" I was standing inside of a footprint "
— Matthew Broderick, Godzilla

MRQE Top Critic

The Fifth Estate

One of the year's most exciting movies. —Matt Anderson (review...)

Cumberbatch assumes he's the Fifth Estate

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While Black Widow has some entertainment value, it’s one of the weaker entries in the MCU.

Red Sparrow

A family of Widows
A family of Widows

First things first. Yes, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation) died in Avengers: Endgame. Black Widow provides both Natasha’s backstory and a new mission that sits between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. While the story starts in 1995, the bulk of the action takes place with Natasha on the run as SHIELD pursues her for violations of the Sokovia Accords.

There are two ways to look at this episode. On the one hand, it’s a boundary-pushing movie that advances a feminist agenda and girl power. On the other hand, so much of the story is uninspired and revolves around concepts that have been seen before, as the movie unfolds there’s an unsettling question as to why Black Widow was even made — or, at the least, with this story.

Regardless, Black Widow kicks off Phase 4 of the MCU on a relatively low note that might’ve been even more apparent had it opened as originally intended, in May 2020, 11 months after Phase 3 wrapped up with the lighthearted antics of Spider-Man: Far from Home. Instead, the unexpected 24-month gap between theatrical releases might very well have dulled some of the excitement. It’s a different world now, after all, and this episode doesn’t generate the same adrenaline rush — or even production values — found in the best of the series.

As it turns out, the real purpose behind this release isn’t revealed until the post-credits tease. It’s all a setup — by all appearances — to bring one of the new characters introduced here into a forthcoming Disney+ Hawkeye streaming series. That twist also ties into Black Widow’s demise in Endgame some 26 months ago, a couple lifetimes in the fast-churn world of modern cinema.

White Salt

As it stands, Black Widow blends Marvel lore of yore into a new story in which Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh, Little Women) are sisters in a Russian family that is itself merely a front for spy games. Their true family history is more disturbing and follows the now too common storyline of Soviet girls being raised for spying, seducing and infiltrating. And, yeah, living with planted childhood memories of being ballerinas.

A lot of this material echoes Jennifer Lawrence’s risky (and risqué) 2018 turn in Red Sparrow and even Angelina Jolie in 2010’s Salt. While Marvel’s Natasha Romanoff as a character predates Dominika Egorova and Evelyn Salt by decades, a fresher, entirely reimagined spin would’ve helped alleviate the sense of déjà vu that haunts too much of Black Widow.

As part of that spin, more should’ve been made of Hydra’s efforts in all this. Plenty is said of the mind control being conducted by Dreykov (Ray Winstone, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) on a whole army of young women in the infamous Red Room. One of the more interesting aspects here is the phraseology around all this. Dreykov sees the abandoned or otherwise misappropriated girls as merely an over-abundant natural resource ripe for exploitation.

A subplot involving Dreykov’s biological daughter being written off as collateral damage during an assassination attempt while she was just an innocent little girl touches on some of his other physical experiments, but those are given short shrift in Natasha’s story. During one particularly hazardous fight, an opponent dies in a fall from a rooftop while Natasha survives without so much as a wince. There’s some Marvel magic missing in that aspect of the story; instead, references to Hydra and the Winter Soldier serve as a shorthand way to allude to and explain away Natasha’s remarkable agility.

Atomic Blonde

On the road with "Dad"
On the road with “Dad”

As Natasha reunites with her fictional family (which, oddly enough, would make good fodder for a reality TV parody as an MCU spin-off on Disney+), the plot finally crystallizes: find the Red Room and kill Dreykov. It’s all rather tangential.

Thor: Ragnarok, while widely praised for its heavy reliance on humor, similarly felt like a mere diversion, an extended episode serving a simple purpose: getting Bruce Banner and Thor back to Earth in time to reunite with the other Avengers for Infinity War.

That sense of diversion runs throughout Black Widow. It’s a standalone effort that ultimately serves a singular narrative purpose: to set up the new Disney+ series. So much of Black Widow might’ve been more effective had it simply been rewritten as a flashback in one of the episodes.

Natasha and Yelena’s parental units are Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour, Stranger Things) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy). Having lived a quiet life in Ohio in the ‘90s before going on the run and landing in Cuba, then dismantling the family unit for a life off the grid or, at least, under the radar, the two are ready to get back into the swing of things. For better or worse, that includes watching Alexei squeeze his pudgy, domesticated girth back into his old Red Guardian costume.

And, once again, there are two ways to take all of this. On the one hand, the family humor is largely relatable and effective. On the other hand, some of it’s a bit forced and takes the MCU into fairly rare turf of pure cheeseball.

With the Avengers essentially awaiting some sort of new assembly in the wake of Endgame, the MCU is itself drifting into new territories and introducing new characters in upcoming releases such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals. Here’s to hoping those fresh characters, faces and (hopefully) stories will reinvigorate the MCU.