Review: Black Widow Is The Perfect First Movie For MCU Phase 4
It’s been just shy of two years since I last saw a new Marvel Studios film, the last being Spider-Man: Far From Home, the film that closed out ‘The Infinity Saga.’ Since then, we have been blessed with WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and now Loki. All of these shows are, technically, the “start” of the fourth phase of MCU stories. When Black Widow was announced, I was both confused and not all that excited. While I was pleased that Natasha was finally getting her own movie, my non-fiction brain realized this was probably just a kind of parting gift (not say it was unearned) for her actor Scarlett Johannsson. It also seemed like a great way to introduce some new characters to tee up for future films and crossovers. However, having now seen the first MCU series, I better understand why, thematically, Black Widow would have been the perfect film to kick things off.
To be clear, we’re not spoiling anything for this movie, though references will be made to the Black Widow final trailer (both of them). So, if you’ve been avoiding all marketing and want to go in cold, just know that Black Widow both a satisfying story about Natasha Romanov, and continues the theme of recent MCU stories in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame.
Of course, anyone who saw that film knows that this is, technically, a prequel. In fact, one way this film sets itself in the timeline right after Captain America: Civil War is with the use of very similar location identifiers. The cities and places they travel pop up on the screen in big block letters, just like in the second Marvel movie from the Russo Brothers.
Until Now, Black Widow Was Just a Cameo Character for the MCU
We first met the live-action Black Widow in Iron Man 2, where she was assigned to keep an eye on Tony Stark in the wake of his “I am Iron Man,” business. Essentially, she was there to look cool and kick ass. Yet, over the next few films she appeared in, she established herself as both a capable operator with a good moral compass and sense of duty greater than even Captain America’s. That is what the Black Widow movie is about, how this woman became the one who saved the entire MCU. We get a better look at how the Red Room shaped her and her fellow “Widows” than we did in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yet, what this movie is really about is what WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and (probably) Loki are about: dealing with the grief and trauma that comes with being a world-famous superhero.
Now, let’s be clear. This movie is full of the kind of gigantic, destructive CGI action that Marvel movies are known for. The car chase scene we’ve seen in every trailer is pretty great, and I am not typically a fan of car chases. In fact, the ending of that chase was maybe my favorite car chase ending in all of cinema. It was equal parts thrilling and silly, which I personally believe is the comic book/action-movie sweet spot.
The other nice thing this film does is recontextualizes where Black Widow is when we see her again in Avengers: Infinity War. How did she go from being on Team Iron Man to being Team Cap’s right-hand woman? This movie doesn’t give you a bullet-point rundown of how that happen, but shows Natasha’s state of mind from the end of Civil War to when we next catch up with her.
Like the Fast & Furious Franchise, Black Widow Is All About Family
Image via Marvel Studios
We’ve known from the jump that Florence Pugh would play Yelena, Natasha’s sister, Rachel Weisz played her mother figure, and David Harbour would be her father figure. The way these relationships shake out are probably not going to surprise you. Yet, what did surprise me was how these relationships landed with me. It’s the rare case of where a prequel story is served by the audience knows how it’s all going to shake out. This is Natasha’s last chance to remove any red left in her ledger, and it’s as red as Red Guardian’s suit.
Honestly, the biggest complaint I see fans having about this movie is a familiar one from Phase 1 installments. The villains aren’t really examined beyond they’re bad and need to be stopped. Taskmaster is great in this movie, but this version of the character is, essentially, original to the MCU. What’s great about this film is that we meet many (many) other characters that could explore this in a different story. Black Widow is less about the MCU as a whole and more about getting Natasha to the place we find in her Endgame. She’s committed fully to the Avengers, being a hero, and that means saving lives, not taking them.
If this is the last time we see this version of Natasha Romanov, it’s still sad but less so than it was two years ago. In the interest of full disclosure, I am doubtful that there is any argument that could sway me that Natasha should have sacrificed herself instead of Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton. The forthcoming Hawkeye series could have just as easily been a prequel like this film was. However, part of being a fan means accepting the story you get rather than the one you wrote in your head.
The End of Natasha in the MCU, But Not the End of the Black Widow
Image via Marvel Studios
Even thought this is a strange movie to kick off the feature side of Phase 4 of the MCU, Black Widow does what a Marvel Studios movie is supposed to do. (Meaning: Stick around after the credits.) The future for at least some of these characters is hinted at in the last moments, and connections are drawn to other MCU projects we’ve seen recently and that are coming soon. Yet, these elements of set-up, in my opinion, do not detract from the larger story. Like Captain America, the mantle of “the Black Widow” will be taken up by someone else. In fact, if the title were Natasha Romanov rather than Black Widow, it would work just as well. Because while this is all about what it means to be a ‘Black Widow’ in the MCU, this is Natasha’s story. The audience is, like Natasha herself, asked to reckon with her as an Avenger and her past as an assassin.
Perhaps a fair criticism of the movie is the choice Johansson made in her performance throughout her tenure. Natasha has too modes: stoic and quippy. The emotional journey she undertakes is left to subtext, but nothing you’ll need a Lit Crit Minor to pick up on. In what feels like a subversion of what’s come before, it’s the older figures in the story who speak their emotions. There could have, perhaps, been a few more moments of Natasha being a “feeling human being,” but that’s saved for a character that the audience may or may not really care about. Yet, this character is one that Natasha cares about very much, and saving this person is the last thing she can do to get her ledger to black.
Black Widow hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on July 9, 2021.
What do you think of Black Widow, and what this movie suggests about the future of the MCU? Tell us in the comments below.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.