Review: Black Widow (2021)

Director: Cate Shortland
Screenwriters: Ned Benson, Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone
Genres: Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language, and thematic material
Release Date: 7/9/21
Runtime: 2h 14min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%
Where to Watch: Theatres; Disney+ Premier Access

It’s fair to say that Black Widow has been one of the most anticipated movies of 2021, and not just because of the pandemic, which delayed its release for over a year (going two years without a Marvel film is very difficult for a MCU nerd like myself, but thankfully there are several being released this year alone).  This is the first [and only] time Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff gets a solo film, despite having been around since 2010’s Iron Man 2.  It’s more than a little jarring to see Nat — as her friends call her — alive and well in Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, which takes place between the events of  Captain American: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, when Nat is on the run after having gone against the Sokovia accords.  This film aims to fill in the blanks on what she was up to in between those two films, as well as on her childhood and what led her to become a Black Widow and then to join SHIELD. 

Honestly, the opening of the film is perhaps my favorite part of the entire movie, as it sets up the story in a very unique way and introduces the characters with whom we’ll spend the majority of the runtime.  It’s twisty and surprising, and really sets the bar high for the rest of the film, which unfortunately doesn’t always live up to that.  Sure, the action sequences are fun, but they don’t necessarily change the game or do anything new, and I sometimes wished it wasn’t so easy for characters like Nat and Yelena (Florence Pugh) to walk away from impossible, near-death situations with barely a scratch.  (Seriously, they’re not gods or superhuman, so they shouldn’t be able to fall out of a plane and survive with minimal problems).  That’s not to say that the action scenes aren’t exciting, and there’s even a brilliant joke in regards to Nat’s fighting pose, courtesy of a fantastic Pugh. 

On that note, I have to say that Pugh almost always steals scenes away from Johansson, which is not an easy task; despite and perhaps in spite of the obvious age difference between the two, they play off each other really well and are believable as sisters.  Pugh is as gifted with the comedic moments as she is with the more emotional ones, and her low-pitched voice is well-suited for a Russian accent, and hers is the most convincing among those faking Russian accents.  Speaking of bad Russian accents, Ray Winstone seems to be barely trying with his, and I found his villain — despite his rather menacing appearance — to be among the most disappointing elements of the movie.  Clearly, he’s a terrible person, but he isn’t developed well enough or seen nearly enough for us, as the viewer, to be scared of him. 

The rest of the supporting cast is solid, including Harbour, who is delightfully absurd, even if his performance approaches caricature territory.  It’s clear he had a blast in the role, and it made me want to see another film with that character.  I do wish that Rachel Weisz had more to do, as she doesn’t show up until well into the film, and she was making some very interesting choices, and therefore could have used more screen time.  There’s also The Handmaid’s Tale’s OT Fagbenle (who’s apparently British) in a small role as a Q-type character who appears to be flirting with Nat.  I would’ve liked the script to explore that relationship a bit more, as Johansson actually had more chemistry with him than she ever did with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. 

Black Widow discusses some very dark topics, and although I appreciated the moments of levity in the form of some typically wry Marvel humor — mostly courtesy of Pugh’s Yelena and David Harbour’s Alexei — I wanted the script to go even further.  Of course, because it’s a Disney production, there’s a limit to what can be done in order to not go beyond a PG-13 rating.  Why can’t they follow Warner/DC’s lead and release at least one film that merits an R rating, like last year’s Birds of Prey and the upcoming The Suicide Squad?  That would’ve made Widow truly unique and revelatory, and to exceed expectations. 

This is not to say that the move isn’t enjoyable and worth watching, but rather, it’s a slight step back after the brilliance (in my opinion) of the last two MCU releases: Avengers: Endgame (a perfect film) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (the best Spidey entry yet).  It’s better than the worst MCU film, Thor: The Dark World, but it’s not top-tier Marvel for me.  I will, however, include it in my yearly MCU rewatch, and I’m sure there will be easter eggs and other things that I’ll notice on repeated watches that I didn’t notice the first time.  Also, I’d highly recommend seeing this on the big screen, as opposed to renting it on Disney+, at least for the first time. 

Widow does have a post-credit scene, which picks up after the events of Endgame and should directly connect to the Disney+ MCU shows, both ones that have already aired and those that are on the docket.  If you’re a die-hard MCU fan like myself, it’s worth it to stay past the credits.  Also, I was pleased at how many questions about Nat’s past were answered, even though there are still some unknowns.  We have some clarity on what actually happened in Budapest, as well as why Nat doesn’t really know who her real parents are (as mentioned in Endgame).  Even if you’re not into the MCU and haven’t been following Nat’s journey since her first appearance, it’s still easy to enjoy the film and feel invested in her story.