‘Black Widow’: Natasha Romanoff Is Given A Final Farewell In Marvel’s Latest Entertaining, But Inconsequential Episode [Review]

Whether audiences are conscious of it or not, what Marvel’s Disney+ limited TV series have taught us about the MCU, at this moment, is viewers care about characters and their human struggles. Take “WandaVision,” for example, which demonstrates these strengths. Audience consensus, by and large, felt the power-packed action finale was a bit of a noisy dud, but the emotional depth of the series—what is grief, if love not persevering—was certainly poignant enough for viewers to look past the conclusion’s missteps. Our emotional investment in these characters is real. We’ve lived with them for more than a decade, and as audience members, we care about them and empathize with the emotional conflicts they grapple with; it gives the best of these films and series their heart and soul. In short, action spectacle is no longer enough.

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These are new challenges to face for Marvel, especially as character-driven TV series give more depth than movies usually allow. For “Black Widow,” Marvel’s long-awaited, first theatrical release in nearly two years, these still-evolving demands have complicated implications. At two-hours-and-20-minutes, “Black Widow” does admirably go to great lengths to create an emotional arc about family, painful lies, broken relationships, subjugation, and autonomy. But the obligations of great spectacle also drag down the movie in the third act in a finale that’s never quite as resonant a farewell as it should be.

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Directed by Cate Shortland (“Berlin Syndrome”) and written by Jac Schaeffer (“WandaVision”) and Ned Benson (“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”), “Black Widow” begins as a prequel in the 1980s where a young Natasha Romanoff lives with her younger sister Yelena and her mother and father in residential Ohio. But this construct is ultimately a fantasy. Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) aren’t really American suburbanite parents. They’re Russian spies, and once their cover is blown, it’s time for this artificial family unit to uproot and get out of dodge. In a terrific opening action sequence—quite harrowing in terms of the emotional distress it’s clearly inflicting on the children—S.H.I.E.L.D. hunts down the family, they escape to Cuba by the skin of their teeth and meet Drekov (Ray Winstone), a Russian oligarch and head of the Black Widow program (an opening montage about the young girls being forced into the Black Widow program is chilling and heartbreaking, has echoes of child trafficking scenarios and is arguably the movie’s most disturbing and powerful sequence in communicating the horrors of Red Room indoctrination).

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The film then fast forwards to the present day; Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is being hunted by the U.S. government, and Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” Now a fugitive, Romanoff is ten steps ahead of them, but more importantly, the echoes of this shattered family, traumatically torn from her at a young age, are still a painful wound that’s never properly healed or found closure. These scars are good, weighty layers that “Black Widow” doesn’t ultimately know what to do with in any significant way other than creating baggage.

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The film’s plot centers around the Red Room and the Russian Black Widow agents that inhabit it. While Natasha defected to the U.S. years ago, things have changed. What was once psychological brainwashing has transformed into a more advanced chemically-enhanced suppression. And when a mission goes awry, Romanoff’s now grow-up sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) becomes exposed to a chemical agent that frees her of the Black Widow mind control. This sets off a chain of events that leads Romanoff back to Budapest, then to Russia, to reckon with her past, her former family, and the sinister influence of the Red Room that cost her so much of her humanity (and the Taskmaster character tasked with tracking Romanoff down).

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Half of “Black Widow” is arguably terrific, a blend of character-driven issues about reconciling with a dark past and being conflicted with it— recognizing it was a lie, but still paradoxically craving the stability and normalcy it offered—and outstanding action sequences that feel like a best-of mix of the ‘Bourne’ series and ‘Mission Impossible.’

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There’s also a great theme about control, free will, female autonomy (both physical and mental), the patriarchy, and breaking those violent cycles of oppression—these women are, after all, all manipulated and puppeteered by the cruel Drekov—that doesn’t feel overt nor like some big political statement but simply a byproduct of the circumstances. “Black Widow” is also about redemption— Romanoff making things right as best she can, looking at the blood in her ledger with clear-eyed accountability, and doing her best to tear down the past to create a new future for the women who weren’t given a choice in the matter.

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As much as there’s great character texture and emotional conflict in the film, plenty of it gets drowned out in the film’s noisy and ‘Mission Impossible’-y epic third act which is visually grand and anonymous in the way many blockbusters third acts are. Black Widow obviously sacrificed herself for her new family in “Avengers: Endgame,” and “Black Widow” does have a big opportunity to say something meaningful and poignant about this family and perhaps the way it attempts to heal or come to terms with itself. Instead, ‘Black Widow” veers away from any consequential ending, which gives the movie of feeling like just another Marvel episode and adventure, in the end (which in some ways makes it feel like a Phase One Marvel film).

“Black Widow” gives the impression, for two hours, that it’ll eventually have something meaningful to say about its various weighty themes and these broken people—the movie’s put in the work, after all, and we’re rooting for them to find some sense of peace. Disappointingly, it can’t really honor those ideas in any satisfying way, and its ending even feels anticlimactic (which also makes its conclusion feel a little bit like a two-hour commercial for a forthcoming Disney+ series).

As unfortunate as these final choices are, that’s not to say there aren’t good elements in “Black Widow” and that it’s not an entertaining movie. The witty, retorting Florence Pugh—essentially playing the pouty, put-out, and overlooked little sister character— is a huge stand-out, funny and charming; audiences will surely be happy to continue her exploits. Scarlett Johannsson also imbues the Black Widow character with about as much soul as is humanly possible, which is no small feat given the secretive character always kept her cards close to the vest for years. Harbour and Weisz are great too, but unfortunately, there’s that nagging feeling that the best of these people are being saved for another installment instead of using them to say something about this fake family that is desperate to honor the “real” years they experienced together.

As Marvel reaches this new summit of character-driven series that correspond and connect to upcoming films, the studio finds itself with a new dilemma: movies that may feel superficial compared to the longer and more in-depth TV shows and how each may feel like a long-form commercial for the other. “Black Widow” is a strange curiosity in that it overcomes this hurdle and still falls prey to the problem. Ultimately, “Black Widow” is mostly an entertaining and adequate tribute to Natasha Romanoff, Black Widow, and Scarlett Johannson’s time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, it’s not quite the bittersweet, moving, or resonant send-off one might have hoped for based on the initial movie’s promise of exploring a dark and damaged past and what that does to the soul. [B]

“Black Widow” arrives in theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on July 9.