Black Widow was meant to be released in May of 2020. However, that ensures it is the first triple A movie of 2021. Obviously I am not counting Godzilla vs. Kong (and damn me if I write a review of that movie). Many fans of the MCU have been looking forward to Black Widow starring Scarlett Johansson in the title role. Since the introduction of her character in Iron Man 2 it is obvious women are underrepresented in the MCU despite high profile additions. It is difficult to understand why Marvel were dragging their feet. By the time of the first Avengers movie fans demanded a female superhero focused movie and the character of Black Widow had the clout. Yet it took 10 years to develop this movie, after Brie Larson preceded her in Captain Marvel and Gal Gadot stunned in Wonder Woman.
To top it off, Scarlett Johansson is playing a character – Natasha Romanoff – that died in Avenger’s Endgame. While her death was not pointless to that story it felt too casual. The events of Black Widow are obviously set before Endgame. I feel as if her death was meant as a stunt, just to get people to buy tickets. It is a bit like Titanic, you already know how it will end (the ships sinks). But you still want to know what happens to the characters. Now Black Widow has arrived, after many delays. So we can judge for ourselves if Kevin Feige, Disney and Marvel made the right choice. While it is her origin story it also introduces an ensemble of characters. Florence Pugh plays Natasha’s sister Yelena, Rachel Weisz their mother Melina (the first Black Widow) and David Harbour their father Alexei, A.K.A. Red Guardian.
Marvel meets The Americans
But they are not actually related. During the mid-90s the four of them spent several years in the US, in Ohio, as a sleeper agent family reminiscent of the series The Americans. Despite the faux setup they develop familiar feelings towards each other. After their cover is blown they are evacuated from the US. Afterwards Natasha and Yelena enter the Red Room for further training. The story then jumps 20 years ahead with Natasha now hunted for breaking the Sokovia Accords. However Natasha manages to elude capture and hides in a beautiful town in Norway. She receives supplies such as fake IDs and transport by Rick Mason. Up until this moment the movie was an absolute delight to watch with strong cinematography that gave vibes reminiscent to Stranger Things, the game Alan Wake and Jason Bourne movies. Throughout we see scenes of Yelena turning against the Red Room.
That turns the plot into overdrive. Yelena mails batch of antidote to Red Room brainwashing to Natasha. This causes Taskmaster to be sent by Red Room against Natasha. The silent assassin reminds me of a blend between Captain America and Winter Soldier and is on the face of it a much better fighter than Natasha. Natasha seeks out her sister in Budapest. It is a scene in which she makes no attempt to hide her appearance despite the womanhunt lead by secretary Ross. The reunion between the faux sisters leads to a fight similar to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but they do make up. It becomes clear Yelena is angry with Natasha for abandoning her to the Red Room when she joined the Avengers. Yelena also brings a warning, the Red Room, lead by General Dreykov, is very much active despite Natasha’s and Clint’s prior efforts to stop it.
Black Widows and Red Guardian
Their reunion is interrupted by agents of Red Room, its brainwashed female agents referred to as widows. After this chase the story slows down a bit. A series of discussion between Natasha and Yelena eventually evolve into a road trip. It becomes clear the two have not spoken in 20 years. Which makes me doubt if they actually have a close bond. Their discussion also touches upon difficult topics such as the two not being able to have children as well as Natasha failed assassination of General Dreykov. Black Widow also contains plenty of humor which can clash with the movie’s overall vibe. I did enjoy Yelena graphically ridiculing Natasha’ preferred fighting stance. The road trip culminates with Natasha and Yelena deciding to take down the Red Room. To accomplish this they blow their father Alexei out of jail, hoping he could lead them to their mother.
David’s Harbour of Red Guardian is spot on, his comic insecurity despite his epic strength makes his performance memorable. Alexei however has a difficult relationship with his daughters. They remain unsure of how much he was involved in them being forced to join Red Room. This tension is similar to that between the faux siblings and it is something that never appears resolved. Later on, they join the first Black Widow – Melina – played by Rachel Weisz. Here a similar difficulty relating to trust and past trauma remains. Despite some denials it becomes clear the happiest moments they each shared was when they were an undercover family in Ohio. The four become resolved to destroy Red Room. Melina self-enlists despite working for the Red Room up until that moment, even being responsible for the brainwashing chemicals used by Dreykov.
A good but odd ending to Black Widow
The final act of Black Widow shows the four trying to take down Red Room. It is a better act than the middle, filled with decent action and some surprising twists to the story. The Red Rooms widows prove themselves to be a difficult opponent, as does Taskmaster. However, the story does sneak in some pro-feminist believes, which I do not mind, but which were a bit on the nose. Throughout the final act I was reminded of Natasha’s ultimate fate in Endgame. Set some 5 years into the future, and the cruelty her death means now that she has reunited with her faux-family. I will criticize the ending a little bit. Black Widow has a number of open questions that may even be plot holes (too early to tell). But I found it strange Natasha awaited the arrival of Ross after the destruction of Red Room.
The story jumps forward two weeks and Natasha is seemingly free, now sporting the familiar blonde hair from Infinity War. She is joined by Mason and decides to team up with Captain America to set free those Avengers from the Raft prison facility. How she escaped from Ross is unclear. It even opens up the possibility she is a double agent or that Ross didn’t mind Captain America and his band of breakaway Avengers – food for thought. One of the many issues to nitpick over that start to stack up as the movie progresses. Black Widow tries to do a lot: be Natasha’s origin story, introduce new Black Widows and Red Guardian. Have salty discussions regarding family and the world of assassination as well as keep a humoristic streak. It succeeds for the most part, but Black Widow could have done with a more polished screenplay or editing.
What Black Widow wasn’t
What is also strange is what Black Widow wasn’t. The spy-genre has seen the substantial growth of a subgenre: female agents with movies such as Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow and Anna. Despite the superhero name Black Widow there was nothing about Natasha using her sexuality to advance her progress. Nor did I see much use of spycraft beyond the mere basics. The lack of sexuality as a tool seems deliberately as a counter to Iron Man 2, recently criticized by Scarlett Johansson as depicting her character in an overly sexual manner. While I respectfully disagree with that assertion including some of that in Black Widow would have made the movie even longer. And it already has a long running time. I think Disney and Marvel errored with not considering multiple Black Widow movies to tell her story and that of her family properly.
A bit more criticism I address towards Red Room and General Dreykov. Despite a powerful performance by Ray Winstone I did not get the feeling Dreykov was an imminent threat. At the end it becomes clear that his widows have infiltrated a wide selection of high-society with the plan to take over the world. Yet Natasha reminds him his Red Room has remained so well hidden it is actually not a threat. I agree with that. Also I remain puzzled as to whom if anyone Dreykov answers to: The Russian government? Or Hydra? Or is he now working for himself? A better plan by the villain could have given the story more urgency and helped it overcome the languished pace in the middle.
Will Scarlett Johansson return as Natasha
I liked Black Widow, and I cannot agree with some of the negative reviews or commentary I have seen. The movie is certainly problematic in some areas but it is very much the Black Widow that I have bene anticipating to see. Over the summer I will view it twice more to attempt to reconcile the perceived plot holes and subtleties. Meanwhile Kevin Feige has not ruled out that Scarlett Johansson will return as Natasha Romanoff. I hope she will. There are plenty of stories to choose from, including the difficult time she had just before Avengers: Endgame.