Review Round-Up: Cate Shortland’s Black Widow

Is the MCU’s latest feature a fitting send-off for one of the original Avengers?
Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson returns as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow

You could make the case that a Black Widow movie is long overdue, and that releasing one now seems a bit odd given Natasha Romanoff’s fate in Avengers: Endgame. A Black Widow movie had been planned as far back as 2004, when Marvel Studios didn’t actually own the film rights to the character. And when Scarlett Johansson was cast in the role for Iron Man 2, she immediately began advocating for a solo movie. But it wasn’t until 2019 when filming actually began.

Black Widow is set immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with Romanoff on the run and reuniting with individuals from her past — including some fellow Black Widow agents (played by Florence Pugh and Rachel Weisz) and the Russian equivalent of Captain America (played by David Harbour). According to the movie’s official synopsis, Natasha “must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.”

Black Widow is the first feature in MCU’s fourth phase (which began earlier this year with Disney+‘s WandaVision). How have critics reacted to the return of the MCU’s most famous spy? How well does it relate to previous MCU films, and what does it hold for the future of the vaunted superhero film franchise?

Kaitlyn Booth, “Not quite the send-off that Natasha deserves”

Black Widow should have come out years ago, and because of how it was made, a good movie feels like a letdown when all of the pieces are in working order. Everything is there, and it should work, but because we know that Natasha makes the ultimate sacrifice, what should have felt like a final send-off to a hero feel cheap. Natasha deserved to have her story told before we had to watch her die on screen, and it’s a shame that a great character like Yelena has to come into the MCU on such weird terms. For a movie titled Black Widow, it sometimes doesn’t feel like Natasha is the focus, and that could have been fixed if the movie came out in phase 3 rather than phase 4.

A.A. Dowd, “A fun dysfunctional family sitcom, until it goes full Marvel”

In fashioning a side adventure that’s really a formal goodbye to one of the franchise’s original principles, Black Widow ties a neat bow on that motivation, offering redemption that feels half-earned at best. But what more could you expect of a film that makes deprogramming look as easy as aroma therapy, solved with a MacGuffin that’s basically change of heart in perfume form? Will we ever see the real Black Widow? That would require a comic-book bonanza that doesn’t treat psychology itself as a dangling plot thread, to be tied up through the Marvel regimen of quips and boss fights.

Owen Gleiberman, “A superhero movie that’s grittier, more layered with feeling, than you expect”

The movie features just enough kinetic combat to give a mainstream audience that getting-your-money’s-worth feeling, but from the opening credits (built around Think Up Anger’s dreamy slow-mo cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), most of it has a gritty, deliberate, zap-free tone that is strikingly — and intentionally — earthbound for a superhero fantasy. The director, Australia’s Cate Shortland (Somersault), works in unvarnished closeup and establishes a mood of lurching, desultory anxiety that’s closer to Russian neorealism than the Russo brothers.

Caryn James, “Black Widow may be the least Avenger-like movie in the series so far”

It’s not Johansson’s fault, and it doesn’t particularly hurt the film, but Natasha is the least interesting character in that weird little fake family. The script gives the others better lines and weirder trajectories. Yelena makes fun of her famous sister for the way she always flicks her hair and assumes a “fighting pose” when taking on villains. She’s not wrong. Alexei, a superfighter known as Red Guardian, is full of braggadocio and spins tall tales about having defeated Captain America. Harbour makes him a likeable doofus Dad. “For a couple of deep undercover agents I think we did pretty great as parents,” he says. Natasha’s sternness is a sign of her moral centre. And she’s Black Widow; at this point in the franchise she doesn’t need to win the audience over. But at times her earnestness is an odd fit for the sly family movie unfolding around her.

Germain Lussier, “Thankfully, it works, though it’s not without some setbacks”

That palpable tension between Yelena and Natasha is the driving force of the movie and is used to power some great action set pieces and, most surprisingly, a lot of humor. Yelena clowns on Natasha constantly, making for some of the best bits in the movie. She’s the total opposite of the Natasha we know — cold, calculating, precise — and comes across as funny, goofy, and self-aware. That doesn’t mean she isn’t deadly, far from it, but the two play off each other in some very entertaining ways. It also helps that Pugh is completely in the pocket with her performance here, exuding huge “If you didn’t know me before, you will after this” energy. She steals the movie.

