‘Black Widow’ Review: The First Marvel Pay-Per-View Event

It’s been eleven years since Scarlett Johansson made her first appearance as super-spy Natasha Romanoff in Marvel’s Iron Man 2. Between then and now, the Black Widow became the First Lady of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, featured in six Avengers and Captain America films. Meanwhile, plans for her own solo spin-off got kicked down the road so many times that it wouldn’t get made until after Natasha’s story came to a fatal conclusion in Avengers: Endgame. By now, two years after we’ve said goodbye to the character, it’s hard to blame anyone for asking “Why bother?” It’s true that Black Widow would have felt more urgent had it come out four years ago, but its delay until after the close of the Infinity Saga frees it from the burden of being a link in a larger chain. Instead, Black Widow gets to stand alone as a spi-fi family drama that charms with its performances rather than its contributions to the grander Marvel mythology. 

Spies Like Us

Despite being Natasha Romanoff’s sixth chronological appearance in the MCU, Black Widow functions less like a typical Marvel spin-off and more like Black Panther, acknowledging the events of previous films without being dependent upon them. We get a peek at Natasha’s origins, but this is not an origin story. Instead, the meat of the narrative is set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, a period during which the Avengers have broken up, Natasha is a fugitive, and most of her friends are incarcerated. On her own for the first time in her life, Natasha receives a package from Yelena Bolova (Florence Pugh, Little Women), a fellow Black Widow who has likewise escaped the thrall of the Russian spy program known as the Red Room. Natasha and Yelena share a unique bond — as children, they had been placed together into a manufactured cover family in Ohio while their “parents” Alexei (David Harbour, No Sudden Move) and Melina (Rachel Weisz, The Favourite) infiltrated US intelligence. In order to free hundreds of women from enslavement by the Red Room, Natasha and Yelena have to reunite their false family, forcing them to dredge up some confusing feelings.

The bizarre dynamic between the four former sleeper agents is the most entertaining element of the film, as each character relates to their family relationship differently. For Natasha, who was old enough to know the truth about her life but too young to have any say in the matter, this family is just another lie, but Yelena was only six years old at the close of her mission, unaware of its purpose until later. She remembers their time in Ohio as the happiest part of her life, even if she no longer has any trust in the people she spent it with. Once reunited with Natasha, she slides back into the role of snarky little sister with ease, getting the elder Black Widow’s goat whenever possible. The chemistry between Johansson and Pugh as estranged siblings is terrific, and Pugh steals most of her scenes as a young woman who has been through hell as a pawn of others but is beginning to have a good time now that she has some agency of her own. The intent to set up Pugh as Johansson’s successor in the MCU is as obvious as it is welcome.

While Pugh brings a lot of dry humor to the proceedings, David Harbour comes out swinging as the film’s Comedy Bear, Alexei “Red Guardian” Shostakov, the USSR’s answer to Captain America who has spent the last twenty years in a gulag. Harbour is here to get laughs by lumbering about as a big, boastful Russian dumbass, which works because of Harbour’s unique talent for inspiring pity for his characters without appearing to ask for it. He’s a chuckling oaf who can’t read a room to save his life and remains likable despite saying the wrong thing in almost every circumstance. His opposite number is Weisz as the wounded and reserved Melina, a product of the Red Room herself who has been compelled by General Dreykov (English character actor Ray Winstone) to create even more cruel and direct methods of control over the Widows. Of Natasha’s “family,” Melina is the one who begins the story in the deepest despair, seemingly resigned to her fate as a puppet of evil men. Weisz’s performance feels deftly reverse-engineered from Johansson’s — Melina is the one who taught Natasha how to turn pain into strength, but has herself forgotten how. The film’s shining moments come from the family members’ earnest but often misguided attempts to repair each other.

Black Widow

They Don’t Call Her “Black Widow” Because of All the Alive People She Knows

From her first full appearance as a character in The Avengers (as opposed to her appearance as a sexy doll in Iron Man 2), Natasha has been defined by a sense of guilt. By the time we meet her, she’s already a reformed assassin working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the supposedly less evil militarized intelligence agency, and Black Widow finally provides a few details about how that came to pass. Natasha had been used as a weapon for her entire childhood and into adulthood before she was offered a way out by an American agent. Her escape came at the cost of a young girl’s life, which she believed would be necessary to free future generations from General Dreykov and his Red Room. It’s the first choice she ever made for herself, and she chose to kill a child. It’s no wonder that she sees herself as a monster.

