Black Widow is a thrilling though heavy-handed espionage take on Marvel’s standard fair that adds tragic depth to Natasha Romanoff’s superhero story. A trained Russian assassin decked out in black tactical wear and an ever-changing range of hairstyles, Natasha Romanov easily shrugged out of one identity and into her next, wrangling with a guilty conscience over her past lives.
With Black Widow, Marvel is finally digging into that mysterious past, giving the original Avengers team’s only woman fall overdue time in the limelight. The film is in a word ambitious. It’s a superhero flick but also an espionage action thriller, a dysfunctional family drama, a send off, and overwhelmingly a film about recovering from abuse. Much of it doesn’t feel like a Marvel film at all. Thanks to the darker tone used to tell the story of a Russian program that kidnaps young girls and trains them to become assassins.
The film centers on affirming why Nat continues on the path of heroism beyond just escaping the confines of her past life. Though it resolves on a hope full note, it leaves an aftertaste of intense tragedy for one of Marvel’s original Avengers. It feels natural for Black Widow to be styled like a James Bond espionage thriller. Complete with a broody title sequence. The film flits between international locals, motorcycle chases, rescue missions, and fight scenes in close quarters that have a real sense of urgency and mortality. It’s a nice dial back from Marvel films whose heroes can feel immortal, threatened only by a villain like Thanos and the power of the infinity stones.
Natasha is an superhuman but rather the most optimized version of a human and when she takes the punch, it looks like it hurts like hell. When she fights task master, there’s a sense of real danger. The fabric of the universe doesn’t bend and time doesn’t shift but the film is plied with pseudo scientific futuristic technology befitting a spy-tinged Marvel world. Black Widow is strongest when it’s leads Natasha and little sister Yelena Belova are fighting whether against one another or working together. Florence Pugh does excellent work at fellow black widow, Yelena. Her deadpan is pitch perfect coaxing humor out of a traditionally stoic Scarlett Johansson. Anytime now please. Shut up.
Okay, you got a plan or should I just stay dug and go? Where Natasha has coped by turning cold, Elena has coped with humor. It’s also thrilling to see a classic genre populated by more women fighters. A rare treat to see Pew haphazardly operating a helicopter as Johansen parkours her way on foot and Rachel Vice rounds out the trio as the brains of the operation. For all of its inventive action pyrotechnics, Black Widow does eventually land in territory that feels more in line with the MCU. It chugs through scenes that affirm Marvel’s traditional sense of found family.
The idea that family is whoever you decide to fight for and a hero is someone willing to defend even those outside of it. Natasha’s found family of Avengers is contrasted with her dysfunctional planted childhood family of Russian spies.
David Harbor and Rachel Vice’s performances as reluctant parents ground the drama in surprisingly relatable emotions. But Taskmaster fights for relevance as the film dwells on family baggage slowing down as it climbs up to its final confrontation between Natasha and her target. The man behind the Black Widow program. Black Widow also repeats some of Marvel’s tiresome trends with women’s superheroes of their heavy-handed, cheesy empowerment messages. Consider Captain Marvel’s montages of falling and getting back up again and the cringy final come up in with her mentor, Yon Rock.
The MCA’s women tend to have traumatic stories explicitly tied to powerful abusive men such as Nebula and Gomorrah and Natasha is no different. Her film centers on surviving trauma and confronting her abuser, a man who is not quite as over the top evil as Thanos but still refers to young girls as the world’s most over abundant resource. In this context, deriving strength from enduring suffering feels as slimy as it does tragic. A nail in the coffin to Marvel’s handling of women’s superheroes. While Black Widow eulogizes Natasha Romanov as a formidable, tough as hell hero with the clearest heart, it also intensifies Endgame’s poor handling of her send off. And the unbalanced level of respect given to her male peers.
Natasha endured years of abuse and risked life and limb after escaping before sacrificing herself for a friend. She still deserves a real memorial. Marvel’s long-awaited Black Widow solo film shakes up the classic superhero movie form. Styled like an espionage thriller, the film digs into Natasha Romanov’s mysterious past as a trained assassin, opening up about her family and introducing an inventive villain in Taskmaster.
But while the film is plied with eye-catching action sequences, it struggles to strike a balance between action and family drama and reinforces some of Marvel’s tired tropes of women’s superheroes. It ultimately captures Natasha as a formidable fighter with unshakable morals making her inadequate endgame send off all the more bittersweet.