Film / Film Reviews

Black Widow review: Dir. Cate Shortland (2021)

After the triumphant Marvel Studios opening sequence, it would be easy to forget that Black Widow was even part of the biggest film franchise on the planet. When we’re first introduced to a young Natasha Romanoff, she’s just an ordinary girl living in Ohio with her parents and her sister Yelena, before being whisked away and taken by the sinister Dreykov (referenced first in Avengers Assemble, played here by Ray Winstone). In case it wasn’t entirely clear just what sort of tone director Cate Shortland wanted to set, a dramatic cover of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit plays over an haunting title sequence, hinting at the life Natasha lead before the events of Iron Man 2 over ten years ago. Shortland seems most comfortable with the spy thriller vibe that Black Widow gives off at first, but by the time David Harbour‘s Alexei / Red Guardian (Soviet Russia’s answer to Captain America) rocks up, the whole film pivots towards a more conventional Marvel Studios formula of witty one-liners, tongue-in-cheek gags, Avengers references and CGI-laden action sequences. Thankfully, Black Widow manages to work, both as a solid spy flick and as an Avengers spin-off, and the unique (for Marvel Studios at least) tone set by the opening hasn’t entirely dissipated by the end.

Quite why Natasha / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) hasn’t received a solo film until now is still quite baffling, and while the obvious idea would be to make a conventional origin story, Cate Shortland‘s film instead opts to merely hint at her backstory whilst focusing on the person Natasha becomes between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. She may not have received an Avengers funeral, but the character does get some satisfying closure here. Johansson is as good as ever in the role, although not as mysterious or elusive as she was in her earlier supporting appearances, and really seems to have put the time into the fight sequences. The star of the show is definitely Florence Pugh as Yelena, with an incredibly nuanced performance that can make you laugh one minute and cry your eyes out the next. Pugh has already proven herself to be an incredible talent in the likes of Lady Macbeth, Fighting with My Family and Little Women, and gets to add badass superspy to her acting credits here. I hope we see more of her in future Marvel projects!

David Harbour is clearly having a lot of fun as Natasha and Yelena’s surrogate father, complete with dad bod and a goofy personality. He’s very much the film’s comic relief, and whilst sometimes this becomes a little repetitive and even somewhat cartoonish, I loved the small conversation scene between him and Pugh’s Yelena. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast feel a little short-changed here. Rachel Weisz‘s Melina is an interesting character on paper, if only the film could work out what to do with her. Her motivations remain vague throughout, and it feels like some key moments were left on the cutting room floor. Ray Winstone‘s Derykov is an incredibly repellent main villain for the film, but both he and the mysterious Taskmaster lack much presence after the beginning of the film, and are unlikely to go down as memorable Marvel baddies. I think that Dreykov’s plan nicely ties in to the complex themes of the film, but the whole final act felt very similar to that of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The action is quite varied throughout: the stunt work is generally excellent (and it’s great to see the actors doing the fights themselves), but is sometimes marred by generic shaky-cam and some poor editing – a moment when Natasha and Yelena are attacked by other Black Widows in Budapest feels very chopped together – while the CGI flying and floundering in the final act feels quite out-of-place in this more grounded MCU film. Despite setting up a whole army of Widows as the main baddies, the film often resorts to rather boring Stormtrooper-esque soldiers to get beaten up and killed at various moments; I suspect they may have fared a bit better if they weren’t struggling to see through their sci-fi helmets. Director Cate Shortland does manage to keep the film emotionally grounded throughout though, even if its tone varies quite a bit, while the production quality is as strong as with every other Marvel Cinematic Universe film.

After over ten years of waiting to see her in her own movie, it’s difficult not to have unrealistically high hopes for Black Widow, and while there are issues, it’s still a really strong blockbuster in its own right. It’s much more intense than I thought it would be (for what is ostensibly a kids’ film, after all), but I really appreciated the spy/thriller approach the film was going for. I do wish that it had leaned into that a bit more, although the moments of comic relief were still a nice tonal balance. When compared to the likes of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Black Widow seems perhaps a little disappointing – it is part of the biggest film franchise in the world, after all – but it explores some really complex ideas in a really nuanced and interesting ways that will form some really great (and spoiled-filled) discussions. Nonetheless, I’m glad that Marvel Studios have finally made Black Widow, and it’s sure to delight fans all over – just make sure to stay through the credits…

Black Widow is out now in UK cinemas, and is available to watch on Disney+ with Premiere Access from 9th July.

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