Black Widow (2021)
She’s done running from her past.
Director Cate Shortland’s long-delayed solo outing for beloved Marvel character Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), is a film that should have existed far before now. Other members of The Avengers have had several films under their collective belts, and it seemed that Natasha’s story was destined to remain untold except in small snippets of conversation between herself and other characters. Considering the wealth of intrigue and good old fashioned spy narratives that Black Widow’s past evoked, it is heartening to see that Shortland and MCU staple writer Eric Pearson, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), decided on a mostly real-world actioner to explore who Natasha was and what brought her to The Avengers.
The film begins in Ohio in 1995 with a seemingly typical American family. Two young girls play in their backyard until the younger sister falls over and cries out for her mother. Melina (Rachel Weisz) provides motherly succor to young Yelena (Violet McGraw) whilst the seemingly more adventurous Natasha (Ever Anderson, almost looking like the spitting image of her mother Milla Jovovich) rolls her eyes quietly at the young Yelena’s histrionics. Not long after, the father figure Alexei (David Harbour) arrives home, and it is revealed that the family has to flee. Not a typical suburban family at all, but Russian spies living in the States to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D and steal state secrets to take back to the powerbroker Dreykov (Ray Winstone).
The scenes involving getting the family out of America are both propulsive in their action and somewhat melancholy. As the family drives to an airfield, they pass a series of all-American ideals that range from shopping malls to football games. Yelena asks that her favorite song be put on in the car and American Pie by Don McLean plays. The setup does more than a little to suggest that, at least for the children, the three years in America have been formative, and living a suburban life with a family is certainly preferable to what awaits them once they reach Soviet territory. Natasha and Yelena are forced by Dreykov to go to the Red Room, where he runs the Black Widow program, which is designed to create assassins out of what Dreykov claims are an unending supply of “unwanted girls.”
Flash forward to sixteen years later, and Natasha is on the run from General Ross (William Hurt) post the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016). The Avengers are no more, and Natasha is forced to go into hiding as her teammates are scattered and absent. Ironically to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D. Natasha’s task was to assassinate Dreykov and end the Black Widow program, a task she believed she completed, but as the introduction of the adult Yelena (Florence Pugh) proves, it was not successful.
In Morocco, a task force of Black Widows is after a target, and that target is a former Black Widow. Yelena is the first to reach the target and, after fighting her, is sprayed with a chemical agent that frees her of mind control. Whilst Natasha underwent psychological and physiological conditioning to become a Widow, later generations have been drugged by Dreykov and are chemically mind-controlled. Once freed from her chemical subservience, Yelena sends the vials of the antidote to Natasha in the hope that The Avengers will replicate the serum and free the legion of women trapped by Dreykov.
Hiding out in Norway, Natasha is unaware of the continued existence of the Widow program. On a petrol run to power her caravan’s generator, she is attacked by the Taskmaster; an assassin who is able to mirror the fighting style of any opponent. Natasha realizes that the assassin isn’t actually after her, but Yelena’s vials which, unbeknownst to her, were sitting in a box of mail from Belarus. After escaping the Taskmaster and salvaging the vials, Natasha heads off to Belarus to find Yelena, and it is at this stage that the film begins to take shape.
More directly following the formula set up by traditional action/spy stories like Bourne, Mission: Impossible, and even James Bond, Shortland creates excellent action set pieces. From the hand-to-hand combat between Natasha and Yelena when they first meet in Belarus to the no holds barred action motorcycle/car/tank chase scenes through the streets — Shortland knows the aesthetic she’s referencing. In this manner, the film feels more like a standard spy story, and that works. As Yelena points out, Natasha has no superpowers. Unlike an Asgardian God, Natasha needs Ibuprofen after a fight.
Once Natasha becomes aware of Dreykov’s continued existence and the extent of the Black Widow program, she decides that it’s time to end it and Dreykov for good. To do that, however, there is a small stop they need to make on the way. They need to break their erstwhile father, Alexei Shostakov, also known as Red Guardian (Russia’s only super soldier), from prison so they can find the Red Room.
The addition of Alexei to the film is a great highlight. David Harbour, Hellboy (2019), imbues the character with humor and just the right amount of ridiculousness to elicit some levity to the film’s relatively downbeat mood. His bombast is cut through with a sense of regret for being Dreykov’s patsy but also for abandoning his family, even though they were a construct. Alexei leads the rag-tag group to Melina Vostokoff, the Black Widow scientist who helped develop the mind control serum that enslaves the new generation of Widows.
At this stage, the action in the film stalls for a family reunion of sorts. At the heart of the film is the concept of family and belonging. To understand Natasha’s psychology and humanity, as well as Yelena’s vulnerability, it is necessary, yet it does slow the action slightly. Some audiences will see this as a flaw, but in effect, the strength of the film rests on creating space to explore what has driven Romanoff. She lost her Avengers family, living as a lone wolf on the run. Although deeply imperfect, her constructed spy family is something she needs to bolster her moral compass. Natasha has lived with regret — regret for being an assassin, regret for not earlier finding and saving her sister.
The final act of the film is more than a little over-the-top and places it firmly back in Marvel action territory. Sadly, there is an abundance of not all that great CGI and effects that weaken the more grounded action of the earlier parts of the film. Also, any time spent with Dreykov is not particularly satisfying because of how poorly the usually great Ray Winstone, The Departed (2006), takes on the character. Dreykov as an idea is horrifying, but as a reality, Winstone is so miscast he lowers the villain stakes significantly. Taskmaster also is not a top-tier adversary and those expecting to see the ‘classic’ version of the villain may be sorely disappointed.
Thankfully, the film boasts an incredible performance by Florence Pugh, Little Women (2019), as Yelena Belova. In effect, although this is Natasha’s story, it’s also very much Yelena’s. Pugh moves into action hero mode with consummate skill and is believable as a conflicted ex-assassin who, in many ways, is still a girl searching for her family. Scarlett Johansson slips back into her role as Romanoff with minimum fuss. Her interior journey, in many ways, is the heart of the film, and of course, we know it is her last hoorah as the character dies in Avengers: Endgame (2019). Black Widow provides a fitting send-off for her by giving her the space to put herself completely on the line for what she believes in. It could be said that more time could be devoted to Natasha, but with the addition of Yelena, it’s hard to argue with how well the film creates a dynamic duo.
Although touted as MCU Phase Four, Black Widow feels like it should have been the final film for Phase Three. In many ways, it’s a shame that it took the studio so long to give the character a solo outing. It’s a solid action film that falters in places, especially the final act, which, even for a Marvel film, does ask a lot of the audience to really suspend their disbelief. If Pearson and Shorten had sustained the more successful and smaller in scale spy narrative that they set up earlier in the piece, Black Widow would not only be a classic Marvel film but also a classic of the spy genre. As it stands, it is good but not mind-blowing, which is a shame because the potential was there but sadly became somewhat squandered by set pieces that took away from the very human drama that should have been explored more. Nonetheless, fans of Natasha now have a deeper understanding of the character, and going forward, we will no doubt see more of Pugh’s excellent Yelena. Even if the film acts as a bridge between old and new stories, it still does enough to satisfy.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney