January 2021 marked the kickoff of Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with WandaVision, Marvel Studios’ first-ever TV series for Disney’s new streaming platform, Disney+. While it suffered from a plethora of issues regarding VFX, pacing, and supporting character development, it at least tried to reinvent the wheel in a franchise already totaling 23 movies through its aesthetic parodies of different eras of sitcoms. Those episodes felt like a breath of fresh air, with Marvel Studios trying to prove they can do something beyond their standard formula, reused over and over again for the past ten years. Of course, the show fizzled out when they started to revert to their old ways, but at least it showed us how Marvel could do something unique when they want to.
Marvel’s standard formula is still there with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki, but the limited series formula allows for greater character exploration. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier shined the most when it examined the mantle of Captain America and what that means for Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) going forward and how he, as a Black man, will have to embody the stars and stripes of a country that has ostracized Black people since its inception. While not done yet, Loki investigates the different facets of the God of Mischief and the “sacred timeline” in an extremely compelling way, already making it the best series of the bunch so far. Each show explored its titular characters in a thoughtful, captivating light, even if they are uneven.
With Marvel Studios returning to the big screen (and on Disney+ with Premier Access) this week with the long-awaited Black Widow (our review from Joey can be found here), which will be Scarlett Johansson‘s last appearance as Natasha Romanoff, we may ask ourselves this question: was it released too late?
Fan demands for a Black Widow movie have been vivid since the first Avengers came out in 2012, but Ike Perlmutter, who was Marvel CEO at the time, blocked any attempts from Kevin Feige to make a Black Widow spinoff, even forbidding the sale of action figures. Finally, after Kevin Feige was promoted as Chief Creative Officer of Marvel Studios, overseeing every project and reporting to Disney directly, a Black Widow movie was greenlit. However, the film’s official announcement was made during the 2019 edition of the San Diego Comic-Con, a few months after Natasha’s arc ended quite dramatically.
Whilst Black Widow is a prequel and will explore Natasha’s path smack bang after Captain America: Civil War and before Avengers: Infinity War, the film doesn’t look like it’s going to entirely focus on Romanoff and will likely set up the next Black Widow of the MCU, while planting the seeds for what’s to come instead. It’s no secret that the film will essentially be a backdoor pilot for Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh)’s future appearances in the MCU, as she will appear next in Disney+’s Hawkeye series later this year, which seems to defeat the entire purpose of wanting a Black Widow spinoff film in the first place.
Now, let me be clear: I have not seen the movie yet (again, you can read Joey’s review here), though it seems like the film’s sole purpose doesn’t seem to want to give fans the answers they wanted on Natasha’s backstory and her past, as it’ll introduce multiple Black Widows to expand that universe further, instead of focusing on one character. Director Cate Shortland even admitted that the film would “hand the baton” to Florence Pugh in an interview with Empire Magazine:
“[Kevin Feige] realised [sic] that the audience would expect an origin story so, of course, we went in the opposite direction,” And we didn’t know how great Florence Pugh would be. We knew she would be great, but we didn’t know how great. Scarlett is so gracious, like, ‘Oh, I’m handing her the baton.’ So it’s going to propel another female storyline.”
In my opinion, there needs to be a careful balance in delivering some tidbits on how Natasha Romanoff became the Black Widow we know and love while also setting the stage for the next iteration of the character in an interesting way, delivering a fresh take on the mantle of the Black Widow with a new character and actress playing it. That would’ve worked better on a Disney+ limited series, which would’ve allowed several episodes of character growth while also delivering an espionage-filled adventure as we bid farewell to Scarlett Johansson’s character.
Now, a 134-minute film can indeed deliver what was mentioned in the last paragraph, but it would either cut some corners: gimp character development for extra action setpieces and try their best to set up future entries of the MCU, whereas a 6-episode television series has more time to breathe and balance every element possible. Some may argue that this film will act as a “filler” or a pure “cash-grab” for Marvel Studios, but the film has been in high demand for a very long time.
I’m quite glad that Scarlett Johansson will have the spin-off she deserves, and we’ll get to see her one last time before she hands the baton to Florence Pugh, but also extremely apprehensive at the film’s end goals. Does it really want to pull back the curtain on Natasha Romanoff’s story, or is it only just a backdoor pilot for Yelena? I feel the film has arrived a tad too late, but a quasi-prequel could very well be interesting. Who knows, though. All I do know is this: it’s going to feel great seeing a Marvel Studios film on an IMAX screen again, whether good or bad. Now that’s something to look forward to.