After over two years away from the box office, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is finally back with “Black Widow.” Though the film is supposed to be part of the kickoff of a brand-new era of the Marvel franchise known as Phase 4, it’s pretty much exactly the same style of blockbuster superhero action films the company has been cranking out since 2008. Why wouldn’t it be? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It’s pretty much exactly the same style of blockbuster superhero action films the company has been cranking out since 2008.
After the long theatrical shutdown due to Covid-19, there’s something ultracomforting about a deeply familiar formula that still holds up — even when parts of the film fall down.
Out of the MCU’s original six (big-screen) Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow) only the first three, white straight men, were initially deemed worthy of stand-alone MCU film trilogies. Since the success of 2012’s “The Avengers,” which brought the six together, fans, especially women, have been clamoring to give the only female member of the group her own spinoff.
Sadly, it wasn’t until the explosive box-office successes of “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” that the franchise finally decided to course-correct. By then there was a problem: Black Widow was killed off in the final “Avengers” installment.
“Black Widow,” therefore, had to be a prequel. Interestingly, as if in acknowledgement of the failure to make the movie earlier, the film is set chronologically where a “Black Widow” movie should have premiered had the company listened back in 2012. Thankfully, “Black Widow” doesn’t feel like an apology or an afterthought. Instead, it is a reminder that though these movies are all interconnected, you can and should be able to enjoy (at least many of them) in whatever order you want.
More importantly, by kicking the new phase of big-screen characters off with a prequel set in a familiar era, the movie promises fans that this new phase of storytelling won’t be tinkering with the franchise’s wildly popular formula.
The result is a bit like wrapping yourself in a warm superhero blanket. Here is the opening sequence — which is surprisingly better than you might have expected — followed by a nice ironic pop song reference. There are the action sequences followed by the snarky quips and a few self-depreciating jokes that reference earlier exploits. The scary-looking bad guy appears, soon to be supplanted by the actual antagonist who controls them.
Johansson knows this is her last time with the character and makes sure to give audiences a final rollicking sendoff.
Familiarity, of course, does not imply perfection. The conceit of “Black Widow” — that the titular protagonist, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is called home by a girl who she once regarded as a younger sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), to save a new generation of mind-controlled Black Widows operating out of Russia — is thinly sketched. The “Marvel’s The Americans” scenario feels mostly like an excuse to hire David Harbour and Rachel Weisz to play Romanoff’s parents. The film’s main antagonist stands around making misogynistic comments so Johansson’s character can put him in his place. And one of the bigger reveals about Black Widow’s past should probably have stayed a mystery.
But like so many Marvel movies, none of those complaints really matter in the face of an absolutely charming cast. Johansson knows this is her last time with the character and makes sure to give audiences a final rollicking sendoff. Both Weisz and Harbour are clearly having the time of their lives as aging heroes who never were given their proper dues by the country that created them. And there simply isn’t enough that can be said about Pugh, who is the movie’s secret weapon. An absolute delight from beginning to end, she delivers all the best one-liners, and her running snark about how ludicrously sexualized Johansson’s character was in earlier Marvel films is worth the price of admission alone.
“Black Widow” is the first of what is about to be an absolute deluge of Marvel superhero films over the next 13 months, as Disney and Sony finally open the floodgates of delayed films alongside a stream of Disney+ shows. If there was ever a moment for the always-promised, never-arriving “superhero fatigue” to set in for audiences and Hollywood, now would be the time. But “Black Widow” won’t give many fans good reason to complain. Whether you watch the film in theaters or via Disney+ Premier Access, this is one movie that was absolutely worth the wait.