Black Widow Synopsis: Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow, confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy while teaming up with her long-lost sister Yelena (Florence Pugh).
Years of intense planning skillfully conjured the climatic wonders of Avengers Endgame, a blockbuster event that transcended the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula. While Marvel fans still discuss the film’s sizable impact today, the superhero juggernaut now finds itself in an intriguing new place. Without franchise staples like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, producer Kevin Feige and company must develop a new wave of beloved heroes for fans to rally behind.
Before a new generation of heroes makes their cinematic debut, Marvel is closing another chapter with the long-delayed Black Widow spin-off. Widow’s shocking death does make this feature an odd proposition (no offense Marvel, but we shouldn’t have had to wait over a decade to give this character her own film). Thanks in large part to a skilled cast and a well-calibrated emotional core, director Cate Shortland creates a solid, albeit slight, rendition for Natasha Romanoff’s swan song.
Shortland, the latest indie stalwart to take the sizable leap to blockbuster cinema, helps steer Black Widow in a semi-fresh direction for the MCU. She develops instant intrigue from her mean-and-lean introduction, whisking audiences into a Bourne-esque tale of espionage and deceit with Widow on the run after Captain America: Civil War. A change in flavoring allows Shortland to repurpose Marvel’s distinct sensibility into a hard-hitting high-wire act formed from more realistic textures. The spy pastiche makes a sound fit for Widow, conveying the character’s self-assured swagger while also confronting her enigmatic identity throughout the years. She has always been on the run from her haunted past, but now those demons have finally caught up with her in this latest mission.
On a character front, Black Widow excels with flying colors. It’s a delight to finally delve into Natasha’s backstory, with the trio of screenwriters intimately analyzing the lingering abandonment and distrust that define her rigid persona. At the core of those feelings lies a shaky family dynamic. Natasha’s parental figures embraced KGB propaganda over their own children, creating an interesting conflict of interest that isn’t entirely disconnected from real-world sentiments. The writing sticks to fairly broad strokes, but the grounded conceits help make a refreshing change-of-pace from superhero’s usual planet-saving conflicts.
An all-star cast also elevates the intriguing material. Scarlett Johansson’s poise and transfixing gravity have always been on display, but the starring role provides the actress with newfound wrinkles to play upon. Her ability to balance Natasha’s self-assured bravado with impactful vulnerabilities morphs the longtime supporting role into a feature-worthy figure. Florence Pugh’s meteoric ascension only continues to rise as Yelena. The actresses’ infectious presence and nuanced delivery make her a fitting partner next to Natasha, with the duo forming a consistently compelling pair as siblings rekindling their long-forgotten bond. David Harbour and Rachel Weisz also charm as Natasha and Yelena’s parental guardians. The personable quartet work to evolve the group’s initial bitterness into an endearingly makeshift family dynamic.
Black Widow’s fresh pastiche still can’t escape the homogenized aesthetics of MCU properties. Some fans may not agree, but I find a majority of the MCU offerings suffer from visual stagnation. While Shortland’s thoughtful introspections benefit the material, the talented director is left standing on the sidelines as dozens of assistant directors and VFX artists conjure the same setpieces we’ve seen done to death. The camerawork lacks proper dynamism, and while the idea of imbuing hard-hitting realism has promise, the lack of naturalism prevents the setpieces from escaping the bombast of blockbuster thrills (I’m not asking for a hard R-rating, but some blood and cuts wouldn’t hurt to sell the punchy impact).
Even with two years off from MCU films, some of the brand’s storied staples are starting to show their age. The studio seems unable to allow their films to embrace a completely new identity onscreen, often pulling back from the espionage lens to introduce a lackluster array of hokey comedic bits, half-baked villains, and forced MCU references (each Avengers quip lands flat on its face). I get the significance of the MCU’s interconnectivity, but that dynamic should not come at the expense of the film itself (the ending feels like an anti-climax, focusing more on the future rather than giving Natasha a proper send-off). Black Widow could have been even better if the filmmakers were allowed to go full force into the realism direction.
Still, Marvel knows how to craft a breezy piece of summer entertainment. Black Widow’s fresh inclusions add just enough depth and charisma to reanimate the studio’s rigid formula. That being said, I do hope Marvel is willing to grow cinematically as their universe expands. They may be at the top of their game right now, but audiences could eventually grow weary of the conventional approach.
Black Widow debuts in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9th.
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