Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has always searched for a family. First discarded, then abandoned, Natasha was raised as a brainwashed assassin, manipulated by the duplicitous Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a man who was seemingly everywhere without anyone ever noticing. Funny, with a name like Dreykov and a build like Winstone, you’d think people would start to ask questions.
At least, that’s what ran through my mind during the opening credits of Black Widow, the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Set to the disaffected lament of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” covered by Malia J, director Cate Shortland and editor Leigh Folsom Boyd play the audience with images of young girls kidnapped, imprisoned, trained, programmed, and dehumanized at the behest of Dreykov—who is spliced Forest Gump-style into photos of real-world leaders, movers and shakers. The MCU movies seem to exist in a universe adjacent to ours. The players are more or less the same, but the proceedings are different.
Winstone plays Dreykov with slimy relish, casting a shadow over Black Window despite his short screen time. Natasha killed him years ago as her final act of defection before joining S.H.I.E.L.D., but the how haunts her to this day.
To her credit, Johansson has done an excellent job in these movies showing the psychological cost of combat and the emotional cost of living battle to battle. And those battles: There are no small skirmishes in an MCU movie, and the property damage incurred in one car chase would bankrupt a country. It’s a shame the filmmakers spend so much time focusing on the personal and not the collateral.
And there’s a lot of collateral damage in Black Widow. From the Widows—Dreykov’s private army of reprogrammed assassins, women all—to Natasha’s former makeshift family: Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). Nothing ties them together beyond Dreykov’s demand, and their allegiances have shifted so much over the past 20 years, they don’t even seem to know what side they stand on anymore.
Then there are the Avengers, who hang over Natasha’s life the way Dreykov hangs over Black Widow. The Avengers are absent from the proceedings, but everyone in the movie wants to talk about them. Yelena wants to know if they rehearse their poses before the fight, while Alexei has a dozen questions about Captain America. One of the more potent components of recent MCU movies is their commitment to treating previous installments like chapters in a history book. Even the bad guys seem to learn from the earlier movies, and here we get a masked fighter who throws a shield like Captain America, attacks like Black Panther, and sports Hawkeye’s bow and arrow combination. It’s like a manifestation of the old boxing aphorism: At some point, you stop fighting your opponent and start fighting yourself.
Black Widow is half good, half fine. All four leads are solid and are shaded enough to carry to the movie, which is more a character piece than anything else. Though Weisz feels underutilized, she seems to serve the plot more than her character. The family thread works, too, but the whole business about the Widows and Dreykov runs out of steam before the speeches start. That doesn’t help the climax any, nor does the location of Black Widow within the MCU chronology (sometime after Captain America: Civil War and before Avengers: Infinity War). That allows Black Widow to explore more of Natasha’s backstory without the need of moving the large plot forward, but it also condemns the script to chug along toward the inevitable conclusion—even if it does set up an interesting pairing for future installments. Black Widow’s a decent enough movie; it just feels inconsequential.
Black Widow (2021)
Directed by Cate Shortland
Screenplay by Eric Pearson
Story by Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson
Based on the Marvel comics by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Don Rico
Produced by Kevin Feige
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 133 minutes, Opens July 9, 2021, in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.