Review: Marvel’s ‘Black Widow’ is Thrilling, but Lacks Depth Natasha Deserves

“Black Widow” is an action-packed film with an empowering message that falls short of giving its heroine the long-awaited role she deserves.

by Jessica Sun Li | 7/16/21 1:04am

by Annie Qiu / The Dartmouth Staff

Marvel’s “Black Widow” weaves a touching story about abuse, family and survival. The movie tackles the difficult theme of the dehumanization of young women through fantastic acting, writing and, of course, fighting. In the larger context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though, “Black Widow” still feels like too little, too late for the titular character. After a decade as a superhero sidekick, fans can’t help but feel that Black Widow deserved more.

“Black Widow” opens with a scene of a family — one that is soon revealed to be fake. In reality, it is a cover for a Russian spy mission led by the “parents,” Alexei Shostakov and Milena Vostokoff, with their “daughters,” Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova. For the remainder of the film which flashes forward to 2016, following the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” one thing remains consistent: the standout acting from the entire cast, with palpable chemistry between these four main characters. 

In particular, Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova becomes an instant audience favorite. With her strong will, sarcastic remarks and desire to prove herself, she already shows far more complex and intricate writing than Scarlett Johansson’s Romanoff was ever afforded in her entrance to the MCU.

As Romanoff and Belova reunite in Budapest and begin their quest to take down their abuser, General Dreykov, and his cryptic organization called the Red Room, the audience receives fantastic dialogue that captures the sibling dynamic. In one scene, Romanoff and Belova are driving, and Belova begins talking about the new vest she just bought, which Romanoff instantly makes fun of. Belova’s subsequent irritation and subtle demand for her older sister’s approval feels familiar to everyone with siblings. It is a touching moment of realism in a cinematic universe that often feels so far removed from our world.

The fight choreography featured in “Black Widow” is some of the best from Marvel. Taskmaster, the main villain’s daughter and personal assassin, has the ability to mimic anyone that she has encountered — culminating in  one of the most visually interesting fights between Romanoff and Taskmaster which takes place on a bridge in Norway. The two characters mirror one another in their hand-to-hand combat. In one particular moment, both characters land in the same pose kneeling on the ground, and Romanoff looks up in shock as she realizes that she has literally met her match.

As the film progresses, the plotline remains intriguing but a bit predictable. For example, when Romanoff, Belova and Shostokov are seemingly captured by the Red Room, Vostokoff’s defection from the Red Room is alluded to too often in shots that linger on or zoom into her face. Natasha and Milena are then revealed to have switched spots using spy gear that can change one’s facial structure — a reveal that would have been more shocking had this exact technology and plot twist not been used in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in 2014. Despite the slight predictability that comes with the superhero genre, the fast pace and engaging dialogue keep the audience invested.

The film begins to stray from typical superhero movie themes by occasionally pulling back from the action and diving headfirst into serious conversations about the abuse of women. It is a commendable choice that parallels movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up. That being said, due to the inherent, confining structure of a superhero movie, “Black Widow” would never be able to tell these stories of abuse to the depth and with the complexity that is required. Many darker moments, like Belova’s mention of a forced hysterectomy, are glossed over. Other more inspiring moments, such as Romanoff convincing Vostokoff that together they can take down their abuser, better align with a superhero story arc and thus receive more screen time.

Black Widow also cherry-picks which characters are worthy of being fleshed out. One of the most disappointing characters is O-T Fagbenle’s Mason, who ends up feeling like a random character. He was likely cast in order to make viewers think that he is Taskmaster — a plot device which ends up being the only purpose he serves in the film. Aside from providing Romanoff with aircraft and mobile homes, he appears to have no greater ties to the MCU and thus feels out of place.

David Harbour’s Shostakov is also not given the luxury of being fully developed beyond his role of comedic relief. The decision is frustrating because he has moments where he genuinely grows, but it is never taken seriously. Even his moment of reckoning with the pain to which he subjugated his faux daughters became a moment of comedy when it is revealed that he was pouring his heart out to the wrong person.

Though “Black Widow” is visually focused on Romanoff, Belova is given the most attention. What Marvel markets as an exploration into Black Widow’s past plays out much more like a setup into Belova’s introduction to the larger universe. Thus, “Black Widow” ultimately feels like a sequel to a movie about Romanoff that never happened. Though her past is briefly touched on in this film, her history is far overshadowed by Belova’s future in the MCU, making “Black Widow” another example of Marvel failing Romanoff.

Belova criticizes Romanoff’s narrow, one-track mindset of redeeming herself and ridding herself of the “red in her ledger”; she dismantles Romanoff’s goal of becoming a hero. In doing so, the audience realizes just how complex Belova is written, in contrast to just how shallowly Romanoff has been — and still is — depicted. In the end, “Black Widow” feels more like Belova’s movie.

Despite the way in which “Black Widow” snubs Natasha Romanoff of a proper send-off, the movie is captivating and enthralling. The film is heart-wrenching in ways that superhero movies rarely dare to be. In the post-credits scene of Belova’s tearful visit to Romanoff’s grave, her determination to right previous wrongs reminds us that Black Widow’s legacy lives on. 

Rating: ★★★★☆