Scott Mendelson, “Too little, too late”

Speaking of tropes, most MCU movies don’t exist as a glorified set-up for the next chapter. They work as singular stand-alone movies or, where applies, sequels to their immediate predecessors. Black Widow can’t help but feel like a feature-length prequel to a story that will likely continue on Disney+. That’s not just in the film’s stunningly misguided post-credit sequence, but in the film’s near-centering of Yelena during what was supposed to be Black Widow’s big solo movie. Fans have wanted a solo Natasha flick for a decade. That they get one that’s a backdoor pilot for a TV series is an insult to the injury of having to wait until Nat is already dead in a past-tense story of no present-tense consequence.

Rodrigo Perez, “Marvel’s latest entertaining, but inconsequential episode”

At two-hours-and-20-minutes, Black Widow does admirably go to great lengths to create an emotional arc about family, painful lies, broken relationships, subjugation, and autonomy. But the obligations of great spectacle also drag down the movie in the third act in a finale that’s never quite as resonant a farewell as it should be.

Mara Reinstein, “Black Widow deserved better”

That promising revenge story devolves into silliness when body pheromones (?!) are used as a weapon. A magical anti-mind-controlling antidote is in play too, but it’s hardly ever used even though it’s an anti-mind-controlling antidote. Annoyingly, the movie follows that “one step forward, two steps back” pattern throughout its two-plus-hour run time. Pugh’s fiery line readings — love the way she mocks Black Widow for her glamorous, hair-tossing and posing — give way too often to heft-free familial turmoil. Smart action choreography is hampered by messy CGI enhanced set pieces.

Joshua Rivera, “A decent movie weighed down by an overwhelming question: Why now?”

Black Widow mostly feels like an apology. It arrives as the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, two years (one of them a pandemic mulligan) after the 22nd film, Avengers: Endgame, featured an emotional scene that in no uncertain terms killed off Black Widow’s main character, Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow had been a consistent presence in the MCU since 2010’s Iron Man 2, and she was one of the key connective figures that helped all of these movies actually feel like a universe. She also seemed to be one of the only women of consequence in the entire franchise. And after coming and going, she’s only getting her own stand-alone movie now, which makes Black Widow feel like an afterthought. It’s only the second MCU film to star a female character, and that character isn’t even alive to take us somewhere new.

Dana Stevens, “A thrilling remedy for the sexism of marvel movies past”

I think I can say for the first time in years about a Marvel property that the next chapter can’t come soon enough. Black Widow is too long, too loud, preposterously overplotted, and slightly headache-inducing — all arguably features and not bugs when it comes to big tentpole blockbusters. But walking out of it I felt like summer had finally — finally! — begun.

Brian Tallerico, “A dip into the history of one of Marvel’s most popular characters that’s truly better so very late than never”

As with a lot of the MCU, the third act here gets a little cluttered and repetitive but then the film recovers with a remarkable final action sequence that sends characters and debris hurtling through the sky (an MCU staple but Shortland’s choreography makes it feel urgent again). It’s ultimately a film that works on its own terms, a long-delayed enriching of the story of a beloved character that will make her ultimate sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame feel even more powerful in hindsight. Every blockbuster this Summer is being touted as the sign that the world is back to normal — Black Widow is more a reminder of what fans loved before it shifted off its axis.

Brian Truitt, “Does justice to Scarlett Johansson’s secret agent Avenger”

With Black Widow, Marvel wins yet again on multiple fronts. Time will tell if this is actually Johansson’s swan song — in comic books, death is more a minor inconvenience than a permanent state, and if the thing’s a hit, she might want to keep the leather suit handy. However, the film makes up for years of Johansson playing third and fourth fiddle in Avengers films while perhaps more importantly, unleashing Pugh as the MCU’s brightest new star.

Black Widow arrives in theaters on July 9, and will also be available on Disney+ for an added fee. Watch the most recent trailer below.

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