Black Widow, the latest Marvel superhero film and the first to focus on Scarlett Johansson’s character, has received broadly positive reviews from critics ahead of its release next week.
Total Film agreed, calling the film a “rousing addendum” for the character.
Yet the way it treats issues like forced sterilisation and the sexual exploitation of women has been queried.
The film involves a secret Russian program that abducts, brainwashes and sterilises young women and turns them into lethal undercover operatives.
The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey said the movie, directed by Cate Shortland, was “inescapably a story about the abuse and exploitation of young women”.
That element, she continued, leads to some “tragically effective” moments, thanks in part to the “knockout performance” given by Britain’s Florence Pugh.
The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, however, said the film’s “coyness around its central premise” was “an exposing moment” for the blockbuster franchise.
His review quoted a villainous character, played by Ray Winstone, who observes that girls “are the only natural resource the world has too much of”.
“The film lacks either the nerve or the moral vocabulary to so much as spell out, let alone reckon with, the implications of his statement,” Collin wrote.
“The film plainly wants the extra shot of gravitas that comes with serious, real-world resonance, but isn’t prepared to do the legwork to earn it.”
Digital Spy’s Gabriella Geisinger also took issue with the film’s “flippant” handling of its characters’ “deeply dark and prescient” histories.
Her three-star review went on to suggest that “topics so dark and disturbing” were impossible to reconcile with “the family-friendly mould Marvel uses”.
Earlier this month, Johansson complained about the way her character had been “hyper-sexualised” when she first appeared in the franchise in 2010.
Black Widow sees Johansson’s character, real name Natasha Romanoff, return to Eastern Europe to reunite with former spies she was raised to believe were her relatives.
They are played by David Harbour, the Stranger Things actor who recently married pop star Lily Allen, and British Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw praised Harbour for his “rumbustious and scene-stealer of a comic turn” and suggested his character “could well ascend to spinoff greatness of his own”.
Variety’s Owen Gleiberman also commended the US actor for giving “a surprisingly convincing performance as this blustery Slavic blowhard”
BBC Culture’s Caryn James awarded the film four stars out of five, saying it was “entertaining and full of action” that was “exhilarating, sleek [and] well-paced”.
Yet Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson said “the size of the spectacle” did not prevent the film from feeling “minor by the standards of the franchise”.
He described it as “a James Bond-style spy thriller” that would “tide audiences over until a bigger, richer adventure comes along”.
The film opens in UK cinemas on 7 July and will be available two days later to Disney+ customers who subscribe to its Premier Access service.
‘Happy to be back’
Black Widow was officially launched on Tuesday with screenings for fans in London, Melbourne, New York and Los Angeles.
Florence Pugh attended the London event, while David Harbour posed with cosplayers – fans dressed in costume – at the New York screening.
The film was due to have opened last year but was one of a number of major releases to be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I did not think our film was going to be a part of the first wave of films where people would go back to the cinema and watch it,” Pugh told reporters.
“That being said, I’m so grateful that it is. I think that it’s a really cool film to, if you can and you feel safe to, go back to the cinema to.”
Harbour said: “It feels like we’re starting to get back to normal again. For a while I thought it was completely dead and I was terrified. So I’m very happy to be back.”