“Black Widow” Movie Review (2021)

Written by Victor DeBonis

Photo: Marvel Studios

“Black Widow” is the type of movie that makes me so happy and relieved that new, theatrical movies are happening again. I can’t say that it’s a Top Tier MCU film in the same ballpark as, say, “Civil War” or “The Winter Soldier.” With some more refining in certain narrative parts, I argue that it could’ve taken another step further to be the MCU’s “Wonder Woman” movie. Also, similar to others, I am a bit shocked that it took as long as it did to release a movie centering around this character now after such a long streak of Marvel films. The debate about how much hype this might’ve had if it weren’t for those obstacles is definitely still up there.

Yet, with that said, in spite of its stumbles that happen further along the path, “Black Widow” gave me almost everything that I could’ve wanted from this movie. Director Cate Shortland’s movie could’ve easily focused on just the action or humor by itself to carry the movie through, but, instead, she gave us a more grounded and gritty film that contained legitimate drama and allowed its characters, including heroine, to feel more fleshed-out and deal with deep issues that will strike a chord with many who choose to watch this movie.

From the first 10 minutes or so, “Black Widow” reminds you that it’s taking a darker tone and feel than previous MCU movies right down to the action itself. In previous creations from this universe, the heroes would typically throw hard-hitting punches or use a shield to spin around and knock out someone, which are moves that are creatively executed and leave a definite impact on their opponents but are expected after several installments. Through this film, opponents try to strangle each other with roping blinds around each other’s necks in battles, and assassins make greater use of their knives when trying to kill a person for good. There’s a considerably more aggressive and brutal feel with much of the action here that feels less superhero-like and more along the lines of something that you would see in the Jason Bourne movies. As someone who loves the Bourne trilogy, I admired the more assertive approach that the fight scenes took, and it matched solidly with the in-your-face, lethal fighting tactics of the titular protagonist. I will say that the shaky cam in some fight scenes is somewhat distracting, and it could take away from the impact of a few moves in certain moments. Yet, it usually allowed the audience to get a good view of who’s delivering what move to the other, and it was never overused to the extent that “Man of Steel” and “Quantum of Solace” did.

The movie, in general, feels rather gritty and rough right down to children literally taking bullets but still rising above the occasion to aid their loved ones in order to survive. The intensity helped to further suck me into the story, and the path of the heroine herself made me want to follow more through the good action. Speaking of the heroine, Scarlett Johannson does wonders for this character as always. She doesn’t say too many words, but she carries herself with an unending drive and calmly maintained force that is viciously shown when she’s in front of somebody that she takes down. Black Widow has undeniable strength, but she also walks with a guarded sense that she’s holding back a bunch of pain and shows how much she cares about others through her actions while also showing raw emotion in her more vulnerable moments.

Florence Pugh, another actress that I’m always enthusiastic to see, is also excellent as Johannson’s sister and almost snatches the movie in a few scenes with how she dryly delivers some rather funny or sarcastic lines or observations. She brings much of the humor in the movie, and she also handles herself like a pro in the combat-related scenes. Yet, I especially loved the sisterly bond that occurs between the two. One can definitely notice a bunch of tension between them as they’re trying to re-connect, but they also have natural-feeling conversations that dive into what they’ve been doing since they last met and what their thoughts are. Coupled with their similar balance of fierce intensity and carefully contained pain from their pasts, Johansson and Pugh have a completely believable connection with one another, and it’s great to watch these two assist each other in battle scenes. It’s also neat to see this vibe between them that reminds me of how some people bond further with each other over the years if they experience either a similar trauma or the exact same. If there’s anything that the pandemic is teaching us, it’s that a harsh experience or period of time can more often than not hold the ability to bring many people closer together through the painful experiences. These two sisters have clearly been through a wave of hardship from their own pasts as well as the unpleasant scenario that their family and its conflict put them through, and, despite their differences, it doesn’t take long for them to see that they need each other to not only survive but maintain that solace and strong connection that doesn’t completely take the darkness of what they went through away but shows how a family’s love can bring a little light through them.

In terms of other performers, Rachel Weisz is great as the mother. She has plenty of brains to her presence, and she also proves herself as able to react interestingly off of the rest of the family and has an interesting profession that led to more fascination with her character. And, David Harbour does well as the Red Guardian. He has a playful and laid-back personality, and he moves with a sometimes slower pace of someone who is a “washed-up” warrior, so he brings a fair amount of humor to the table. However, when it comes to a more serious moment, he knows when to dial back and look and speak at others with the quietness that they deserve. With that said, I will acknowledge that they could’ve used him more in the plot of the movie itself or, at least, narratively used him in specific ways that would’ve made his presence more satisfying for the amount of time that he was around.

What especially made this film resonate with me was the legitimate family drama and the connections amidst the family at the center of it all. From early on in the cinematic universe, Johansson’s character kept more to herself in a guarded sense that suggested that there was something deeper and darker from her past that would never completely fade away, and much of it comes front and center when her mission progresses further into the movie and has her returning to her original family and home. She and her other characters face their pasts and the circumstances and people that shaped them with a weariness about what came before and with a wish that situations might somehow turn out different.

And, all of this drama is depicted with the quietness and respect that they deserve when exploring tough issues. Such difficult matters include dealing with trauma and facing the fact of having experienced a less-than-ideal childhood/past and struggling to determine whether the people that shaped you did it in a way that either ended up helping or harming you on your path. These are all serious ideas that they usually don’t interrupt with another joke or funny one-liner, either. The performers in this movie are so good that they know how to wait and let the mood to sink in and reveal all of their hardened emotions wonderfully, sometimes with little to no dialogue.

