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After more than a year of Marvel Studios' absence on the big screen, the MCU is on the verge of a spectacular cinematic return with the release of Black Widow next weekend. Early social reactions to the Cate Shortland-directed film were rather immaculate, and the critic reviews now coming online seem to confirm that Kevin Feige & co. have another certifiable hit on their hands.
While Natasha gave up her life in Avengers: Endgame, Scarlett Johansson gets one last hurrah with the character in this spy-vs-spy actioner movie, which takes place before the events of Avengers: Infinity War. Does the actress pour everything into this final performance as the Russian-killer-turned-Avenger?
Writing for Variety, reviewer Owen Gleiberman states that the actress "holds the film together and gives it its touch of soul. Natasha’s desire for vengeance is pulsating, but so are her inner wounds, and Johansson, unusual for the comic-book genre, makes the most vulnerable emotions part of the humanity of her strength. She’s a flame-haired dynamo who needs to slay her former mentor to defeat her own damage."
"If this is the last time we get to see Johansson mete out justice to her assailants with gymnastic velocity, it’s an apt send-off," writes IndieWire's Eric Kohn, whose review headline posits that the film is Marvel's stab at a Bourne film. "The motion is fluid and tense, with closeups and sound effects that hurt ... Black Widow is a welcome break from the overwrought transmedia machine that dictates Disney’s biggest franchise bets, and almost invites you to forget what’s at stake."
"What it reminded me of are the many James Bond films where 007 goes rogue and cavorts around world cities seeking his revenge du jour," writes Johnny Oleksinski of The New York Post. "Johansson, who actually watches Moonraker in one scene, has Bond’s same confidence and swagger — if not his retro libido — which is so often missing from these wisecracking Marvel actors who look like they got lost on the way to a Judd Apatow set."
Nick De Semlyen of Empire points out that while the film is a Phase 4 project (it was originally supposed to lead the latest wave of Marvel offerings before it was delayed), it winds the clock back to Phase 3. "Black Widow ... while a film that’s technically inessential — rewinding to near the start of Phase 3, it fills in a gap in the MCU narrative instead of driving it forward — is a pleasure exactly because it is inessential," he writes. "It takes a character without a future and gives her a past, providing one of the OG Avengers with a soulful, funny requiem."
As those early Twitter reactions pointed out, the real star of the show is Florence Pugh, who tackles the role of Natasha's adopted younger sister, Yelena Belova (a fellow Soviet assassin and graduate of the ominous Red Room). It's a sentiment shared by critics as well.
The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney states that "the remarkable Pugh, who just keeps getting better and better, brings warmth and complexity to that internal conflict of a woman trained to think not emotionally but tactically yet unable to suppress her feelings. Her sparky chemistry with Johansson yields many lovely moments of resilient sisterhood."
Nicole Clark of IGN praises Pugh's talent for comedic "deadpan" timing that "is pitch-perfect, coaxing humor out of a traditionally stoic Scarlett Johansson. Where Natasha has coped by turning cold, Yelena has coped with humor—and she pokes fun at Natasha’s Black Widow crouch, complete with the hair flip, adding much-needed levity."
The rest of their ragtag family includes a third Black Widow, Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), and Soviet Captain America, Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour) — the latter of whom "could well ascend to spinoff greatness of his own," according to The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, who gave Black Widow a near-perfect score of four stars out of five.
Together, our heroes take on Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a power-hungry holdover from the USSR who will do anything to maintain control over the Red Room. The villain's secret weapon is Taskmaster, a relentless soldier capable of mimicking any fighting style.
So, is this Marvel's best effort yet? The long of the short of it seems to be no. For one thing, it's just too early to tell in a year that is chock full of exciting titles like Shang-Chi, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Following an unexpected pandemic hiatus, the MCU is back and bigger than ever — setting its sights on dominating the pop culture conversation on screens both big and small (Episode 4 of Loki drops tomorrow in case you forgot).
"Black Widow still doesn’t reach the heights of the best Marvel has to offer. But at the very least it manages to carve out its own space in the ever-crowded MCU," Andrew Webster writes in his review for The Verge. "Instead of pushing things forward, it offers up blockbuster action that’s almost comforting in its familiarity: laughs, explosions, and characters you can’t help but root for, no matter how bad they actually are."
"While Black Widow starts off strong, kicking the action off with a dark, propulsive mystery that promised to unearth long-awaited revelations about both Natasha’s character and her past, the last half of the film completely squanders it," says Hoan-Tran Bui over at /FILM. "Black Widow is at its best when it’s a wacky family drama between Natasha, Yelena, Alexei, and Melina, with dashes of a spy thriller. But Marvel films can’t content themselves with staying small, and Black Widow falls victim to the big bombast characteristic of the studio. The result is a disappointing solo movie that ends up burying Natasha Romanoff once again."
Currently making its way up the water spout, Black Widow finally arrives in theaters and on Disney+ next Friday, July 9. While it will be the first MCU blockbuster available on streaming, Disney+ subscribers still need to shell out an extra $29.99 Premier Access fee in order to watch it at home.
William Hurt and O-T Fagbenle co-star.