and will be a part of things moving forward. Had this film been released years ago, it would feel more organic and planned when she shows up sometime in the future of Phase Four. Instead, with no real reason for this film to exist other than to set her character up, it feels a bit cheap and manipulative. That, and it sort of slights Johansson's character, who ends up not even really being the star of her own movie.

We'll have to wait now for the next MCU feature, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" to see where Marvel plans to take the film universe, but right now all of the electricity and excitement can be found on the TV side of things. Because we are fully invested in the MCU - we're not going anywhere - it's OK for individual chapters to just be passable from time to time...not every movie can be "Avengers: Infinity War" or "Avengers: End Game" (both of which have set incredibly high bars for all future Marvel projects).

"Black Widow" is good, and entertaining enough, and feeds our Marvel cravings for the time being...it's an interesting side dish, but we're starting to hanker for another main course.

Grade: B-​

Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi.
Run Time: 2 hours 13 minutes.
Rated PG-13.

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Yolanda Lynes, O-T Fagbenle, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw.

​Directed by Cate Shortland ("Berlin Syndrome," "Lore," "Somersault").

"Black Widow" is in theaters and available for premium purchase on Disney+ on Friday, July 9th, 2021.