Can Florence Pugh’s ‘Black Widow’ Performance Earn an Oscar Nod?

The Marvel Studios standalone entry is receiving praise from critics, but in the awards landscape, can it go anywhere beyond the artisan categories?

Black Widow
Courtesy Marvel Studios

The long-delayed but hotly anticipated “Black Widow” from Marvel Studios finally gets its bow before critics, garnering positive reviews thus far. However, with the Academy moving back to a guaranteed 10 nominees in best picture, and seemingly open to more populist choices in Hollywood, as seen with James Mangold’s “Logan” (2017) getting mentioned for adapted screenplay and Todd Phillips’ “Joker” (2019) leading the nomination tally in its respective year, could there be awards hope for the first lady of the Avengers? With the raves coming in for standout Florence Pugh, could there be an avenue for acting recognition?

The landscape of the 2021 film year is looking dense and hardy, as many films that were pushed back amid the pandemic are angling for huge box office earnings as theaters begin to reopen. As a result, there’s a very good chance that the spinoff story of Natasha Romanoff could get lost in the shuffle of big festival debuts and other populist entries coming down the pike, such as Marvel’s “Eternals” from recently crowned Oscar winner Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”).

If we search for feasible possibilities for attention, the three standard branches that Marvel has found traction over the years — makeup and hairstyling, sound and visual effects — are on the table. However, if we expand beyond that, I believe there will be a wide contingency of critics that will champion the performance of Florence Pugh as the scene-stealing Yelena Belova. Already “in the Oscar club” after getting nominated for supporting actress as the youngest March sister Amy in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” (2019), her navigation into the MCU is effortless, as she demonstrates incredible acting techniques and has wonderful chemistry with co-stars Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz. I would expect her name to pop up in discussions, even probably making a few regional critics’ awards shortlists along the way. Still, it will be a significant hurdle to overcome on the circuit. The good news for her is that, at this moment, this looks to be her only film in the calendar year, as Olivia Wilde’s anticipated “Don’t Worry Darling” from Warner Bros. is likely a 2022 bow. So who knows?

For Johansson herself, the send-off for her character Black Widow is genuine and heartfelt, and there will be many champions for her work not in just this entry but the MCU overall in the last decade. After multiple snubs for performances in “Ghost World” (2001), “Lost in Translation” (2003) and “Under the Skin” (2013), she became one of 12 actors to receive two acting noms the same year for her performances in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” (2019) and Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” (2019). However, while this feels like a proper sendoff, I’m unsure there’s enough “there” for the acting branch members to latch onto and want to reward her, especially given the landscape of contenders ahead.

Black Widow

For director Cate Shortland, whose gritty imagining for Natasha’s standalone entry was the best approach this late in the game of the MCU, action films have trouble making waves with voters, especially in major categories. Because of that, and its much smaller plot focus, adapted screenplay will not likely be in the cards for it.

With an outside chance, the branches for cinematography and music should give DP Gabriel Beristain and composer Lorne Balfe some consideration by year’s end.

As the Academy expands its membership again by 375 industry folks, the makeup of the branches is increasingly diverse, and we seem to be sitting in a perfect union of the old-school Hollywood mentalities and the rising openness to new, distinct moviemaking. Does that mean “Black Widow” can crack the best picture lineup? Not so fast. In 2009 and 2010, when the Academy expanded the best picture nominees from five to 10 available entries, we saw an even makeup of genres and types of films that the Oscars have not typically embraced. There always seems to be a spot reserved for a more consumer-accessible entry that does very well at the box office and generates enthusiasm. In those years, it was “The Blind Side” (2009), which won an Oscar for Sandra Bullock and “Inception,” which picked up three artisan prizes. With more from the MCU ahead, including “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and other studios angling for attention, the film may find it difficult to sustain to remain on the lower half of members’ ballots as they fill out their 10 favorite features.

The list of accolades for the 23 films that have been released from Marvel Studios isn’t as long as fans would like. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” is the only movie of the franchise to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. Nominated for seven Oscars, it won three for production design (first Black winner in the category for Hannah Beachler, which she shared with set decorator Jay Hart), costume design (first Black winner in the category with Ruth E. Carter) and original score (Ludwig Göransson). For the other films that have mustered some Academy attention — “Iron Man” (2008), “Iron Man 2” (2010), “The Avengers” (2012), “Iron Man 3” (2013), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) and “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) — the love has only come in makeup, sound and visual effects categories, with none of them winning.

“Black Widow” will open in theaters and debut on Disney Plus with Premier Access on July 9.