Black Widow (2021): Movie Review

I suppose I’ll just address the elephant in the room first.

Yeah, I’m posting again, you’re not hallucinating, I really have written a new post! It’s been a while and my 2021 track record is spotty at best and abysmal at worst, so I’m going to have a crack at getting back to form. Sorry for the inconsistency, but I’m doing my best.

So I thought a good way to return is to review the film that I ranked as the film I was most excited about in my Phase 4 Prediction post, my 3rd most anticipated film of 2020 (yeah I know, don’t even go there), and a long awaited solo film for one of my favourite MCU characters.

Finally, Black Widow is here.

(This will be a spoiler-free review so feel free to dive right in even if you haven’t seen it yet! There will be spoilers for both Avengers: Endgame and the rest of the MCU, so if you’re one of the four people who haven’t seen the films, you might want to turn back now!)

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in Black Widow (2021) dir. Cate Shortland

Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow is a 2021 standalone film that chronologically comes right after Captain America: Civil War (2016) and explores some of Natasha Romanoff’s time spent on the run, where she encounters her traumatic past and comes face to face with the red in her ledger.

I’m going start off on a bit of a negative here, because I think this movie would have been even better if it was released either right after Civil War or at least sometime before Avengers: Infinity War (2018) because it would have capitalised on the momentum of that storyline while giving one of the shared-universe’s most popular and beloved heroes the solo film she’s deserved since her entrance into the MCU in Iron Man 2 (2010). Placing it after Endgame and right at the start of the fourth phase’s cinematic entries is a weird choice, but on the whole it doesn’t affect the cinema-going experience.

Maybe it’s because this was my first MCU film in the cinema since Spider-Man: Far From Home and my Marvel enthusiasm has returned in full force, but I absolutely adored this movie.

Shortland, along with writer Eric Pearson, has crafted a spy thriller in the vein of Captain America: The Winter Soldier with a deep, emotional core driving along the many action pieces that are superbly choreographed and plotted. Everything ticks along with the beat of Natasha Romanoff’s heart and this iteration of the character feels like the most genuine one we’ve had since her introduction.

Where this movie differs from the usual Marvel fare is in its direction. I think there’s a lot in here that would surprise a casual Marvel viewer in terms of its characters and how it’s directed. Yes, the Marvel machine plods along and produces quite compulsory beats so you can sort of see where everything’s headed if you’ve seen enough of the films, but Black Widow introduces a few elements that shake the formula up a little, something that’s become quite desperately needed after some of Phase 3’s weaker instalments. Cate Shortland has done an incredible job with this film and proves that female directors should be hired in abundance for this franchise and outside of it. And getting indie directors to handle large blockbuster movies continues to work wonders for giving the movies their individuality, something that Black Widows has in spades.

Now I want to get to my favourite part of the movie so I can gush about it for a while. THIS CAST.

Scarlett Johansson delivers her best turn in the MCU and if this truly is the end for her as Natasha Romanoff, you would be remiss to find a better send off for her. After 11 years and 8 memorable performances within the MCU, Black Widow gives Johansson the chance to show more of her range than she ever has. She’s as vulnerable as we’ve ever seen her, but her deeper connections with the Avengers provide her with a steely grit and determination to protect those closest to her, which in turn allows Johansson to play off the provided history that we’re able to glean from the interconnectivity of the universe she’s playing in. Natasha is no longer a mysterious spy with a chequered past and emotional walls as high as the sky. She’s a fully fleshed-out human being with heart, pain, and soul while maintaining the aura of always being the smartest and most capable person in the room.

The supporting cast complement Johansson’s layered work in the best way possible. Rachel Weisz has some excellent moments as Melina Vostokoff of playing several things at once, something that comes off as second-nature to an actress as skilled as she is. She makes a very important moment work in the second act and she provides a lot of balance to the film.

David Harbour impresses too as he juggles a comic sensibility with a haunted history that swims in his eyes and never sits too far away from the surface as he reckons with his choices. Harbour’s natural affability works wonders here as it’s a tricky role to play and you never quite know where you stand with Alexei Shostakov.

I hope we see more of O-T Fagbenle as Rick Mason in the MCU because he’s such a screen presence that he leaves an impression even with limited screen time. He has a natural charisma that just pours out in every scene he’s in, so I really hope this isn’t the end for his character.

Yes, I’ve left the best until last. Yes, I’m not going to shut up about her performance of rest of my life. It’s the one and only Florence Pugh who runs away with this movie as Yelena Belova. She is nothing short of exceptional here and it’s only what you’d naturally expect from an actress as talented as Pugh. Her accent work is wonderful, she has the comedic timing down to a science, and just as easily lands the emotional beats of her character arc. It’s truly beautiful work and is up there with Zoe Saldana and Josh Brolin in Infinity War as one of the best performances in the MCU. Her on-screen chemistry with Scarlett Johansson is effortless and it’s clear the two have deep respect for each other as actresses and had fun working together. Yelena is at the heart of the movie’s ideology and making her character work was an important task for the movie which absolutely paid off. She’s entertaining, intriguing, and Pugh absolutely shines in every moment. Knowing that she’ll be back in Hawkeye makes me very excited and I cannot wait to see her develop the character further.

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh as Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova in Black Widow (2021) dir. Cate Shortland

The other important aspect of this movie is the action. For a movie centring on Natasha, the action is expected to be of a high standard and the movie does not disappoint in that area. The fight choreography is expertly done, performed well by both the actors and their stunt doubles (who by the way never get the credit they richly deserve so shout out to them!). Shortland directs them well and the editing by Leigh Folsom Boyd and Matthew Schmidt is masterful at times. There are some of the most exciting action sequences the MCU has to offer here that both builds off Natasha’s signature fighting style while also bringing some new energy to the stunts. The inclusion of Taskmaster, a character whose signature ability is mimicry of other fighting styles, almost like a mirror image, provides a fluid way of harking back to other MCU characters and movies by emulating the fighting styles of some of the franchise’s most notable heroes. There are points where I got quite giddy recognising a move previously adopted by another MCU hero, which reinforces to me how brilliantly the MCU actually is at creating a Universe. It’s ironic that things comes up in the film that’s probably furthest away from the Marvel formula since Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) or the first few episodes of WandaVision (2021).

Black Widow may just be filling in a blank for a character who fans think died quite unfairly in the battle against Thanos, but it’s slick, dynamic direction and moving, invigorating storytelling renders it as far more than just a typical Marvel entry. It’s not reinventing the wheel of superhero fare, but neither it is sitting collecting dust as one of Marvel’s more forgettable entries into the MCU. It’s engaging work that provides a few surprises along the way, particularly a post-credits scene that once again inspires excitement for a future Marvel project. I think by now they’ve gotten the hang of sustaining our interest in their many entries into the MCU.

I think having a year off in 2020 from any MCU releases benefits this movie quite a lot. Even though 2021 has already seen three television series bumped onto Disney Plus around other characters, the year off gave fans a chance to rest from the back-to-back-to-back releases in 2018/2019 that saw the conclusion of the Infinity Saga. Kicking off Phase 4’s cinematic entries with a bang, Black Widow solidifies Marvel’s competence in the ever-growing universe they are building, while paying a sincere tribute to a character who stole the hearts of many all those years ago and finally gets the solo entry she’s always deserved.

Black Widow is in UK cinemas now and releases in the US and other territories on July 9th!

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