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Black Widow (2021) (4K Ultra HD)

Disney // PG-13 // September 14, 2021
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by William Harrison | posted September 29, 2021 | E-mail the Author

THE FILM:

The consensus among my friend group was that no one was really interested in seeing Black Widow; a film that seemed superfluous given the events in Avengers: Endgame. I still stand by what I wrote in my review for that Blu-ray, as the 23 films released in the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe include more hits than misses. I personally feel a bit Marveled out at the moment, and my lack of enthusiasm for this Scarlett Johansson-starring spin-off was not helped by the film having its release pushed back more than year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When I sat down to give this disc a spin, I did so with some reluctance, assuming I could browse the Internet on my phone if my attention waned. I will confess something up front: I have gotten bored with superhero action films. I do not advocate for passive, distraction-heavy movie watching, but some of these blockbusters have become downright dull, all flash and no heart. The opening minutes of Black Widow, which see a young Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson in youth/Johansson) living in 1990s America with her sister Yelena (Violet McGraw in youth/Florence Pugh) and undercover Russian-agent parents Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), got me hooked, and introduced the stylish, entertaining and well-acted film to follow. The worst thing a film can do is fail to have a reason to exist. With Black Widow, I am happy to say Johansson and director Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome) give us a thriller that is far from simply a Marvel cash grab.

After her parents steal S.H.I.E.L.D. intel, the family escapes to Cuba, where Natasha and Yelena are surrendered to General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and forced into the Black Widow Program at the Red Room, a top-secret training facility that turns orphan girls into deadly assassins called "Black Widows." Shostakov is sent to prison, and Natasha eventually deflects to S.H.I.E.L.D. after surviving her training. The film jumps to 2016, where our hero is a wanted woman for violating the Sokovia Accords that were enacted after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yelena, who also survived her training, discovers there is a synthetic gas that can neutralize the Red Room's chemical mind-control agent that drives the Black Widows. Yelena secretly sends vials of it to Natasha so S.H.I.E.L.D. can help free the other women, before going underground to protect herself. When Natasha unwittingly transports the synthetic gas, she is attacked by Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), a Russian agent with ties to General Dreykov, but escapes with her life. Natasha tracks the vials to Budapest, Hungary, where she is reunited with Yelena and informed that General Dreykov, who Natasha thought she killed, is alive and well.

While Natasha became an Avenger before the Red Room brainwashed her, Yelena was not so lucky; so their reunion is not exactly a happy one. Black Widow works for the same reason that Solo works in the Star Wars franchise: it takes an established character and creates a compelling side story that is grounded with human emotion and worthwhile exposition. This movie does not attempt to rewrite the Avengers saga, but I was actually invested in this detour into Natasha's life despite knowing where her character arc ultimately leads in the franchise. Black Widow, under Shortland's skillful direction, becomes very much a film about two sisters. Pugh is absolutely fantastic here, and almost upstages Johansson. The film pulls Shostakov and Vostokoff back into the fold, and the broken non-family reunites to shut down the Red Room and General Dreykov forever. By integrating the Taskmaster character, Black Widow also becomes a film about the pains of familial disappointment; Dreykov mourns for his family as Natasha does for hers. For a Marvel film, Black Widow stays relatively grounded until the third act, when the action moves to an airship that houses the modern Red Room. Only then does the film start to flirt with becoming a generic blockbuster. Thankfully, the focus on Natasha and Yelena remains, which elevates the narrative here.

It is a shame that this will likely be the only MCU film in which we get to experience this sisterhood. I would sit for a few more films in which these sister Black Widows toured the world fighting injustice and righting wrongs. Pugh is the real standout here, and her performance absolutely grounds this film. The recent Marvel films have capitalized on character development and emotional exits, but Black Widow is the most grounded and affecting franchise film in years. Yes, there are big-budget effects and action set pieces, but this is also a lean, character-led thriller that manages to instill stakes into a film in which I was initially convinced none could exist. We have seen origin stories for Iron Man and Captain America, among other Marvel heroes. That Johansson's Black Widow never gets her happy ending and retirement is a crying shame.

THE 4K ULTRA HD:

PICTURE:

This 2.39:1/2160p/HEVC/H.265 transfer offers HDR10 and is pulled from a 2K digital intermediate, despite being shot in resolutions as high as 8K. Still, this is one of the best-looking Marvel 4K Ultra HD discs yet, and Black Widow is definitely close to demo material. The digitally sourced production is absolutely gorgeous, razor sharp and lifelike in motion. Close-ups reveal intimate facial features; every detail, pattern and stitch is visible in costumes and on set dressings; and texture is abundant in all aspects of this image. Wide shots stretch for miles without a hint of compression artifacts or softness; and this includes nighttime, daytime and foggy scenes. Black levels are spot-on, shadow detail is abundant, and highlights are perfect. Colors are deep and richly saturated, and the HDR pass gives the image a more lifelike appearance than the 1080p transfer without becoming overly dark. Other than some minor aliasing, this is a top-tier transfer.

SOUND:

The Dolby Atmos mix, which I sampled as a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track, is solid and does not suffer from the compressed feeling of some recent Disney mixes. There is plenty of LFE action here (read: heavy bass) to support this blockbuster film. Dialogue is crystal clear whether delivered directionally or front-and-center. The score is layered expertly and given appropriate heft. Ambient effects make use of the entire sound field, and action effects are both rambunctious and nuanced, without a hint of distortion. French 5.1 Dolby, Spanish and Japanese 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus, and descriptive audio mixes are included, as are English SDH, French, Spanish and Japanese subtitles.

PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:

This two-disc set includes the 4K disc, the Blu-ray, and an HD digital copy. The discs are packed in a standard case that is wrapped in an attractive slipcover with holofoil and embossed elements. The extras appear on the Blu-ray disc and are limited: You get an Introduction by Director Cate Shortland (0:57/HD); Sisters Gonna Work it Out (5:25/HD), about Johansson and Pugh's characters; Go Big if You're Going Home (8:50/HD), about the stunts; a Gag Reel (2:54/HD); and Nine Deleted Scenes (14:11/HD).

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Although I was not anticipating much with Black Widow, the film ends up a stylish, entertaining and very well acted surprise. Scarlett Johansson and company give the Marvel film a reason to exist, despite other franchise events. The 4K Ultra HD disc looks and sounds good, though the extras are disappointing. Recommended.

William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.

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