Marvel's female pioneer finally gets her moment to shine
Women superheroes are starting to gain a firm foothold in today’s pop culture. The groundbreaking Wonder Woman (2017) helped break the box office glass ceiling and subsequent projects such as Captain Marvel (2019) or the buzzy TV series Wandavision (2021) have furthered complex standalone stories for such characters. However, many of these iterations and projects have the incarnation of Black Widow by Scarlett Johansson to thank, as she was able to break the testosterone match-up by herself in Iron Man 2 (2010) and The Avengers (2012). That it has taken this long for Black Widow to finally get her own standalone film is nothing if not embarrassing for Marvel and Disney, and yet her long-awaited time in the spotlight has finally arrived.
Black Widow (2021) takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), but before those of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Our protagonist Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from world-wide authorities. However, she is found and hunted by an enemy she long suspected vanquished, her old employers in the KGB. Thus, Romanov is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind.
Black Widow is directed by Cate Shortland (another first for Marvel being the first solo female director) who comes from the indie sphere, yet she makes the switch much smoother than many other directors. She doesn’t let the dimensions of the story and budget overwhelm her, and she is able to maintain quiet character moments that help the story breathe and grow. However, you do see her struggle to adapt when executing fight scenes. All of the fights and chases in Black Widow are ingeniously conjured and choreographed, yet Shortland resorts to a choppy form of editing that prevents these sequences from achieving a fluid comprehension. It certainly contrasts with the similarly spy-thriller-themed Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), which was able to hold longer shots within its action scenes.
Black Widow is largely held together by a strong cast, specifically the principal duo Johansson and her “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh). Johansson had always been a highlight in previous Avengers films, and yet you felt her performance feel pinned and restricted. With her own film to maneuver in, Johansson is able to take more time with her character and one only laments that this might be her last film in the role (SPOILER: her character died in Avengers: Endgame (2019)). Pugh meanwhile is a new addition in the Marvel saga and proves to be completely enrapturing. As with all her previous roles, Pugh commands your attention whenever she’s onscreen. Her role feels like its bursting at the seams, and you are always left wanting more whenever a scene of hers ends. The cast is rounded out with a winning David Harbour and a poignant Rachel Weisz.
As with many Marvel films, however, Black Widow stumbles with its villain. Viewers will get their thrilling action and funny quips throughout the runtime, but the finale is a letdown. Black Widow’s villain (played by Ray Winstone) is an evil man mind controlling young women all around the globe; it is a rather blunt metaphor for the patriarchy. Winstone’s incarnation of the villain is extremely shallow as well, with viewers failing to see his point of view, and appearing as simply a punching bag for Romanov to target. This makes the stakes of Black Widow feel low and rather inconsequential. In fact, the film existing at all is strange, or at least that it was released when it was. By coming out after the lead character has died in the saga, Black Widow feels like a set up for side characters, and the arc of our protagonist seems to lead nowhere. If this film had come out before the events in Endgame, it would perhaps have served a greater purpose in bringing a comprehensive close to Romanov’s arc.
As it stands, however, Black Widow still proves to be an enjoyable spy thriller. Shortland is able to shine with her lead actresses in quieter character moments where Pugh nearly steals the show. The action sequences can feel very choppy, and the overall arc of the story and plot can seem irrelevant; yet one of the great female heroes of the last decade has finally gotten her moment to shine.