First things first: It was great to be inside a movie theater again. (That business of seeing Tenet in October and having the feeling Christopher Nolan would be the death of me doesn’t, doesn’t count.) If nothing else, I can always look back fondly on Black Widow as the occasion for my celebratory return to filmgoing with a large group of friends. (We filled half a center row.) Perhaps it was even the ideal film for the occasion. It is the kind of film that is best enjoyed with a big screen, loud speakers, and an auditorium filled with an enthusiastic audience, and I got all of that. It was a fun night. If that is what you are looking for, Black Widow will do fine.
But I was hoping for at least a bit more. I wanted to see a film that would be good on its own merits, rather than adequate given the circumstances. If there had been no pandemic and Black Widow’s release had not been delayed for so long, it would have been just another Marvel film at the multiplex, and one of the most disposable ones at that. Similarly, if it wasn’t being touted as a first and last for Scarlett Johansson — her first time headlining a Marvel film and her last time playing Natasha Romanoff — there would be little else to make the film noteworthy. Avengers: Endgame already gave her character a fitting send-off; this film brings her back from the dead (figuratively) only to give her nothing meaningful to do and then put her back in the grave (literally).
It’s not that Black Widow isn’t well-made and entertaining. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is wildly popular for some valid reasons. Even its lower-tier productions are almost guaranteed to be smartly written, impressively cast and acted, and funny and thrilling enough to please all but the most cynical. Black Widow is all that, and it distinguishes itself by boasting some of the best action sequences in the franchise since 2016’s Civil War, and by being relatively self-contained. This is the rare MCU film you could watch with someone who has seen few or none of the other films and shows, without having to pause every other minute to explain who is who and what is what. Also, I cannot fail to mention how much joy and heart Florence Pugh and David Harbour bring to the otherwise-routine proceedings.
Yet none of this excuses how content the film is with routine proceedings, with being one of those lower-tier productions. It’s one thing for a film to be undemanding of its audience; escapism has its place. It’s another thing for a film to be undemanding of itself; escapism done right requires effort.
In preparing to write this review, I revisited what I wrote about Spider-Man: Far From Home two summers ago — in pandemic-time, a decade ago — and found that this passage is just as applicable to this latest Marvel romp through Europe:
The problem with Marvel Studios is not that they make terrible films. . . . And the problem is not that they are unable to make excellent films. . . . No, the problem with Marvel Studios is that the majority of their films are so pervasively passable — not necessarily mediocre, but passable — even though they’ve proven themselves capable of doing far more, and even though they are surrounded by predecessors and competitors that plainly show how they should be doing more.
Black Widow styles itself as an espionage thriller, so its predecessors in the MCU would be The Winter Soldier and Civil War — each setting a high but manageable bar to clear — and its closest competitors outside the MCU would be the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible films — setting even higher bars, some weaker entries excepted. But Black Widow never challenges itself to rise to the level of these films and never escapes feeling derivative of them. Surrounded by such exemplars and armed with a few good ideas of its own, Black Widow had the potential to be so much better. It’s a shame it settled for less.