It’s weird to watch Black Widow, certainly one of the more grounded MCU offerings in recent years – which finally gives Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) her first standalone movie, now two years after the character’s death – and be offered Black Widow’s gritty backstory and then remember: oh, right, this is the character who died on the space planet where the ghost Nazi lives. The juxtaposition of this movie and Black Widow’s eventual fate is bizarre.
Set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, watching Black Widow kind of feels like watching that MCU movie you just never got around to seeing. Like, “Oh, you know, I never did see Thor: The Dark World, I have a couple of hours to kill, I should get caught up.” And then you watch it and the movie contains all these threads of storylines that are now all wrapped up. One thing the MCU does so well, that people respond to, is continue to move the story forward. Every entry unlocks more plot points that drive things forward and people really seem to respond to that. Even a movie set in the past, Captain Marvel, still managed to do this because we knew nothing about Captain Marvel at the time. Black Widow isn’t really some great mystery of a character. Black Widow marks the eighth time we’ve seen her in a movie.
Black Widow just might be the most self-contained MCU movie since way back in Phase 1. And, look, being a self-contained movie and being a movie that doesn’t move the greater story forward aren’t necessarily bad things. It’s just, at this point, unusual. And the thing I kept thinking about was a movie like Logan. And how Black Widow misses an opportunity to be more like Logan. And not to be “rated R” and get to use cuss words, or whatever. But to allow an actor who has played a character for over a decade to have one last go at it and have a triumphant death scene in his or her own movie. Hugh Jackman got that in Logan. Scarlett Johansson’s character died on a space planet in front of a ghost Nazi two movies and three streaming television shows ago. So Black Widow doesn’t even feel like any kind of final sendoff. Or a way to complete her story arc. It just literally feels like a movie that should now be retroactively inserted between Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange.
Again, set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Black Widow is on the run from the US government and finds herself in Norway, living in a trailer, drinking some beers and watching Moonraker. (Black Widow, the movie, does seem somewhat obsessed with Moonraker and I do appreciate that aspect of things. Moonraker begins with a parachute stunt, with evil henchman Jaws fighting James Bond as they both plummet through the sky. Black Widow has a similar set-piece, only now its Taskmaster and Black Widow fighting as they fall through the sky.) I kind of wish there were more moments like this. We’ve seen Black Widow fight before, but what does she do in her spare time? I found this so much more fascinating than any kind of action of a fight scene.
What Black Widow does do is introduce us to Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, who Natasha grew up with (living in a The Americans-style spy family, though no actual relation) and was produced by the same Russian agency Natasha was that turns young women into deadly fighting machines. So what this movie does is make Pugh’s Yelena a new player in the MCU without it seeming “phony.” In that she gets a whole movie with Natasha, instead of just telling us how she knew Natasha.
To the point that the rest of the movie feels a little bit like filler. Just something for Natasha and Yelana to do together, alongside their fake “parents” from their spying days, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz. You see, it’s finally time to take down the evil scientist who is producing armies of Black Widow women, who live on a floating fortress in the sky. (Yes, I realize earlier I called this movie “grounded.”)
Look, there hasn’t been an MCU movie in two years. I honestly can’t decide if this is a good movie to kind of “reset” with or not. The fact it is a kind of back to basics plot makes me feel that it is. And that it introduced Pugh’s character, who will obviously have a lot to do in further adventures. But this is not one of those movies where people will say, “The MCU like you’ve never seen it before!” It’s not an ambitious MCU movie. And we haven’t had movies in two years, but we have had WandaVision, and that was pretty ambitious. And all that is fine and dandy. My biggest disappointment, like I mentioned earlier, is that we didn’t get to close out Natasha’s arc with this movie. Instead, that was closed out on the space planet in front of the Nazi ghost two years ago. It feels like what’s missing from this movie. There’s even a flashforward to present time in this movie that shows Natasha’s grave. If you only watch this movie, yeah her “off-screen “ death is probably going to be pretty confusing. In a way, it feels like this movie just kind of skips over the main character’s death, which seems like kind of a big deal.
‘Black Widow’ opens in theaters and streams via Disney+ on July 9th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.