Review: Black Widow

Even a cursory search of this blog will bring up many, many Marvel Cinematic Universe reviews. I’ve seen every film since Iron Man in 2008 (13 years ago, WHAT), and the time between Spider-Man: Far From Home and Black Widow was the longest anyone’s waited to watch a new instalment. Yes, we’ve had the shows on Disney+, but the films are – as with any blockbuster franchise – the peak attraction.

And now finally, nearly two years later, Black Widow is out and available to see in the cinema. The long-time aim for a solo Black Widow film for most of that 13 years was eventually met, but the irony being that it was ready in May 2020 before everything got in the way. Regardless: it’s now here, you can now see it, and it’s great.

After we first met Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in 2010’s Iron Man 2, it took so long for her to get her own film that – SPOILER ALERT – it now only comes after the character has died in the continuity of the franchise. It’s a bit of a raw deal, but this is an “interquel” – essentially, a film set between 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. It does much to give her the time in the spotlight she deserves, without the early films’ ridiculous oversexualisations or the latter, Whedon-led scripting: though she somehow, curiously, ends up as an ensemble player in a film named after her. No luck!

Natasha (on the run after helping Captain America and co escape in Civil War) seeks to find and destroy the Red Room – the cult-like arm of the Soviet regime now on its own nefarious track, where scumbag Dreykov (Ray Winstone) abducts, brainwashes and mobilises young women into his own army of female spies. Director Cate Shortland (formerly of more indie endeavours) and writers Jac Shaeffer and Ned Benson cleverly fit this story into what’s come before, threading in touches of Jason Bourne, James Bond and more while keeping the Marvel timeline on track (little Loki reference there).

What this means is delving into Natasha’s oft-mentioned mysterious and dark past to finally explain why she became the woman she did, as well as giving us plenty of comic book callbacks, hilarious surrogate family arguments and an actual sense of who the character is: a stupid statement when you think about it, but really – we’ve not had much of an insight into her before except that she’s a spy, she can fight and she doesn’t like attachments. The film’s depiction of her youth, her surprisingly hilarious family unit and the life she had led do more than any forced dialogue in past films did to give the character the depth she deserved.

Here, we’re introduced (via a great prologue that felt like a Bond film mashed up with a 90s version of an 80s Spielberg movie) to the “family” that Natasha was brought up in, how they were fractured when she was a kid, and where the constituent parts ended up. As she finds her way towards erasing the worst of her past, this family rearranges itself, and it’s the way that the director and writers team up bombastic action with entertaining, character led scenes of personal strife and argument that sets this a little apart from many that came before it.

There’s a distinctly different and female-centric perspective, which comes not only via Marvel finally having a solo female director on board, but also with the script co-written by a woman, the family unit being far more female than male, and the crux of Natasha’s mission being distinctly about helping other women. Johansson is good – much more relatable and much less sardonic than before – but by virtue of what we know about the character’s fate, she has to work harder to remain centre of attention, against a script that means she isn’t the centrepiece to her own film, sadly, nor the most memorable element.

Ironically, that’s down to the excellent casting for her unconventional family unit, especially Florence Pugh as “sister” Yelena and David Harbour as “father” Alexei, aka the Red Guardian (the Soviet Captain America). Those two, packaged with a icier than ice Rachel Weisz as the “mother”, bring out an interesting side to Natasha’s character and background that the other films practically screamed for. Had we had this earlier, it would have strengthened her character arc as opposed to her just being the token female Avenger for so long, defined by her relationships with the blokes in the team. Shortland and co help us realise that having come from an unconventional family, Natasha was ideally situated to become a significant part of another.

Pugh is clearly being set to replace Johansson going forward, and it’s in the creation of her character that we see the changing winds at Marvel. Yelena is like a superspy crossed with a petulant kid or whiny teen, all attitude, histrionics and sarcasm – Pugh is excellent, particularly when deconstructing the bullshit around Natasha’s depictions (a joke about her hero’s pose in particular), and yet when acting is required her abilities offer much more than Johansson has in a Marvel film (not her fault, given how good she’s been in other more dramatic fare, but notable nonetheless).

Harbour is an absolute riot too, giving us our first look at a superhero gone to seed, potbelly and all – Alexei is defined by a nemesis he never met and a country that doesn’t care about him, and this plus his utter immaturity when reunited with his own “children” gives Harbour so much to play with. You want to see more of this dad-bod superhero buffoon, and the film hopefully sets up future roles for the Stranger Things star, because he’s the affably stupid and fun centre to a film that often hammers home how grim so much of its backstory is.

Weisz is far less defined or interesting, except in her frosty, enigmatic manner that shows where Natasha got her detachment from. I felt like the film shortchanged her – again, hopefully a return in future (or past?) might give us more there. As for the aforementioned Winstone – when you can forget the laughable attempts at a Russian accent sliding into cocknee geezaah, he brings his trademark horrifying intensity, and frankly gives proceedings a grim, unseemly underbelly that these types of films often don’t touch. Dreykov feels more akin to how actual mobsters and gangsters behave towards women than any of the more anodyne villains do in superhero movies, and it gives him an edge (particularly in a post #MeToo cinematic environment, when it comes to themes of control and coercion).

Elsewhere, it’s worth mentioning The Handmaid’s Tale’s O-T Fagbenle, who gets a nice (!) role as a British fixer to the superspies. I really enjoyed the quite random appearances and general feel to this character, who feels like a breath of espionage-flavoured fresh air, and someone who doesn’t really care about all the stuff going on as long as he gets paid (and gets to flirt with Natasha – he’s thankfully not a love interest, but he at least exists to give her something fun). He’s another character I’d enjoy seeing pop up in other films and shows, just because it’s such a weird but fun addition to this ever-growing series.

If I had to mark the film down, its decision to add an action-based mysterious villain in Taskmaster seems a bit of an afterthought. Someone so overpowered and potentially dangerous feels odd to premiere here, though the story’s deft handling of the villain’s identity is interesting, and makes you realise afterwards that it served a point and a purpose, where so many fighty villains don’t. The future for the character is also really interesting: but it still felt a bit lacking. Perhaps the film needed more low-key stakes action, rather than imposing a super-powered antagonist into the mix.

The film also ends rather predictably with a very “third act of Marvel” set-piece, which feels less like an oversight and more like an unnecessary escalation compared to what it could have been. Many interesting seeds are planted though, so if you can see beyond the way in which the entire final battle comes together, it’s fulfilling on a story level. The music is largely backgrounded, but Lorne Balfe brings some of that Mission: Impossible Fallout bombast with a bit of Russian-feeling choral depth when it does stick its head above the sound design.

On the action side of things, it’s crunchy and down to earth for the most part, with minimal CGI – just what I like to see! Shortland has a good handle on it and utilises cinematographer Gabriel Beristain to give the action intelligent lighting – a night fight on a Norwegian bridge, lit with flames reflecting on water, is particularly memorable. Beristain also gives the opening pre-credits sequence (a first for Marvel, and very Bond!) that 80s Spielberg sheen, while Budapest is given the Hollywood treatment (warts and all), before our final location oozes Soviet reds mixed with techy, near-future whites and greys.

I wouldn’t be opposed to another prequel for Black Widow, though that seems a bit pointless now. However, at last she got her dues and a film that felt both part of the Marvel universe, and yet apart from it. More of this sort of entry in future, or in the new world of the Disney+ shows, would be great in terms of giving characters more depth, more humanity and more time within this huge universe. Not to mention, there’s definitely scope for more sarcastic Russian spycraft action now the mantle’s been passed to Pugh’s Yelena.

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