Black Widow Arrived Late, But It Fits Better in the Current MCU

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WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for Black Widow, now in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.

Black Widow is finally here, and though critics and audiences generally think it was worth the wait, some have lamented that the Avenger’s solo film feels like a bit of an afterthought. That’s an easy argument to make because Black Widow is a movie that takes place entirely outside of the larger story the Marvel Cinematic Universe is trying to tell, which means it doesn’t really affect any of the other installments and viewers already know how the title character dies.

It would’ve been great to have a Black Widow movie back in 2016, sandwiched between Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange. Fans of the character deserved it, as did Scarlett Johansson, who dutifully portrayed her over eight films as the character evolved from token female to the responsible adult in the room. However — whether it was intentional or not — Black Widow is actually a perfect fit for this point in the MCU’s own evolution.

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Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow

In truth, Black Widow has arrived something more like 15 years too late. The project had been in development since 2004, predating the entire MCU. The can kept getting kicked down the road, though, even after Natasha’s appearances in Iron Man 2 and growing popularity. Not only was that because of industry red tape (changing studios, script rewrites) but it also likely had to do with a hesitancy to spend nine figures on a female-led superhero movie.

That the film was thrice delayed during the pandemic only added to the feeling that Black Widow was past its sell-by date. However, the fact that Marvel and Disney were willing to sit on it for a year and a half was actually a vote of confidence. Studios dumped plenty of lesser movies to make a quick buck between now and then, and the film’s impressive opening, in theaters and on Disney+, means they were right to have faith in the product and in loyal MCU audiences. But beyond that, Natasha’s standalone story, even in flashback, nicely complements what the MCU has been doing lately.

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Early films like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger had moments of snark and levity and some interest in those characters’ emotional states, but they were more self-serious and less nuanced in how they illustrated matters of right and wrong. As the MCU grew into the double digits, films like Ant-Man and Thor: Ragnarok got much more self-effacing, not to mention much more morally gray. They also played with genre in ways that felt as if they broke out of the superhero movie mold.

Those trends accelerated mightily with the advent of Marvel TV shows on Disney+. WandaVision and Loki (neither of which was supposed to precede Black Widow had things gone according to plan) are as high concept, risky, funny and deep as anything Marvel’s done before. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which ties most directly into Black Widow, deals with the same kind of paranoia and doubt about allegiance and the true nature of heroism. Nothing about its long-delayed production and release were ideal, but the accidentally happy result is that Black Widow feels more of a piece, stylistically and thematically, with what Marvel is trying to do now.

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Stylistically, Black Widow is more of a Mission Impossible-style spy thriller than a comic book movie. It makes the most of those tropes, with Natasha and Yelena swinging out of helicopters, dropping out of air vents and copying data down to the last second. Speaking of those air vents, the movie is also much funnier than expected, with wisecracking Yelena mocking her sister and Alexei serving as a parody of a super-soldier. Even the opening credits are more experimental than usual, which was also the case with WandaVision.

Thematically, Black Widow is telling a story about trauma and grief, morality and free will. Natasha and Yelena lived through a nightmare as girls that severely damaged their ability to love and trust. All four main characters have to balance survival with altruism and come to realize just how many blind spots they have. The sinister plot they have to foil involves a system that controls the free will of the young women it subjugates. Each of the three Marvel TV series has explored those same themes. WandaVision was famously much more about trauma and grief than it was some anticipated last act twist, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier interrogated belief and patriotism and, with the TVA and its anti-hero, Loki is testing the limits of free will. Put together, these four titles are telling a story about how hard it is to be a good person and how much harder it is to be assured that one is a good person.

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One last reason fans should all be thankful things worked out for Black Widow the way they did is the delightful Florence Pugh. Had the film gone into production any earlier, it’s unlike the 25-year-old actor would’ve been old enough, or famous enough, to have landed the part. Black Widow is better for having Pugh in it, and the MCU will be better for having Yelena in it. Maybe this time around, however, the actor and their character will get the attention they deserve when they deserve it.

Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow stars Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova, David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian, O-T Fagbenle as Mason and Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff. The film is now in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.

KEEP READING: A Black Widow Guide: News, Easter Eggs, Reviews, Recaps, Theories And Rumors

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