Black Widow was released at the wrong time, in multiple ways. The new Marvel prequel was one of the most high-profile films to be displaced by the constantly shifting theatrical release schedule caused by the shuttering of theaters due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Black Widow — a film set between Captain America: Civil War’s superhero dust-up and Avengers: Infinity War’s cosmos-spanning epic — feels like a movie that should have been released when it’s actually set, instead of as a belated prequel.
Warning: spoilers ahead for Black Widow, Avengers: Endgame, Loki, and the general Marvel Cinematic Universe
It’s not that Black Widow is a bad movie or an unworthy member of the Marvel saga. Its brand of James Bond-esque spy-fi harks back to some of the more grounded MCU films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, less focused on superpowered smack-downs in favor of more traditional action movie fare.
And if it had been released in 2016 after Civil War, that would have been fine. But Marvel’s films have undergone vast shifts in tone since then. Doctor Strange opened up the connected universe to straight-up magic, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok both offered galaxy-spanning adventures with whole planets at stake, and of course, Infinity War and Endgame see the Avengers — and Natasha Romanov — fight to save quite literally all of existence.
After all that, Black Widow’s stakes feel low, especially for a character that fans have gotten to see in action in far bigger adventures for over a decade. For all the joking about how Thor could handle the Red Room without breaking a sweat, the over-the-top reality that is the regular day-to-day of the modern Marvel shows and movies hangs over Black Widow’s throwback style.
Nothing in Black Widow’s story really necessitates it to be a prequel, either. Sure, it’s fun to see where Natasha gets her Infinity War get-up from. But outside of its post-credit setup (which is set in the MCU’s post-Endgame “present”), there’s no story element or revelation about Natasha’s character that would be different had the film been released a half-decade earlier.
In fact, knowing Natasha has this found family to protect (one that the rest of the Avengers didn’t know about) could have arguably deepened her short-shrifted sacrifice in Endgame. Imagine if Natasha’s adopted sister or parents were lost in Thanos’ snap, and the sequence where she fights with Hawkeye over who gets to fling themselves off a cliff has the added weight of trying to bring them back, too. (Instead, we had Clint as the only one to potentially have to sacrifice being with his family.)
Contrast that with Loki. The show is airing on Disney Plus right as Black Widow comes out, and it also examines an older version of a Marvel character in a new light. But where Loki is using that perspective to re-examine what makes its titular character tick, and what separates the version of Loki then from the more heroic one fans were familiar with, Black Widow doesn’t give Natasha the chance to change or grow. She’s already at the end of her journey, fully formed — she’s just the only one who doesn’t know it.
Black Widow also suffers from COVID-related delays; Disney is only releasing it now because it’s running out of time, thematically. Its interconnected web of shows and movies means that Marvel can’t advance with series like Hawkeye (which will directly follow up Black Widow’s post-credits scene). But it also means that Black Widow’s comparatively grounded and realistic adventure is coming after WandaVision’s sorcerous saga or Loki’s era-spanning epic.
It’s not that Black Widow doesn’t try to raise the stakes, establishing Dreykov’s army of Widows as some kind of massive, political force that secretly controls the world. But once you get cosmic magical space mysteries as the norm, it’s hard to go back to “spies, but better” as your table stakes.
There’s a world where Marvel was willing to commit to a film led by one of its female characters in 2016 instead of 2019 (when Captain Marvel finally broke the MCU’s decade-long streak of male protagonists), where Black Widow serves as a spotlight on Natasha’s origins ahead of her ultimate sacrifice, and where the stakes are still aligned with the studio’s other properties.
Based on the trailer for Marvel’s next theatrical bow, Shang-Chi is about to punch a dragon in the face with magic space rings. And next to that, it’s hard not to feel like Black Widow’s brand of more grounded spy action is too little, too late.