Release Date(s)2021 (September 14, 2021)
Studio(s)Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (Walt Disney Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: D
Set in the immediate aftermath of the events of Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s Black Widow tells the origin story of its title character, aka Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who is now on the run after violating the Sokovia Accords. It seems that when her seemly normal childhood in Ohio was disrupted by her parents—sleeper agents Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz)—returning to Russia, Natasha and her sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) were delivered into the secret Red Room program that creates Black Widows. Natasha eventually defected, joined SHIELD, and became an Avenger, but her sister remained a Widow long enough to be subjected to the program’s chemical brainwashing, only finally escaping when a target she’s meant to kill exposes her to the antidote. With nowhere else to turn, Yelena sends the rest of this substance to Natasha. Soon, the two sisters join forces and hatch a plan to take down the Red Room once and for all. But in order to do this, they’ll first need to reunite with the “parents” who abandoned them.
Black Widow’s plot is one of the most grounded and straightforward of any entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its stakes are entirely personal. But despite this simplicity, as well as the fact that we already know Romanoff’s fate from Avengers: Endgame, the film works surprisingly well. The obvious reason for this is the easy chemistry between Johansson and co-star Florence Pugh, who is terrific as Yelena. Director Cate Shortland keeps the action moving along smoothly enough for the film’s first half, though the pace does drag a bit when Harbour’s Shostakov—who it turns out was once a Russian super-soldier called the Red Guardian—returns after being freed from prison and begins pining for the old days. But some clever and gravity-defying set piece action in the final act brings the film to a satisfying and bittersweet close. Points must also be granted for using Malia J’s cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the title song.
Still, Black Widow is also a frustrating experience even as it’s enjoyable. For one thing, it’s a shame to think that this will essentially be the only time we ever get to see these two sisters working together on screen. And given the number of times Romanoff’s long friendship with—and time fighting alongside—Cliff Barton (Jeremy Renner, aka Hawkeye) has been teased in various MCU films, it’s also frustrating to realize that we’ll never actually get to see any of that play out. You can’t fake that kind of history, no matter how good the actors’ performances are (and they’ve always been good in these films)—you need to actually experience it for the events and emotions to have real heft. So rather than feeling genuinely significant, Black Widow weighs in like a footnote instead.
Black Widow was captured digitally by cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (The Book of Life, Agent Carter) in 4K, 6K, and 8K using Panavision Millennium DXL2, Phantom Flex4K, Red Helium, and Sony CineAlta Venice cameras with a variety of anamorphic lenses. It was finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, upsampled to 4K and graded for high dynamic range (only HDR10 is available on this disc). (Note that some scenes were framed at a 1.90 aspect for IMAX presentation, but that experience is not replicated on this disc.) Overall image clarity is exceptional, save for the usual anamorphic softness around the edges of the frame on occasion, with an abundance of crisp detail and plenty of refined texturing. Really, the only problem here is that in downsampling from significantly higher resolutions, there’s occasionally a bit of aliasing visible. (In the opening shots of young Romanoff riding her bike through her Ohio neighborhood as a child, you’ll notice it in the foliage overhead.) In terms of the palette, the film’s look is very location dependent—warm early on in scenes set in Ohio, Cuba, and Morocco, and cooler in the Norwegian, Eastern European, and Russian settings. Skin tones are natural, hues are vibrant and accurate at all times. The HDR grade is intentionally high contrast, with slightly hot-looking highlights (enhancing heat and snow especially) and ink-black shadows. This isn’t quite reference quality, but it’s a great looking 4K image.
Thankfully, Disney’s 4K disc actually sounds pretty great as well. Primary audio is offered in English Dolby Atmos and this time the mix isn’t hobbled by lackluster bass. The soundstage is big, wide, and immersive, with ample low end, and surrounds that are constantly active with ambience, directional cues, and swirling movement. The overheads engage often during setpieces, notably the sisters’ helicopter assault on the Russian prison and destruction of the Red Room, with its subsequent falling debris. Dialogue is clean at all times, and Lorne Balfe’s passionate yet bittersweet score—inspired by Russian classical and military music—envelopes the whole listening environment. Additional sound options include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Spanish and Japanese 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus. Optional subtitles are available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, and Japanese.
Sadly, there are no extras whatsoever on Disney’s 4K disc, but the package also includes the film in 1080p HD on a Blu-ray Disc, which adds the following bonus features:
- Introduction by Director Cate Shortland (HD – :57)
- Sisters Gonna Work It Out (HD – 5:25)
- Go Big If You’re Going Home (HD – 8:50)
- Gag Reel (HD – 2:54)
- Deleted Scenes (HD – 9 scenes – 14:11 in all)
These extras are about as glossy and inconsequential as they come, very much in the studio EPK mold. You hear from most of the key people involved in the production, but only briefly. Of the deleted scenes, only the final one—with Romanoff visiting her childhood home as an adult—might have added a bit of worthy emotional closure to the film. You do at least get a Movies Anywhere Digital code on a paper insert.
Black Widow is a solid and entertaining film, yet it represents a rare misstep for Marvel. Rather than helping to drive the larger MCU narrative forward, it feels like an afterthought—an honest attempt to make up for an oversight. How much more impact might this character have had if we’d learned her backstory earlier? Ultimately, one is left with the feeling that Natasha Romanoff could and should have been better utilized during her time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And with Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney now making her return unlikely, that’s a real shame. In any case, if you enjoyed this film, the AV quality of Disney’s 4K UHD release is a winner.
- Bill Hunt