'Black Widow' is a Phase One Gem Crammed into Phase Four
The super-spy thriller doesn't quite fit within the MCU's current emotional environment, but should we care?
Welcome to mea culpa moviemaking 101. The ever-evolving super-spy, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), helped build the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but only after dozens of films, and her death in Avengers: Endgame, did the great Kevin Feige in the sky grant her a solo adventure. Black Widow is a film that should have graced movie screens years ago, but better late than never?
Prequels are tricky. With their future set, their narratives attempt to explain further what we already know or layer dread atop the inevitable. Throughout Black Widow, there is a guillotine hanging over our hero's head. Weirdly, we're the only ones to see it. Natasha is blind to its deadly chop, but so are the filmmakers. Eric Pearson's screenplay wants desperately to exist between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, but Natasha Romanoff is not Schrödinger's cat. She's definitely dead in that box. Choreograph as many badass action scenes as you want, but there's no getting around the corpse doing the stunts.
While on the small screen with WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and even Loki, the MCU is allowed to grapple with grief, recovery, and redemption; Black Widow tries to squeeze itself into a different franchise. The film disregards its siblings and attempts adoption into the Mission: Impossible and Jason Bourne families. If you can play dumb too, then there's some rollickingly rad punchy-fighty to enjoy.
Black Widow does not let up on the action. Once its plot and players are established, the film barely gives you twenty minutes between roustabouts. You've seen the knife fights, the motorcycle chases, and exploding sky platforms in the trailer, but there are dozens of skirmishes scattered throughout Black Widow's runtime. Its rat-a-tat-tat pacing is painfully matched by its tonal zig-zag.
Marvel movies are constructed around rimshot comedy. Nothing is too serious that can't be alleviated with a sarcastic quip or a sight gag - not even forced hysterectomies. Whenever Black Widow takes a breath from the melee, the script stuffs in a joke. Some land, some don't, but their accumulation is exhausting.
Natasha's story swarms with tragedy. Wrapping it with sitcom family dysfunction and John Wick excitement merely heightens the sorrow. She is a child stolen from her mother, raised within a Russian sleeper cell, robbed of her reproductive right, and brainwashed into an assassin. Eventually, she broke free from her Red Room masters and became an Avenger, but when she escaped, she left several others just like her behind. One of which was her sorta-sister Yelena (Florence Pugh).
Black Widow is Natasha's chance to wipe the red from her ledger finally. In partnering with Yelena, she is given a second chance to save those who can't save themselves. Her target is the lecherous General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a Marvel villain so two-dimensional, he wobbles flimsily beside Thor: The Dark World's Malekith. What does he want? Money and power. Maybe a little revenge against the Widow who got away too. It doesn't matter as much as Winstone's ability to grunt, garble, and snarl.
Aiding the General's assault is the mysterious mimic, Taskmaster. As is the MCU's want, the on-screen terminator bears little resemblance to their comic book counterpart. No skull face, no cheesy one-liners. Taskmaster is a silent killing machine who scores their best moves from watching Avengers highlight reels.
When this creature lurches into frame, Black Widow gets an adrenaline boost. Taskmaster injecting Captain America and Hawkeye tactics against Natasha delivers the giddiest action-beats. The film's combat working best when it goes hand-to-hand.
And despite the film never reconciling with its protagonist's doomed fate, Black Widow looks to the MCU's future by gifting the franchise multiple new characters simmering with potential. Clearly, the movie is a baton pass from Natasha to Yelena, but the most tantalizingly curious additions are their parental figures. Papa Alexi (David Harbour), as the wannabe Steve Rogers, contains equal parts agony and absurdity. His Red Guardian is a brute, bred on backward morality, but he's also brimming with love for his savage children.
Mama Melina (Rachel Weisz) is the deadly brains of the duo, accepting Alexi's gregarious dimwittedness the way an understanding spouse only could. Watching them lovingly bash against each other sparks an interest for an actual prequel going a bit further back and exploring their Cold War origin story. What were they up to during the Winter Soldier's glory days?
Black Widow succeeds when it zeroes in on this twisted family's hateship/loveship. Their tug-of-war is often undercut by comedy, but the film finds its purpose in the brief moments where their conflicting emotions hang out and stew. Like all families, they didn't choose to be here, but here they are. Whether they remain together is on them. Answering that question is the only tempting morsel Black Widow leaves its audience.
What we do know for sure is that Natasha is done. She dead. Deeeeeaaaaaaaaddddd. And Black Widow just does not care. It doesn't want you to watch the film in chronological release order. It's not a prequel, even though it's a prequel. It's a Civil War sequel, 'nuff said.
Black Widow does not contextualize the present. It ignores it. As long as you can too, you're great. And on rewatch, fitted snuggly into its proper place on the timeline, Black Widow's inability to comment on Natasha's annihilation might not bother at all.
Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel may have beaten Natasha to the marquee, but Kevin Feige be damned if he'd let Rocket Raccoon have his name receive top-billing before Black Widow. Ultimately, this film is about paying due to a character and an actor who deserved the spotlight several phases ago. There's a frustration and a missed opportunity not commenting on her end, but at least the character now has some titular respect. Hopefully, Yelena and the rest of her fam can maintain it.