Review: ‘Black Widow,’ Dysfunctional Family Member Extraordinaire

More than ten years ago, Scarlett Johansson appeared as Natalie Rushman in Iron Man 2. Hired as a personal assistant to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), she is eventually revealed as Natasha Romanoff, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. 

Johansson returned to embody the character in seven more Marvel films, always fully capable of fighting her way out  of any perilous situation, but always in a supporting role, with little light shed on her personal history. Now she returns once again to play the character in yet another Marvel action extravaganza, this time under the direction of a woman. 

Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland broke out big with Somersault (2004), her directorial debut, which she also wrote, featuring a stunning performance by Abbie Cornish. Since then, she has been limited in her opportunities to make feature films: Lore (2012), starring Saskia Rosendahl, was an intensely empathetic period drama, while Berlin Syndrome (2017), starring Teresa Palmer, was an intensely unsettling film. Each film was designed around and depended upon a woman in the lead role, and Shortland showed her clear talent at framing scenes, building claustrophobic tension, and working with talented actresses to deliver sobering performances.

Stepping onto the Marvel franchise with Black Widow feels like she has been asked to jump onto a merry-go-round that is already spinning out of control. As with any Marvel film, it’s difficult to distinguish any differences in the trademark, extended, fantastical, illogical, ridiculous action sequences, which have been designed to impress casual bystanders, rather than satisfy narrative needs. 

On that score, Black Widow certainly holds up its end, launching one amazing, elaborate, completely unbelievable action sequence after another. My usual personal reaction is to wait patiently until the sequence is concluded, and then see who, if anyone, is left alive, other than the characters who are needed for a followup installment. In that sense, the Marvel Cinematic Universe resembles the Marvel Comic Book Universe, in that any character may be resurrected at any time, if the creator deems it necessary, and so the fleeting possibility never holds much dramatic weight. 

Where the film completely succeeds, though, is in the casting and chemistry displayed by and between the lead characters, starting with Scarlett Johansson herself as Black Widow. She exudes an exhausted weariness with the world and her role in it so far, yet this is different from resignation; she has not yet stopped fighting, or come close to giving up. 

She is well matched with Rachel Weisz and David Harbour as older figures in her life, and with Florence Pugh as a younger version of herself, so to speak. As dramatic actors, they are all highly capable of hitting the high notes, and making their low points quite empathetic and relatable. Their personal battle scenes, carried on through their witty line deliveries and winning body language, wrings the full comic potential out of every piece of dialogue, credited to screenwriter Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok), based on a story by Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson. 

The action sequences will undoubtedly impress those who choose to experience the film in a movie theater, where it will undoubtedly play best. The more intimate dramatic scenes, which in my opinion are much more effective, will undoubtedly play just as well at home.  

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 9, via Disney. It will also be available to Disney+ streaming service subscribers for an additional, one-time cost. For more information about the film, visit the official site.