Director: Cate Shortland
Starring: Scarlett Johannsson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Rachel Weisz
Run Time: 134 mins
Black Widow is the overly anticipated solo outing for Scarlett Johannsson’s Russian Avenger, a film that Marvel devotees have been clamouring for for years. Given the characters definite fate in Avengers: Endgame, is this film too little too late? In the director’s chair is Cate Shortland and as with a variety of other Marvel directors, this represents Shortland’s first big-budget feature. After an initial sequence set in Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff’s childhood, the film opens with the Avenger exiled in Norway, following the events of Captain America: Civil War but prior to Avengers: Infinity War and how she reunites with her adopted family and their backstory. This is a strange choice as there is the need for continuity and a prequel set in the characters more formative years would have surely given more substance. Romanoff crosses paths with her feisty sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), both characters were victims of the ‘Red Room’ in their early years, a facility led by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who trains and brainwashes Russian assassins. Romanoff had presumed Dreykov deceased but clearly this is not the case and the duo team up with their adopted parents, Red Guardian (David Harbour) and scientist mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) to investigate and prevent world destruction from the villain.
Black Widow starts out in a promising fashion and almost suggests a new direction for the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its grittier tone and its well choreographed and stylised action sequences. It embraces its globe-trotting James Bond-esque origins even if it lacks the sophistication, sex and wit. Unfortunately after about half an hour, the film loses its edge and descends into convention with a half-baked story, cheesy family reunions and an over reliance on CGI, particularly at the film’s climax, which has been many a comic book film’s downfall in recent years. There are glimpses of Shortland’s direction in the first half an hour but the rest of the film feels like it was directed by a committee.
The performances are sound, if a little rough around the edges. This is more Florence Pugh’s film than Scarlett Johannsson and Pugh makes a promising impression as Yelena. Johannsson can play this role in her sleep but it’s a shame that this film doesn’t add all that much substance to the character that we have already come to know from prior instalments. The roles that Rachel Weisz and David Harbour play are serviceable but overly familiar and they are saddled with poor dialogue. Harbour fares better as it is clear that he takes the role more seriously in the film’s first half but then embraces the camp and ridiculousness of it all later in the film.
The film’s major stumbling block is its villains. Ray Winstone is not convincing whatsoever as Dreykov and his performance is hammy although understated. The character of Taskmaster, who is Dreykov’s secret weapon, an assassin that can mimic the movements of its competitors, is an interesting choice to include in the film but is unfortunately under-utilised. There are two early action sequences that are brilliant with the character causing carnage to Romanoff and Yelena and are reminiscent of the kinetic action found in Captain America: The Winter Soldier but not a great deal after that. The filmmakers stray from the characters origins in the comic books in what is quite an unsatisfactory twist.
The fact that Black Widow is a prequel also brings up a question of timelines. I have watched all of the Marvel films but I am not a die-hard fan and don’t know all the backstories inside out but even I could find holes in the story. Furthermore, being a prequel unfortunately brings with it the curse of the stakes are never high enough as you know what the outcome will be.
For its first half an hour, I thought Black Widow was going to be a Marvel film that was going to head in a different direction but Shortland either doesn’t have the guts to stick to her convictions or the higher-ups at Marvel wanted the formula adhered to and this film is unfortunately one of the lesser efforts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon.