Review: Black Widow Finally Gives Marvel’s Most Impressive Fighter Her Due, Plus a Compelling Backstory

Although technically the long-delayed Black Widow film is said to be the first chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four, I find it interesting that everything Marvel has put out in theaters (or on Disney+) since Avengers: Endgame (including Spider-Man: Far From Home, WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki) has dealt with the ramifications of the cosmic shift that occurred in that movie. In fact, Marvel doesn’t even get around to introducing a new headlining hero until September with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and I’ve heard rumors that even that may be set in the five-year gap between Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. So, Phase 3 isn’t quite as far in our rearview mirror as Marvel would have us believe...

Black Widow Image courtesy of Marvel Studios

So let's get this out of the way: yes, of course the Black Widow character (played across seven previous films by Scarlett Johansson) should have had her own solo film years ago, and it’s not just shameful that she didn’t; it’s downright laughable. She’s probably the most technically skilled fighter of all of the Avengers, and aside from some “stingers” on her wrists, she has no biological or technological enhancements. She’s a pure fighting and killing machine as a result of a dark past that involves hard training going back to her childhood, beginning when her mother allowed her to be taken away to become one of Russia’s ultimate weapons. This and other parts of Natasha Romanoff’s backstory are the focus of Black Widow, the bulk of which takes place shortly after Captain America: Civil War, when Natasha was on the run from the American government as a result of defying the so-called Sokovia Accords, designed to regulate the activities of enhanced individuals (aka superheroes).

Putting aside the timing of the release in the grand Marvel scheme of things, Black Widow is actually a fairly solid spy thriller with a ridiculous amount of crunching practical action, clearly CG-enhanced stunts, a mostly interesting attempt to fill in some of the blanks in Romanoff’s life story, and the introduction of one of the cooler Marvel villains of late. In the opening sequences, we see Natasha evade forces led by Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), complete a quick mission in Budapest, and end up looking for answers from Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the man behind the Russian "Black Widow" program. But in order to get to Dreykov, she must reunite with a group of people who once posed as Natasha’s family when they were deep-cover agents in America, when Nat was just a kid. David Harbour and Rachel Weisz play her “parents,” Alexei and Melina, while Florence Pugh plays younger “sister,” Yelena. Alexei was injected with Russia’s version of the Super Soldier serum and became the very strong Red Guardian, while Melina was one of the country’s leading behavioral scientists who worked on a way to control the human mind, a tool for Dreykov to eventually put to evil use.

Yelena has become an almost more extreme version of Natasha, eventually turned into a mindless soldier by Dreykov, a fate she eventually snapped out of due to a burst of counter-serum to the face in a sneak attack by another ex-Widow, ultimately setting her free and leaving her searching for answers as to what to do with this newfound freedom and the extra vials of the antidote now in her possession. The story of Black Widow is almost secondary to the joy one feels getting to spend time with these characters. The banter and weird lusty vibe between Alexei and Melina is both funny and wonderfully awkward. But it’s Pugh who dominates much of the film, almost to the detriment of Johansson at times, which is a shame in some ways because the movie is meant to be a tribute/sendoff to Black Widow. But it’s difficult to resist the sheer awesome power of Pugh as the sassy, smarmy whirlwind that is Yelena.

Along Natasha’s journey, we meet Mason (O-T Fagbenle), a friend who specializes in supplying her with weapons and other equipment on short notice (although when you give him more notice, he can really impress). And while it’s clear Mason has a bit of a crush on Natasha, they keep things professional, even as it’s clear that she’s manipulating him just enough to keep him as an active ally. The key to a great deal of Black Widow’s success is Australian director Cate Shortland’s (Somersault, Lore, Berlin Syndrome) insistence that the interpersonal relationships are delved into and conversations are allowed to continue uninterrupted longer than perhaps we’re used to in an action setting. The result is growing to truly enjoy the company of this group and the relational bonds that are given a chance to deepen more than in your average superhero movie.

As much as Dreykov is established as the true villain of the piece, his pride and joy is the armored and masked warrior known as Taskmaster (a comic book favorite for many years), whose identity is secret and whose skill set includes photographic reflexes (being able to perfectly mimic the fighting style of anyone it observes), making it skilled in hand-to-hand combat, as well as archery, swordplay and with a shield. And Taskmaster is more than a match for Natasha, which we find out multiple times during the movie through some genuinely stellar fight sequences and one not-so-stellar mid-air conflict that seems 100 percent effects-created.

The biggest fault I find with Black Widow is the tonal shifts, which normally aren’t an issue for me. I tend to admire a film that dares to shift tones throughout the running time just to keep the proceedings a bit unpredictable. But here, the tonal shifts in Eric Pearson’s screenplay seem unintentional. Lighthearted and deadly serious moments are smashed together in a way that feels more about poor chases in editing than an attempt to deliberately play with shifting moods. Also, the reveal of the Taskmaster’s true identity is handled clumsily to the point that the emotional impact on both Natasha and us is somewhat lost. The reveal is meant to be a tipping point in Black Widow’s guilt about some of her past behaviors before leaving the Russian program, but we blow through the moment so quickly that the impact is blunted and minimized.

Even so, I was so impressed with Pugh, Weisz and Johansson in Black Widow that it makes the film's flaws easier to handle because they do a terrific job pushing through them, allowing their performances to dominate the movie. It’s not the film’s fault when in the overall Marvel timeline it's released; none of that has any impact on how the strong the actors are in this movie. I also think the story is one worth telling, even if there’s little for us to do with this information beyond considering how it impacts Natasha in the last two Avengers movies. There’s only one mid-credits scene that I, obviously, won’t reveal, but if I were you, I’d make sure you were up to date on your Marvel Disney+ shows before catching Black Widow. I’m genuinely excited to see this one again.

The film will be in theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access beginning Friday, July 9.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.