No therapy happens in this movie, and I don’t expect this film to work any miracles. However, I like to think that someone might watch this movie and feel a bit of comfort in connecting with Black Widow’s longing to make peace (or, at least, make sense) of her own troubled past and figure out how to move forward or deal with what came before to some degree. As this movie went on, I was briefly reflecting on friends and loved ones of mine who have experienced troubled parts in their life stories and what this heroine or another character from this film might mean to them and the courage, compassion, and past and present battles that they have faced as they try to move forward or make peace with what came from before.

Heck, I didn’t even a traumatic past, and I was blessed to have a decent upbringing and family life and such. Yet, as someone who has experienced his share of tough moments from before and (like many) is still in the process of trying to make sense of the present as the world is still trying to piece itself back together amidst a pandemic that is not as powerful as before but left an unreal trauma and devastation upon the world, I could definitely connect with Black Widow in her path of attempting to make sense of the difficult times that scarred her and figure out what to do to move onward in the present.

Without giving away what happens, there are even a few moments that make commentary about Black Widow in regards to how she is as a public hero and how it strangely disconnects with what most people don’t know about her in relation to her past, and I greatly appreciated that. One scene, in particular, addresses the heroic image of her in a way that’s funny but also leads to some more serious lines about what it means for Johansson’s image as a public heroine.

The family itself is depicted with both funny and emotionally considerate interactions with each other that make their moments feel all the more believable. They represent a group of loved ones who have a fairly complicated history with each other, yet they also know what each other’s strengths are and work in a way that shows how they’re trying to collaborate and help each other understand what it is that they’re trying to find an answer to or learn more about. Their family didn’t come from the most ideal circumstances, but they show a connection that feels completely credible and comes from trying to rise above what came from before.

“Black Widow” also wisely takes a note from the MCU shows, such as “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki” and allows the characters to actually sit down and have genuine discussions or arguments that let you know how intense they feel or what their thought processes are like. That may sound a bit obvious for a moment, such as this to happen, but, if you stop and think about it, not too many recent movies, especially action blockbusters, take the time to actually let their characters breathe and casually talk about what’s on their mind. Much of it does spend time either cracking several one-liners or moving from one action sequence to the next in a way that almost feels as though it’s trying to reach an invisible finish line. This movie takes its time with its approach and makes the most of it when its characters explore a place for a moment but still share their thoughts about something or simply sit and discuss what their previous experiences are like to get more of a sense of why they think and act the way that they do. It’s an awesome approach to character that I hope catches on with future blockbusters.

With all of this being said, for all of my praise towards the heroes in this movie, the villain in this film, sadly similar to other MCU installments, is painfully weak. There’s a general sense of what his plan is, but I didn’t have the slightest clue of what his motivation was (if there was one), and, as things proceed, events occur that leave him feeling more as a rejected Bond villain without much to present him in an interesting fashion. That’s a shame partly because Ray Winstone brings a legitimately menacing and off-putting presence to his character, and I can see him pulling off something even more memorable with a main opponent that is better written. There’s also a soldier of sorts that works for him who has a neat design with the skull helmet, but, at the same time, I barely found much about this figure to be invested in or care further about the soldier other that this person is obviously hurting and killing a bunch of women and needs to be stopped. As far as the climax goes, it deviates further from the gritty and harsher feeling of the rest of the movie by going into overblown action and scenery, and it left an underwhelming feeling for much of its running time.

At the time of this review, a bunch of discussion has gone on about this movie with some loving it and some disliking it and some regarding it as more of the more passable entries from Marvel’s film catalog. I have to be honest, though, and say, straight out, that, even if I can’t really call this one of Marvel’s best, I did highly enjoy it as a whole, and a huge part of me genuinely loved this movie. Given some of the more mixed reactions from a few people, some may be a bit puzzled by my feelings here. Part of it may be that it’s been so long that I’ve seen a blockbuster that focuses on a heroine and family trying to deal with the emotional and personal hurt of their own journey and genuinely took its time with it. It also comes from the fact that I did want to see a good blockbuster that was going for a darker and more grounded feel and less jokey than what I’m used to seeing from many of Marvel’s movies (as much as I’m a huge fan of this universe). And, I don’t want to keep bringing up COVID but, for one thing, it is still an ongoing event that, while more controlled, is going to be something that will take a long time (maybe, years, if we’re talking real for a moment) for many to recover from.

The second part that IM mention this is that, similar to how other people were wanting more grittiness and realism from their media in the aftermath of 9/11 and received it for quite some time, I personally welcome a good film or show that has a bit more of a smart or thoughtful edge to it as I’m still trying to process and recover from much of the destruction that has happened and surrounded me. For me, this movie, although it comes from a universe that is typically more light-hearted, fit the bill in that regard with its action and more intense, dramatic scenes. (I sometimes wonder how the media itself will later respond to people’s experiences and stories from COVID in the future ahead and how the mood will reflect what’s occurred, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Whatever the reason is, I had a great time with this film, and it did highly satisfy me as someone who is a huge fan of this character and this actress. “Black Widow” allowed for some great action to occur. The film welcomed some great actors who brought a bunch of life to some neat characters. And, it satisfied with providing an engaging backstory to a much beloved heroine while also addressing some interesting ideas and providing balanced drama and quietness to blend in nicely with the action on-screen. Some elements, such as the villain and how much presence certain characters receive, could’ve used more improvement, yet, for me, they didn’t do too much to take away from the experience as a whole. It was a great experience that made me even happier to call Black Widow one of my favorite MCU characters, and, between this and several episodes of the MCU shows taking place, right now, I’d say that the MCU is making a nice year for its heroes (following a year when heroes and positivity wasn’t around much), and I’m more than satisfied with that.

Grade: A-

I’m passionate about movies, animation, and writing, in general, and I only want to learn more.