After taking the previous calendar year off in the midst of a pandemic, the Marvel Cinematic Universe returned in 2021—and will apparently never hit pause again. During the first six months of the year, a trio of Disney+ shows (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki) have kept fans sated and laid the groundwork for the next steps of the MCU. (TL;DR: Get ready for the multiverse.) At least nine other series, along with a Guardians of the Galaxy holiday special, are in development to keep things moving forward. But on the theatrical side, Marvel’s first release in over two years isn’t quite so predicated on the enterprise’s future.
Though the long-delayed Black Widow, finally arriving on Friday, technically marks the start of the MCU’s Phase 4 on the big screen, it more accurately amounts to a throwback. As far as Marvel’s timeline is concerned, Black Widow takes place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, following Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) as she’s pulled back into her former life as a KGB operative. Black Widow is intended to flesh out the character’s vaguely defined backstory, though it’s not like the MCU gave itself much of a choice: Once Natasha sacrificed herself to help save the universe in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the only way forward was to turn back the clock.
Even if Black Widow hadn’t been delayed by the pandemic and had come out before the Disney+ shows, its timing still would’ve been puzzling and the movie still would’ve been overdue. Despite being one of the first heroes introduced in the MCU, Natasha has had to wait more than a decade for her own film, only to have it realized after her death in the franchise’s main continuity. Other heroes who comprise the original Avengers—with the exception of Hawkeye, who’s getting his own Disney+ series later this year—have had stand-alone adventures since the Obama administration. Natasha’s been allowed to tag along for some of these films (i.e., Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but has always played second fiddle. (Sure, one could point to Natasha’s lack of superpowers as an explanation for this, but even goddamn Hawkeye got a surprisingly substantive family subplot in Avengers: Age of Ultron.)
Worse yet, the franchise has often been downright dismissive of Natasha, from off-screen moments like Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner jokingly referring to Black Widow as a “slut” to the way the character’s send-off in Endgame was overshadowed by Tony Stark’s death. In the lead-up to Black Widow, Johansson has decried the character’s initial sexualization in the MCU, when Natasha was ogled by Tony in Iron Man 2 to the extent that Pepper Potts made a joke about him getting hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit—a tone-deaf attempt at humor that’s all the more bizarre given Marvel’s otherwise overarching sexlessness. The MCU might be charging ahead with new (and more inclusive) heroes like Shang-Chi and the Eternals, but by digging through the past, Black Widow is a reminder that Marvel has been working out the kinks for years—and few heroes, if any, have had to bear the brunt of those imperfections more than Natasha Romanoff.
But the issues with Black Widow go beyond the past and its ill-timed release. Marvel waited too long to tell Natasha’s story, but it’s also proved unfit to do so. Natasha’s backstory, which is effectively a more sanitized version of Jennifer Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, treads into surprisingly dark territory: Chemically induced mind control, torture, and geopolitical assassinations are all part of the package. Director Cate Shortland makes unsubtle allusions to the world of child trafficking—and at the peak of her spy days, Natasha is shown to be willing to kill a child as collateral for a high-profile target. But every time Black Widow embraces the grimmer yet more intriguing elements of its character’s origin story, it punctures the dour mood with quips to adhere to the MCU’s signature style. Even the discussion of forced hysterectomies is reduced to a silly exchange with David Harbour’s Red Guardian (basically the Russian Captain America undergoing a midlife crisis).
This balancing act between setting up dramatic stakes alongside audience-approved, tension-diffusing jokes wasn’t as much of a problem for the other original Avengers, with scenarios so ridiculous—like a Norse god falling from the sky to hit on Natalie Portman—that they invited moments of levity. Perhaps one of the reasons Marvel took so long to give Natasha her own stand-alone adventure is because the MCU’s formula is ill-equipped to handle a story whose rougher edges can’t be sanded out with goofy one-liners. (Ironically, Black Widow might’ve been better as one of those Disney+ series, where character-driven stories have had more time to breathe.)
The rest of the typical MCU hallmarks remain in place, with the film doubling as a contained story and a setup for future projects. Most notably, there’s a symbolic passing of the torch from Natasha to Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a fellow KGB agent who grew up with Natasha when the two spies were cast as sisters in an American family. (Cue The Americans comparisons.) This isn’t a major shock—in the Marvel comics, Yelena ultimately takes up the Black Widow mantle, and on top of that, it’s already been confirmed that Pugh will appear in the Hawkeye series. (Also, why would you hire a rising movie star if you were only going to keep her around for one movie?)
But in the bigger picture, this shift also means that Black Widow is one of the final vestiges of a former era in Marvel filmmaking. Most of the old Avengers guard have either stepped away from the MCU already (Evans, Robert Downey Jr.) or appear to have one foot out the door (Chris Hemsworth, Renner seeming to hand over the Hawkeye reins to Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop). But for Natasha, Black Widow feels like one final slight against the character—no sooner is her overdue swan song out of the way than Marvel is planning for a future without her. This might be the nature of the MCU beast—there’s already a new Captain America, after all—but when Natasha’s been getting the short shrift in these films for more than a decade, the little indignities start to pile up.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Black Widow has a post-credits scene. (This is Marvel, it’s practically implied.) The scene starts out as a moment of quiet reflection in the MCU’s present: a character tends to Natasha’s grave. Natasha is, in many ways, one of the final reminders of the MCU’s early history—both in the strides that the franchise has made while becoming a multibillion-dollar behemoth, and its shortcomings along the way. But rather than let the genuine emotion and grief for Natasha linger, another character loudly blows their nose and bluntly teases what’s coming next in the Marvel pipeline. Even in death, the MCU can’t help but revert to old habits—and fail to take its most unappreciated hero seriously.