Now, Natasha learns that Dreykov still lives and the Red Room is not only operational but thriving. While Natasha’s generation of Widows were manipulated via psychological conditioning, the Red Room has now learned how to directly control their agents’ brain chemistry to guarantee total compliance. Natasha and Yelena’s mission is to use a chemical counter-agent to free all the Widows they can on the way to eliminating Dreykov and the Red Room for good. Pinning Natasha’s redemption on giving other women the power to make their own choices makes good story sense, but its resonance is hampered by the lack of any truly difficult choices in the present day narrative of the film. There aren’t any real dilemmas to speak of, and most conflicts can be resolved instantly by the release of the shiny red mist that shakes the Widows from their programming. 

Black Widow only dips a toe into the murky waters of spy fiction, but then, the same could be said of most Hollywood spy-fi action blockbusters. It mostly avoids real-world politics, painting the Red Room as a vague “rogue former Soviet operation” the way a Brosnan-era Bond movie might. It ruminates on the abuse of women by male authority, but never for long enough to become depressing. Unlike Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow does not have any delusions of being a 21st century Le Carré novel, in fact the plot is straightforward even for a Marvel movie, but this allows the family drama to remain in the forefront. This is a refreshing change after a string of Marvel film installments crowded with subplots and story complications. 

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Black Widow

In Your House

Though originally intended to hit theaters before the they began rolling out their new shows on Disney+, Black Widow has accidentally become Marvel’s first “pay-per-view.” We have entered a new era for the MCU that mirrors the classic pro wrestling economy in which there are new episodes on a weekly basis but also more spectacular events about four times a year that cost extra, and fans will have to keep up with both to get the full context for either. Again, Black Widow wasn’t supposed to fit into this new release paradigm and doesn’t relate to the events of Marvel television in the same way that the upcoming Spider-Man or Doctor Strange sequels are likely to, but viewers are still presented with the same practical question: is it worth paying extra to see this when I’m already giving Disney $8 a month?

This is another way Black Widow’s detachment from the ongoing MCU drama works in its favor, entirely sidestepping the impression that it’s just another two-hour episode of Kevin Feige’s big expensive Avengers TV show. It’s a movie about a former spy and assassin struggling to cope with the things she’s done and trying to rescue others from an even worse fate, and oh yeah she usually has this really serious entourage? One of them’s from space. Its remaining metatextual MCU associations only work in its favor as a film-worthy event — to stretch the pro wrestling analogy a bit further, one of the ways you keep a star “too big for TV” is to keep them off TV, and you wouldn’t give away Scarlett Johansson’s MCU retirement match on television. 

Of course, there are also greater expectations for action on the big screen. Director Cate Shortland strings together setpieces that evoke different scales of spy-action movie — a Bourne-style shaky-cam fistfight, then a car and motorcycle chase more befitting a Mission: Impossible, followed by a grander jailbreak sequence — ratcheting up the cartoonishness gradually so that it doesn’t feel too out of place when the climax goes Full Marvel. The escalation feels natural and I was fully engaged through each one during my screening, but two days later I’m forced to acknowledge a lack of truly memorable moments of action. The visual I recall most clearly is actually a scene of dialogue in which a spacious office is made to feel cramped and uncomfortable through blocking, camera positioning, and Ray Winstone’s performance as the slimy General Dreykov. Admittedly, this is something that would have played just as well on the small screen.

Black Widow satisfied me as a theatrical experience and I have no regrets about handing over my $15 to see it on the big screen. I can, however, imagine being disappointed if I had chosen to watch it at home via Disney+ Premier Access, which allows streaming subscribers to unlock the movie for an additional $29.99. If going to the movies is not a viable option for you and you’ll have to see it at home anyway, you’ll likely be just as happy waiting until the movie becomes available to all subscribers on October 6th. There is no universe-shaking twist to spoil, no critical contextual detail that’s likely to affect your viewing experience of the next streaming series. The final beneficiary of Black Widow’s standalone nature is you, the viewer, who gets to treat this movie like any other rather than as an urgent piece of appointment viewing. And while that might make this film more or less excisable from the Marvel oeuvre, it might ultimately make it less disposable in the long run.