Is this one of the best Marvel Movies to Date?
It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of a Black Widow standalone film sounded more like a fan dream than a realistic expectation. And then it somehow got greenlit. Back in 2010 when the main Marvel films were more or less just Iron Man, Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, floated the idea that Black Widow may get a standalone film, but that quickly petered out. Around 2014, the idea garnered new interest once the studio and Scarlett Johansson saw the love the audience had for the character. That interest peaked during the filming of Infinity War, the pieces finally came together, and here we are today with the film finally unveiled to the public.
I always thought the journey the film took to get made was interesting, but I honestly believed that’s where the interest would end. Oftentimes with these fan-driven movies, the fact that something got made is the victory in and of itself. The fact that the product, i.e the film, could be garbage, is after the fact. Look at Coming to America 2, a film which clearly did not need to be made but was largely celebrated due to the fan push behind it. Needless to say, it, like many other fan-driven movie movements, didn’t win any awards or critical commendations. From another perspective, considering the universe in which this film takes place, the premise is a bit of an oddity. The Black Widow character, Natasha Romanoff, doesn’t have any super powers, doesn’t come from an alternate dimension nor another planet far away in space. She, like Hawkeye, seemed to stand out from the rest of the Avengers as a truly normal person, as far as normal can be for an avenger at least.
To me, the film in its essence poses a unique question: Is a Marvel movie without superheroes or superpowers still considered a Marvel Movie? Strangely enough, no, but that’s where its true strength lies. This may sound strange coming from me as I have gushed in the Knockturnal Movie Club as well as in previous reviews about my love for the formulaic yet tried and true Marvel method to storytelling. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, because as the old saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. And yet with this film, director Cate Shortland and the rest of the Marvel team decide to mix it up, yielding quite an interesting result.
From the film’s onset, Shortland’s fingers are all over it. You’re immediately encompassed in a mix of blurry and close up shots of a young Natasha and her family. In this pseudo prologue to the film, it almost feels like you’re watching an indie production set to premiere at Sundance or Tribeca rather than a nine-figure Marvel movie. This intro, while a nice attempt, really felt underwhelming and tried desperately to grasp at some meaning without being as heavy handed as a typical Marvel film. I have to admit, at this point, despite only being a few minutes into the film, I started to get worried that this film may be overly ambitious. Despite the shaky start, the end of the intro and segue into the main body of the film is where things began to delightfully surprise me.
The majority of this film’s two hour run time is Marvel’s attempt at making a Mission Impossible movie and I loved every second of it. Each fight scene felt intense, gripping, and had a level of physicality to it that I haven’t seen an action film emulate in some time. Especially after seeing Fast 9 just a few weeks ago which sported some fairly average fight scenes, seeing the choreography and action here is a breath of fresh air. This is especially interesting as the film features an almost entirely female cast, as opposed to the typical male led action genre trope. While some explosions, chase and escape sequences may have their flaws, the overall thrill ride that is this film was incredible and delivers everything you want out of a summer blockbuster.
The surprises don’t end there. The overall writing and dialogue of the film was fairly refreshing. From Natasha’s back story to her family chemistry and dynamics, there wasn’t a single moment where I sighed, groaned, or ached at a piece of trashy dialogue. Eric Pearson wrote a fairly exceptional screenplay for this film, filled with moving moments that did not use comedy as a crutch but rather as a bond building metaphor. In many ways, you could picture this exact script on the film festival circuit doing well, without the explosions and action of course. It also must go without saying that the cast goes an incredibly long way in bringing that solid script to life. The core cast of Scarlet, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, and David Harbour are phenomenal and feel as though they are a real family. And yes, that is a second dig at Fast 9 now. The entire cast was great, but I must give some credit to Shortland, who I’m sure brought her indie film energy with her on set and created a true familial bond off camera amongst the cast. Regardless, the chemistry they all share is palpable and each performance was great with one notable exception: Florence Pugh. She plays Natasha’s younger sister Yelena and is meant to pick up the torch in the MCU as Natasha is canonically dead at this point. With that said, this film served two purposes: To send off Natasha in a loving way, while also building up Yelena’s character. And wow, does Florence do that and so much more. She’s only 25 and is playing against a truly seasoned and talented veteran actress in Scarlett Johansson and she not only holds her own, but often steals the show. Her energy, depth of character, and utter range were on full display. Whether it a be a dramatic, comedic, or action-packed moment, she delivered a spot-on and perfect performance.
All that said, this isn’t the day where I say I’ve finally reviewed a perfect movie. While the film does so many things right, it does fail critically in one aspect where Marvel movies tend to thrive – expressing a theme. Most Marvel movies do so rather heavy handedly, but still, at the end of the day, they do so. From the intro, the film tries to establish a theme of what it means to be a big sister and what it means to be a family and it then goes on to explore how strong the bonds of family are. In writing, it sounds like they’ve done no wrong, but in practice, it’s so watered down and paper thin, it almost feels like there was no purpose to this film. Essentially, Natasha is on the run following the events of Civil War, receives a mysterious package, and gets roped into an adventure to close out a chapter from her past. Did she need to do this? Not really. Was there an inner conflict driving her throughout this film? I suppose, but it was rarely touched upon and if so, with the gentle nuance of a butterfly gracefully hovering over a flower. She logically finds herself moving from scene to scene but never seeks to answer any bigger questions. For example, let’s consider Thor: Ragnarok. Thematically, that film is very clear in that it seeks to answer the question “What makes a people and a nation? Is it location, identity, or something else?”. I can see Black Widow tried to make it about the meaning of family, but that theme isn’t even properly explored through the protagonist, but rather through the protagonist’s sister, Yelena. The protagonist’s mission and inner conflict is to beat the bad guy, right the wrongs of the past, and don’t do any more wrong things. Had this film been restructured to pose Yelena as the protagonist, this point of contention wouldn’t even exist. Despite this, it does set up Yelena’s character perfectly, as she has always had an older sister who would step up to help her if she was in need, although she rarely seemed like she was in need. Now that Natasha’s gone, Yelena has to pave her own path.
We’re at the end of the review now and my final verdict is positive. It is a Marvel movie in name and more like a Mission Impossible movie in practice. It almost melds the best of both worlds. I love this movie and genuinely so. It’s got some of the best action in any Marvel movie along with some of the best dialogue, some of the best performances, and one of the best casts. I also think it’s one of my favorite non-avengers MCU films. This is as good as a summer blockbuster is going to get and properly beats out the competition. It’s also the only movie (so far) that I’d say is worth paying the Disney+ premium to see as it’s simple that good and enjoyable. The film releases in theaters and streaming on July 9th.