Released: 9 July 2021
Director: Cate Shortland
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 million
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Olga Kurylenko, Ray Winstone, and Rachel Weisz
On the run after the events of Captain America: Civil War (The Russo Brothers, 2016), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) reunites with her estranged sister, Yelena Belova (Pugh), and discovers a conspiracy tied to her chequered past as a Russian spy.
Created by the legendary Stan Lee, Don Rico, and Don Heck, the Soviet super spy Natalia “Natasha” Romanova/Black Widow first appeared as a recurring villainous in Marvel Comics’ Tales of Suspense series, where she frequently clashed with Tony Stark/Iron Man. After running across Clint Barton/Hawkeye, however, she eventually shook off the brainwashing she had been subjected to and defected to the United States, becoming a hero and an Avenger in the process. Over the years, the character has become a popular staple of Marvel’s publications and a strong feminist icon who has made numerous appearances in other Marvel media and made her first live-action appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010). Development of a standalone Black Widow movie, however, was fraught with issues; the film was initially in development back in 2004 and MCU producer Kevin Feige considered exploring the character further in 2014 as the MCU was in full swing. Despite the character being killed off in Avengers: Endgame (The Russo Brothers, 2019), and the sexist machinations of Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, and repeated delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Widow finally got a solo film that sought to explore her complex past in 2021. Black Widow was released to a modest (if not disappointing) box office compared to other MCU movies, potentially because of the aforementioned pandemic; the reviews were generally positive, with many praising the film’s action and presentation, though some criticised the film’s derivative nature and how long it took for Black Widow to receive her time in the spotlight.
Black Widow aims to address a lingering issue with the character since her introduction into he MCU, and that is her lack of a detailed backstory. Unlike other MCU heavy-weights, Black Widow’s past has only been vaguely hinted at and is shrouded in mystery. However, as much as I feel the character deserves her time in the spotlight (and honestly should have had her past with other side characters explored in some one-shots years ago), I always found this to be part of the character’s mystique. Not knowing the specifics of her time in Budapest and only vaguely hearing hints of her past (“Drakov’s daughter”, “I got red in my ledger”, “Daughter of Ivan”) made her seem like a very mysterious character who had done some terrible, almost unspeakable things and was trying to atone for them. Thankfully, Black Widow retains much of the character’s mysterious aura while still shedding some much-needed light on her past. As a girl (Ever Anderson) was raised in Ohio alongside her sister, Yelena (Violet McGraw), by her parents, Alexei Shostakov (Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Weisz). However, her childhood was nothing more than an elaborate deep cover infiltration by the Soviets and, after Alexei acquires the crucial data her was sent to retrieve, the girls are suddenly ripped from their happy, suburban life and forced into serving the State in the “Red Room”. There, they are sterilised and trained relentlessly to become the perfect weapons, each of them moving and operating identical to the other and, with them at his beck and call, General Dreykov (Winstone) is able to topple governments and societies alike with the merest order.
The film then jumps ahead to shortly after the end of Civil war; after eluding Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) and being branded a fugitive, Natasha contacts one of her few remaining allows, Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenle), to help her escape from Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), her former allies who are now relentlessly hunting her down. having lost her surrogate family (the Avengers), Natasha defaults to her cold, KGB training and is fully prepared to live off the grid and with few ties as possible; she is in a very vulnerable and fight-or-flight position at the start of the film and there’s a very real sense that she feels angry at herself for having grown so accustomed to working with, and trusting, others. She is rattled when she discovers that Dreykov is still alive and that the Red Room is still active, especially after the horrific acts she had to do to bring them down to join S.H.I.E.L.D. and is even more uncomfortable at having to travel back to Budapest and dig up the long-dead ghosts of her past since all she’s tried to do is forget about and atone for her time in the KGB.
In the years since Natasha’s defection to the United States, Yelena was subjected to something more than just the psychological conditioning that turned Natasha into a ruthless assassin. Yelena, like her fellow Black Widows, was instead also subjected to a mind-control agent of Dreykov’s design that renders them little more than mindless puppets to carry out his every whim. However, after she is accidentally exposed to a chemical antidote, Yelena regains her senses and begins a campaign to free her fellow sisters from Dreykov’s control. As they were trained in exactly the same manner, Yelena is, in many ways, an exact mirror of Natasha; they move the same, fight the same, and have the same penchant for killing but the difference is that Yelena is noticeably more blunt and bitter since, unlike her “big sister”, she has been trapped in the role of an assassin without any hope of reprieve. Free for the first time in her life, Yelena is still a somewhat excitable and naïve child to many of life’s normality’s but is a formidable foe in battle; indeed, one of the objectives of Black Widow is to sell us on the idea that Yelena is every bit as good as Natasha while also being a distinct and likeable character in her own right. It succeeds in this regard by having her be evenly matched (and even best) Natasha when they fight and through Pugh’s natural charisma and adorable line delivery, which manages to be both blunt and endearing at the same time.
Angered to learn that Dreykov is still alive after she risked everything, including sacrificing his young daughter Antonia (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), to kill him and defect to the U.S., Natasha reluctantly teams up with her “little sister” to find the Red Room (which is notorious for being impossible to trace) and bring it, and Dreykov, down once and for all. To do this, they decide to free Alexei from the prison he has been rotting in for over twenty years; having been exposed to a variation of the same super-soldier serum that birthed Captain America (Chris Evans), Alexi had a colourful career as the Red Guardian at some point but is now an out of shape blowhard who loves to drone on about his glory days (even if they don’t necessarily fit in with reality). Honestly, Alexei is one of he many highlights of the film; I have a real affinity for David Harbour and he embodies the role of his big, bear of a man perfectly, able to convey both genuine emotion and also a great deal of laughs with his bombastic nature and exaggerated (or inappropriate) stories of his time as a superhero.
