Review: Black Widow Only Teases a More Morally Enlightened Future for the MCU

Black Widow isn’t terribly hard to follow, but in execution the film moves so haphazardly as to be bewildering.

Black Widow
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s telling that after ostensibly wiping the slate clean with Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe begins its Phase Four rollout with a retread. Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, a belated standalone film for Russian assassin turned American black-ops asset Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), is at a disadvantage from the start. As Black Widow died during Endgame, the film adds to the messiness of the MCU’s continuity, but the character had no particularly tantalizing threads left unexplored.

Indeed, the opening of Black Widow, set in 1995 as a young Natasha (played by Ever Anderson) is whisked from an undercover mission in suburban Ohio into the Red Room assassin program that will forcibly mold her into a super-agent, merely distends the character’s long-ago summarized backstory. In its depiction of a fake family of post-Soviet agents—posing as a suburban family alongside Natasha are her adoptive parents, Russian super-soldier Red Guardian (David Harbour) and scientist Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), and younger sister, Yelena (played by Florence Pugh as an adult and Violet McGraw as a child)—the intro largely plays out as a clumsy, Marvel-fied homage to FX’s The Americans.

After that prologue, the film picks up right after the events of the Russo brothers’ Captain America: Civil War, with an older Natasha still in hiding from the government for aiding Steve Rogers. Quickly, though, she’s drawn out by Yelena, who was also handed to the Red Room and has only recently rebelled against the brainwashing and training program. The two become embroiled in a plot to protect an antidote to a mind control poison that the Red Room uses on its elite assassins, and in their attempt to bring down the organization that tortured them, they must reassemble their old, fake family and confront the trauma of their past.


Boiled down to its essence, this narrative isn’t terribly hard to follow, but in execution the film moves so haphazardly as to be bewildering. Almost every single clue about the Red Room that Natasha uncovers leads to a bloated action sequence that, with its combination of sloppy editing and garish CGI, invariably comes across as a parody of the Marvel house style. Actively incongruous in a film that centers around one of the Avengers team’s least supernatural members, these conflagrations of crashing metal and billowing explosions throw visual coherence to the wind and are consistently punctuated by quippy dialogue. When, say, Red Guardian and Melina, both older and sadder, re-enter the film, they do so with a chaotically barreling narrative momentum that blunts the characters’ potential emotional impact.

Occasionally, things slow down long enough for characters to speak for more than three minutes without something exploding. Even then, though, moments that should be tender and revealing, like Natasha and Yelena sharing a beer over stories of how sharply their lives diverged, ultimately fall back on the stale Marvel formula of sardonic, self-referential humor amid matter-of-fact exposition dumps about a particular character’s experiences. Treating psychological revelations as just one more piece of narrative connective tissue simply turns subtext into text, transforming confrontations between faux-siblings and parents that should feel bracing into more markers paving the way toward a tidy resolution.

In its final stretch, however, Shortland’s film finally stumbles upon a novel idea. As is hinted by their name, the Avengers are a reactive force, as they respond to catastrophe with a vindictive brand of justice. But Black Widow, whose main characters are driven for most of the film’s running time by hatred and thoughts of revenge, accepts the possibility of a different kind of resolution—that is, one rooted as much in Natasha’s desire to atone for her own lifetime of violence as it is in her longing to force her tormentors to answer for theirs.


Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron notoriously sought to generate pathos for Natasha with a horribly reductionist line about her feeling like a monster for having had an involuntary hysterectomy at the Red Room. In its final moments, Black Widow gives its heroine the humanity she never quite gained in her appearances in prior Marvel films, and it’s a shame that this slight but crucial wrinkle to the familiar morality of so many superhero stories ultimately feels more like a twist than a springboard for a new, more morally enlightened era of the MCU.

 Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw  Director: Cate Shortland  Screenwriter: Eric Pearson  Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures  Running Time: 133 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2021  Buy: Video

Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in MTV News and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

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