Final Verdict: A compelling action flick, a surprisingly meaningful story, and a refreshing entry into the MCU that unfortunately comes several years too late.
About The Film
After multiple delays, Phase Four of the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe kicks off with the long-awaited Black Widow standalone film. While I’ve enjoyed most Marvel films, I’m in the minority of people who have grown increasingly indifferent to the unfolding MCU story. The same established template that maintains consistently high quality can also make each entry feel like the same movie in a new coat of paint. So I was a little caught off guard at how much I enjoyed Black Widow. In fact, this is one of the best and freshest Marvel films in years.
The film’s opening hardly feels like a Marvel film at all. The further into the (once again, overly long) runtime the more it does begin to feel like a standard Marvel movie, but along the way it offers enough interesting ideas and set pieces to set itself apart and stand out in the crowded superhero genre.
The action is more Jason Bourne-inspired than the physics-defying, “floaty” action typical of many recent comic book films. In fact, the fight scenes are perhaps the most brutal and “weighty” of any MCU film. The film also has the expected Marvel-brand of humor. There are some genuinely hilarious moments, particularly with David Harbour’s amusing Red Guardian character. Fellow MCU newcomer, Florence Pugh, is also a standout. She is fantastic in her role, and responsible for many of the most emotional and funny moments. She is a great addition to the MCU.
Not to be overshadowed by her excellent co-stars, Scarlett Johansson is capable as ever in the role of Black Widow. No fault of her own, but I’ve never found her character all that interesting, particularly when she has been surrounded by far more captivating heroes and characters. Finally given her moment in the spotlight, however, she gives a much more nuanced and absorbing performance than I expected. She is a flawed hero, and Johansson really sells the inner turmoil.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Black Widow is that the fate of the world does not hang in the balance. There are no “beams in the sky” or impending nuclear explosions. Instead, the stakes are deeply personal. The MCU gets well-deserved criticism for its typically lousy villains, and many viewers will likely feel the same with Black Widow. I disagree. The story’s primary conflict is between Black Widow and her past, not between her and some new villainous threat. Without giving any spoilers, the villains are perfectly, even poetically, suited for this task. No, they’re not very memorable, but they serve the story while never stealing attention away from Black Widow.
In the end, it becomes painfully clear that this movie should have been released several years ago had Marvel/Disney had any faith in a female-led superhero film. The film would have added a lot to Black Widow’s significant role in Avengers: Endgame. Instead, because of its awkward placement in the MCU timeline, it ends up feeling more like an irrelevant afterthought. That’s a shame, because it’s one of the best stand-alone Marvel films since Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Profanity: A handful of mild profanities (mostly “s—”), and several uses of the Lord’s name in vain (“omg,” etc.).
Sexuality: Black Widow is shown from behind taking off her shirt, but in a non-sexual manner. Later, a character explains being given a forced hysterectomy in graphic terms, although it is played as a darkly humorous moment.
Violence: Standard MCU/superhero violence. Characters bleed after fighting and several characters are shown with disfigured faces.
Engage the Film
#MeToo and Female Abuse
There have been some growing pains with the first wave of female-led superhero films. Captain Marvel was a disaster, while DC’s Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 were both misfires. Too often, these films felt like a feminist soapbox rather than a compelling story. Thus, it is to the immense credit of relatively unknown director Cate Shortland that Black Widow manages to successfully delve into serious themes without ever feeling heavy handed.
The #MeToo movement is at the heart of Black Widow. Rather than shout a “Boys are pigs. Girl power!” message, the film takes a more mature approach by examining the emotional impact of abuse on the various black widow characters. Similarly, the film condemns the cowardly character of abusive men without resorting to a sweeping denunciation of all men. The film “shows” rather than “tells,” providing a vivid snapshot of the devastating impact of abuse and the healing process to overcome it. Ironically, because Black Widow is not a super powered character, her journey to overcome the abuse of her past becomes a far more empowering story than a supercharged hero like Captain Marvel taking out entire star fleets with ease.
Overcoming Our Past
“Your pain only makes us stronger,” says Rachel Weisz’s character; a mantra repeated throughout the film.There is undoubtably a certain degree of self-help and self-empowerment in the message. Yet, the general theme of facing and overcoming the hurt or regret in our past is one that can resonate with Christian viewers. Our past is an important part of our story, but it does not define us.