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Non-Review Review: Black Widow

Black Widow was originally supposed to release in May 2020.

This would have marked as something of a “coda” movie to the main saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a belated follow-up tidying away loose ends from Avengers: Endgame in much the same way as Spider-Man: Far From Home. Like a lot of the releases immediately following that massive cultural phenomenon, Black Widow feels like a bit of unfinished business. It is the first solo movie based around the only female founding member of The Avengers, a project that gestated in various forms over decades across multiple production companies.

A vicious cycle.

Of course, Black Widow would always have felt curiously out of step and out of time. Scarlett Johansson wrapped up her tenure as Natasha Romanoff in Endgame, with the superhero sacrificing her life in the quest to defeat Thanos. As a result, Black Widow has to position itself earlier in the timeline. It functions as something of an interquel between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, following the title character as she desperately evades capture by United States Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.

Had Black Widow released on time, it still would have felt like a movie that arrived four years too late. After all, despite introducing Natasha Romanoff as early as Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not build a solo superhero film around a female character until Captain Marvel. For all the chaos unfolding behind the scenes, the DC Extended Universe managed to beat Marvel Studios to the punch with the release of Wonder Woman in May 2017. It’s interesting to wonder whether the decision to position Black Widow as a direct sequel to a May 2016 release is something of a retroactive grab at that title.

Widow maker.

Even aside from all of this baggage, Black Widow is a frustrating film. It is a movie that feels only a draft or two (or an editting pass or two) away from greatness. The film grapples with big themes and bold character work in interesting ways that occasionally verge on confrontational. After all, Natasha Romanoff has consistently been portrayed as a complicated and ambiguous figure within this world of gods and legends, an international assassin whose moral and bodily autonomy was violated in the most grotesque ways, and who responded to this by trying to reinvent herself as a superhero.

There’s a fascinating story there, and Black Widow intermittently acknowledges as much. However, when the film gets close to hitting on any nerves, it immediately retreats into snarky irony and wry one-liners that rob the story of any real weight and the characters of any real agency. Black Widow is supposed to be a story about a character asserting her own agency in the face of an uncaring machine. Instead, it feels like a film where the machine always wins.

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