It’s been a long time coming, in more ways than one. Black Widow is the solo story of the titular character that’s long overdue. There have been discussions, conversations and meetings, and finally, after all of that, the movie got made, only for the covid-19 pandemic to push it back, again and again. Now, after all the waiting, we can finally see Natasha Romanoff (played as always by Scarlett Johansson) take centre stage.
Much like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, a female-led superhero movie seems to bring out the misogynists. Nerdrotics, one of a number of self-styled ‘fandom menace’ types, has made it clear what he thinks:
Kevin Feige has gone full Kathleen Kennedy. Based on the activist marketing of Black Widow and the quality of the D+ shows the question has to be asked. What happened to Kevin? From the twisted morality of WandaVision, to the one-the-nose politics of Falcon and Winter Soldier, and Loki being a guest star in his own series. In the comics it isn’t any better. From Winter She-Hulk to Captain America not believing in The American Dream. The M-she-U seems determined to be as bad as Marvel Comics. The two have never been closer when it comes to the quality of storytelling and that is not a good thing. Et Tu Kevin?
We can safely say his sense of masculinity is rather fragile, and *gasp* TV shows and movies and comics can, have and will always be vehicles for social commentary!
That aside, what is Black Widow like? Is it any good?
The answer is, for this meerkat at least, somewhat complicated. If Black Widow were a standalone film with no ties to the MCU or anything to do with Marvel, it might register as a by-the-numbers action film, albeit one with a large female cast (which definitely wouldn’t be by-the-numbers). Johansson is joined by Florence Pugh as Yelena, who is Natasha’s younger ‘sister’ and another Black Widow agent, however Yelena never got out of that life, until a mission to take down a rogue agent leads to her being exposed to a chemical that removes her programming.
Now on the run, Yelena turns to Natasha, who is also on the run, as this film is set shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War. However they’re running from different things and need to confront certain elements of their past, including some abandonment issues and some moral quandaries from their past. This and being hunted by the Widows and by the ruthlessly effective Taskmaster (able to effortlessly mimic their enemy’s fighting styles) forces them both to turn to the Red Guardian, aka Alexei, played by David Harbour. The super-soldier was to be the USSR’s answer to Captain America but ended imprisoned. He also happens to be the fake father to Natasha and Yelena and as such, has a complicated relationship with them.
In the end, they end up linking up with their false mother, Melina, played by Rachel Weisz. Melina is an early incarnation of a Black Widow, though she, like others, has had her doubts. With the Widows now in thrall of Dreykov (Ray Winstone) by means of a brainwashing chemical agent, their only hope of saving them and bringing down the Red Room (Dreykov’s organisation) is to infiltrate the Red Room’s headquarters – a floating fortress, high above the clouds. Cue epic fights and a collapsing fortress and some impressive action sequences, which is what we’ve come to expect from Marvel.
It’s hard not to admire Johansson’s performance as Natasha. She and Pugh both bring a subtle vulnerability to their roles. They provide us with steel too – neither is prepared to back down from what needs to be done, even at the risk to their own lives. Natasha in particular extends a hand of mercy to the relentless Taskmaster, despite being in grave danger. Harbour is quite entertaining as the oafish, ignorant yet well-meaning Alexei.
Yet some things feel a bit forced. Weisz is a great actress but her performance here feels a bit flat, and her character’s turnaround feels a bit sudden. Ray Winstone cannot produce a Russian accent; cockney seems to be his entire range. The notion of a giant floating fort remaining unseen for many years, in a universe populated by technical geniuses and powerful secret organisations, seems far-fetched, even for the MCU.
The film also skirts some deeper, darker subject matter. There’s the mutilation of the Widows; they cannot have children and Yelena at one stage begins to describe this in detail, but as a means of providing a moment for Alexei to bounce off for the sake of humour. The undercurrent of what happens to the Widows once they are taken never truly goes away, but nor is it explored in any depth. I do understand that Marvel are aiming for a film that’s accessible for as wide an audience as possible (though some of the brutal fight scenes make it clear Black Widow pushes the 12A envelope harder than other MCU films), but you can do that and still have an edge.
There’s an end-credit scene that ties in nicely to the events of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and in fact, given Black Widow was probably supposed to be out first, it ties in even better than planned. It also paves the way for the ‘earthly’ elements of the MCU to move forward. There’s a lot of like about this movie, if viewed through the lens of the cinematic universe. 7/10.