Black Widow is trying to be a proper send-off to the first woman of the Avengers, but ultimately it falls flat due to how it was released and how it feels less like a send-off for Natasha and more like a setup for Yelena.
To say that a Black Widow movie is well overdue would be a massive understatement. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had exactly one female hero for more than half of its existence, and she never really got her chance to shine. Natasha eventually met her end in the climax of Avengers: Endgame and the announcement that she was still getting her own movie was a bit puzzling. The problem ultimately comes with the idea of setup versus send-off because, in its current form, this movie doesn't do justice to Natasha as a character.
In terms of the actual timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this movie takes place mere days after the finale of Captain America: Civil War and follows Natasha while she is on the run. This is a perfect time to tell a smaller in-scope movie that really explores who Natasha is and why she does the things that she does. In fact, if this exploration was done before her sacrifice in Endgame, maybe that moment would have hit a little harder instead of falling a little flat to some fans. We see a Natasha who is grappling with the blood on her hands and the people she has left behind, which would have made her sacrifice for Clint feel so much more impactful because we really would have seen how important it is to Natasha to have a place to belong.
Instead, the movie feels a little flat, which is honestly a shame because all of the things around it are very good. If it were released during phase 3, maybe somewhere in the months between Ant-Man and the Wasp [July 6, 2018] and Captain Marvel [March 8. 2019], the pieces would have felt a lot stronger. Instead of it being painfully obvious that Yelena is being set up as the new Widow, we could have just seen two sisters reuniting and maybe fighting together. It's a disservice to Yelena as a character who is really one of the highlights of the entire movie. The banter between Yelena and Natasha is pretty spot-on, and the interactions read extremely true. Yet the fact that Yelena is so clearly being set up to take over the Black Widow mantle in some way does a disservice to Natasha but to Yelena as well.
They both deserved movies where they could either come in or exit on terms that didn't including a looming death. It feels very lacking in character development which is strange because you can usually count on the solo Marvel movies to have all of the character development while the team-ups are more of a fireworks show. We learn more about Natasha, but we already know that she is a woman that will make the ultimate sacrifice. Between Civil War and the moments we see of her in Infinity War and Endgame, we don't get any indication that she isn't still that person. So the development falls to Yelena, mostly, and some of the other supporting players, but it just isn't enough.
In terms of tone, this is not a spy thriller in the same vein as Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That movie felt like an old-school Cold War-era spy thriller, while Black Widow feels much more like a post-9/11 Bourne era spy thriller only directed by someone who knows what a tripod is. It works really well for the overall feel of the movie and for Cate Shortland's directing. Unlike a Bourne movie, the fight scenes are easy to follow and rather brutal. There is quite a bit of hand-to-hand going on here and people swinging kitchen knives at each other. It's an entire movie of the highway fight from Winter Soldier, which is absolutely a good thing. All of the actors do a great job, but Florence Pugh as Yelena is the standout. It's obvious why the movie is setting her up for so many things because she is a movie star and deserves the amazing career she has on the way. David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are also fantastic, and the family dynamic between the four of them seems like the sort of thing that would get on your nerves but instead becomes the glue that holds the movie together.
The villain once again suffers in a Marvel movie. At this point, it's more surprising when they nail a villain than when the villain is underwhelming. They do something interesting with Taskmaster and really link it back to Natasha and her story as well, but in the story proper Taskmaster is little more than a weapon, so there isn't much going on here. What is going to be fun, later on, is watching Taskmaster's moves and picking out which Avengers Taskmaster is mimicking. Aside from that, the villain is less important because this is a story about Natasha coming to terms with her past. It isn't a "the world is at stake" story, not really, which makes it all the more disappointing that the character development is so lacking.
Black Widow should have come out years ago, and because of how it was made, a good movie feels like a letdown when all of the pieces are in working order. Everything is there, and it should work, but because we know that Natasha makes the ultimate sacrifice, what should have felt like a final send-off to a hero feel cheap. Natasha deserved to have her story told before we had to watch her die on screen, and it's a shame that a great character like Yelena has to come into the MCU on such weird terms. For a movie titled Black Widow, it sometimes doesn't feel like Natasha is the focus, and that could have been fixed if the movie came out in phase 3 rather than phase 4.
FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10