Review: ‘Black Widow’ is a fun yet fruitless sidequest

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Screenshot via Disney+

Culture Editor Diana Velasquez argues that despite “Black Widow’s” stellar cast and unexpected success in humor, the movie falls flat as an awkwardly constructed prequel.

By Diana Velasquez, Culture Editor

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been the “it” girl of the MCU since the franchise’s inception. Mainly because for the longest time she was the only major female superhero to feature in it. And yet, going on 10 years into Marvel’s worldwide box office domination, she still did not have her own movie.

This was all supposed to change with the release of “Black Widow” in May 2020, but as we are all aware, the world was preoccupied with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and no one was going to a movie theater to see anything.

But after multiple release date changes, “Black Widow” finally came to the big and the small screens for fans to enjoy Friday. If you weren’t willing to chuck out the ludicrous $30 premier access fee to see it on Disney+, you probably went to the movie theater for the first time in over a year like I did.

Now, was it the debut Natasha deserved? Keep in mind, this movie may be a part of MCU canon, but it’s also a strange prequel, midquel mashup. And though the movie succeeds way more than I expected on a comedic level, overall it falls flat. Because, in case you forgot, Natasha died in “Avengers: Endgame.”

“Black Widow” takes place between two Marvel movie behemoths “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” where after the great Avengers divorce of 2016, Natasha finds herself on the run from a world government who is hellbent on putting all the runaway Avengers behind bars.

She evades them rather easily but finds herself entangled in a mess of old Russian spy politics, headed by her now-defunct childhood family. The most important member of this family, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Natasha’s younger adopted sister gone rogue, has about as much time on screen as Natasha does.

In truth, this feels more like her movie than it is Natasha’s. Pugh is a powerhouse of an actor, and this isn’t a surprise for anyone who’s seen her in “Midsommar” or “Little Women.” She gives the best performance by far out of all the cast members, firing off some of the best jokes I’ve seen in the franchise.

Marvel has a reputation for lots of quipping in its films, and this humor usually lands pretty well. But after 24 movies and counting it can be hard to get some fresh material in there. Pugh has snark to spare, but also adds some greatly needed vulnerability to her character that plays excellently into the family dynamics the movie is hellbent on developing.

Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) serve as the father and mother duo to complement the two Black Widow sisters, and together all four actors have great chemistry. As tender, resentful, exasperated, as estranged families often tend to be.

The small character-driven scenes with these four characters are by far the best parts of the movie. This familial thread is carefully woven through the film, from the very opening scene to the moment Natasha pulls herself from the wreckage of the big bad CGI climax.

But therein lies one of the movie’s problems. Outside of these family squabbles, it’s hard to remember what’s going on with the bigger plotline. The villains Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) and General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) are forgettable at best, cringe-inducing at worst.

The movie’s nefarious conflict revolves around finding the hidden “Red Room” run by General Dreykov where the many Black Widows have been trained for decades, only now Dreykov has moved his base into a literal flying fortress hovering over Russia.

It’s giving me very much “Bond villain” vibes complete with a bad Russian accent and sly misogynistic comments aimed at almost every female lead he comes into contact with.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather stay with Rachel Weisz on her nondescript Russian pig farm watching her bicker with her daughters and husband as they unpack all that family trauma piled up in the corner.

But this is a Marvel movie, and there always has to be some great big baddie to take down. Even if their motives don’t make any rational sense beyond the typical world domination schtick.

The movie never lets you forget where it is, firmly entrenched in the formula and the timeline of the MCU, to the point where it seems forced. I haven’t counted, but there might be more references to other MCU movies in this one than any other.

I truly think Captain America is mentioned more by the characters in “Black Widow” than in his own trilogy, but I digress.

As a Marvel fan, “Black Widow” is a movie I wouldn’t mind watching again, but for any of the average moviegoers I couldn’t be so sure. It’s lost in the muck of its timeline, and with “Shang-Chi” and the “Eternals” on the superhero movie docket in the next coming months “Black Widow” could easily be lost in the shuffle.

I’ll fight anyone on Twitter who is happy Clint Barton wasn’t chucked off that cliff in “Infinity War,” and this movie only cemented that belief. But I could stay here all day contemplating the “what ifs” of bad movie writing and the actors’ contracts that no doubt had a hand in that decision. 

“Black Widow” confirmed to me what everybody already knew. Kevin Feige should have given Natasha her movie earlier, when the future of one of the most fascinating and nuanced Avengers wasn’t splattered at the bottom of a cliff two movies back.

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