The three of them reluctantly reunite with Melina and learn the horrifying truth behind Drewkov’s operation; through an intricate system of mind control, he is able to command his Black Widows and has kidnapped, indoctrinated, and disposed of countless young girls over the years in order to maintain his position of power. Since Yelena has the only sample of the antidote, Dreykov sends his top operative, the silent and intimidating Taskmaster, to track her and the others down and acquire it by any means necessary. Taskmaster is quite the menacing foe, despite being uncharacteristically silent; a natural mimic, he is able to copy and replicate the physical abilities of anyone he watches and also predict and counter incoming attacks thanks to his intimidating skull helmet feeding him constant data. Wielding a sword, shield, bow and arrows, and even talons reminiscent of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Taskmaster is incredibly adaptable and able to mimic Natasha’s most famous moves on the spot as well as possessing all of the fighting aptitudes of the Avengers, making for a relentless and threatening enemy that is made all the more intimidating through the fact that he doesn’t say a word the entire time.
Going into Black Widow, I’d heard comments that the same was playing it “too safe”; that is was basically a rehash of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo and Russo, 2014) and I can totally understand those observations. Personally, though, I found this to be a good thing; it’s not the first time the MCU has returned to a more grounded story after a big, cosmic event and hearkening back to one of the MCU’s most entertaining and successful films isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. Indeed, I imagine when watching the MCU films in order, Black Widow will fit in pretty perfectly as an epilogue to Civil War.
Nowhere are the similarities to The Winter Soldier more apparent than in the presence of those annoyingly large location subtitles, the film’s gritty and hard-hitting action, and the character of Taskmaster. Taskmaster’s presentation, demeanour, and even his theme are all highly reminiscent of the titular Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) from that film. Like the Winter Soldier, he has a tendency to ram and shoot at cars, performs a number of nifty knife tricks, and is an inexorable force who appears sparingly throughout the film but makes an impact every time he does. Taskmaster’s story is noticeably different from his comic book counterpart, however, in that “he” isn’t a “he” at all; when I first saw the trailers, I (like many, I’m sure) was fully expecting Melina to be under the skull mask and, while the revelation of Taskmaster’s true identity has a great impact on Natasha, I can’t help but feel like that would have been just as meaningful a reveal and a far better use of Rachel Weisz.
The remainder of the film’s action scenes are also instantly familiar to anyone who’s seen The Winter Soldier. Well framed and full of ever-escalating action, fight scenes are as brutal as they are beautiful and entertaining to see (even if Natasha, especially, walks away from multiple situations that should have killed her outright). Natasha and Yelena’s reunion is marked by a fierce bit of melee combat that instantly sells Yelena as Natasha’s equal; their daring helicopter rescue of Alexi was a thrilling sequence as Alexi causes a chaotic prison break and the three are forced to escape from an incoming avalanche; and their final assault against the Red Room is made visually interesting and distinct by the fact that the facility is floating up in the clouds. This results in an explosive and over-the-top finale very similar to when the Helicarriers rained from the sky in The Winter Soldier but, again, I’m convinced that these parallels were a conscious decision and the film certainly doesn’t suffer from them and, I feel, is distinct enough to hold its own.
A central theme of the film is family. Natasha hides her heartbreak and sorrow at losing her surrogate family behind a cold bravado and resists letting Yelena, Alexi, and Melina into her heart and life as much as she can. We know that this isn’t the entire truth, though, since we’ve heard her talk fondly of her affection for the Avengers are her job as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and we see at the start of the film how much she cares for Yelena. Natasha insists that her childhood and this hitherto-unknown family unit was all a fake and meant nothing to her and her attitude seemingly reflected by Alexi, who was frustrated at being stuck in a “boring” undercover assignment and desperately wanted to get back into his costume to fight Captain America again. However, just as Alexi felt true feelings of love and fondness for his “daughters”, so too is Natasha unable to deny that she feels a kinship and responsibility towards not just Yelena but all of Dreykov’s Black Widows. Her urge to finish the job and kill the man who ruined her life is motivated not just by her personal need for revenge but also a deep-rooted desire to free the girls under his control and ensure that no others are ever violated in the same way. Along the way, she reconnects with her first family and comes to realise that she isn’t as alone as she once though, setting her on the path towards reuniting with her disparate Avengers comrades.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly that thrilled at the prospect of a solo Black Widow film, especially one that came out after she had died in the MCU timeline. I definitely feel like she, and other key S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel should have featured in a one-shot or television movie or even, yeah, a feature-length film a few years ago or had her story folded in with the likes of Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to appease the more sexist executives at Disney. Still, as the saying goes: Better late than never. Black Widow was an enjoyable romp with some impressive action and fight scenes, some fun humour and heartwarmingly poignant moments. It was great seeing Natasha in a more vulnerable position and to explore her backstory and character in more detail and the film introduces some entertaining and colourful new characters to the MCU, with Yelena and Alexei stealing the show at every opportunity. It seems as though Marvel Studios are pushing forward with a big shake-up in their films and line-up and I fully expect to see these two, at least, play a major role in the coming years.
Have you seen Black Widow? If so, what did you think to it? Did you like the new character sit introduced and the exploration into Natasha’s past? What did you think to Taskmaster and how the film adapted the character? Do you agree that Black Widow should have had her own solo film a lot sooner or do you think the film was in a good position as a cool down after Avengers: Endgame? Would you like to see more films focusing on this character? Whatever you thought about Black Widow, drop a comment down below.