Even with the ongoing Covid Pandemic, and associated delays, Marvel Studios have now matched the output of EON’s James Bond series, with Black Widow its 24th entry; a feat achieved after a mere 13 years (Bond has had since 1962 to produce its 24 official offerings to-date). This is now a well-oiled machine, with a consistency of product and of tone, that has developed in leaps and bounds since its uneven first phase. In line with this, Marvel has worked hard to diversify, with increasing opportunities for directors not normally associated with big budget studio offerings. Black Widow is helmed by Australian director Cate Shortland: her fourth feature, none of the previous three particularly expensive projects.
That said, the character is well established, after having first appeared in 2010’s Iron Man 2, with regular appearances right to her demise in Avengers: Endgame. This on-screen death raised questions as to what this film would end up being; given Marvel had no real track record for prequels, but definite form for resurrecting characters. In the even our story takes place soon after the events of Civil War, with Natasha Romanoff on the run after her role in disregarding the Sokovia Accords, which had set regularity boundaries for superheroes.
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All of this follows a prologue taking place in 1995. A seemingly normal family of mother, father, and two young daughters are living in Ohio. They find themselves forced to run, as it becomes apparent that they are Russian agents, and their covers have been blown. “Mother” is, in the event, Melina Vostkoff (Rachel Weisz) – herself a black widow operative, while “Father” is Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), a Russian super-solder once known as the Red Guardian. The children are not related to either adult, or to each other, and have simply been placed in America for espionage purposes – the steal SHIELD intel. Escaping the US, they rendezvous with their handler, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). The family are then split up with both “daughters” being put through the Red Room training referred to many times by Natasha in the previous films, while Alexei is imprisoned.
Moving to 2016, it is confirmed that Romanoff was the eldest of the children, and she is now on the run from US Secretary of State, Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). We see her skills both of escape and of blending in as she moves from country to country. Meanwhile Yelena Bulova (Florence Pugh) – who we will discover to have been the younger of the two girls – is still an active Black Widow, working in assassination missions, until she encounters an antidote that removes the brainwashing the girls undergo as part of their training. Sending the antidote, through an intermediary, to Natasha, she hopes that the former Red Room agent will return to free the other widows.
The two meet up in Budapest, with their first encounter being driven by distrust for each other’s motives. The viewer learns of the truth of the Budapest mission so heavily referenced by Romanoff and Hawkeye, and come to understand why this character has carried so much pain and guilt for her action. Learning the Red Room is still active, Natasha and Yelena work to reunite with Melina, and to spring Alexei from prison. Working together they will look to bring down the Red Room, Dreykov, and the mysterious Taskmaster figure that found and nearly killed Natasha when she was in isolation.
This film was due to arrive in 2020. Even then, it is fair to say that the delay in getting the character onto the screen in a solo outing would not have helped the end result. To start with the negatives: Black Widow is something of a redundant exercise. The character is dead, there is no real suggestion she is coming back, and we are watching her deal with one set of grief and pain, only to know that she will be pitched into an unrelated, yet equally painful situation only a couple years later, in-universe. This prequel format gives it the feel of a standalone, yet the film is constantly referencing events a first-time viewer will not have seen, and the Budapest reveal will carry no weight with them. Similarly, the one reference to Clint Barton will mean nothing, without having seen Endgame.
This film often feels like it exists to say thank you to Scarlett Johansson – and sorry for killing her off. That said, had this film been released in late-2016, it would have fitted in well, and given us some sense of what the exiled Avengers were getting up to. The main flaws of this film exist entirely due to the timing of its release and production. The actual content – and standard – is very much in-line with the modern day standard of Marvel Studios.
Our two leads are both terrific. Scarlett has long owned this role, and brought the character a long way since her undercooked and underwritten first entry. She has lived the character with us, and carries all the years of pain effortlessly. With Johansson recently having made some statements about the initial sexualisation of the character, there is good humour to be mined from Yelena’s poking fun at the character’s stance – with the three-point landing, and then confident raise of the head, first seen in that film.
Florence Pugh is continuing to develop an excellent body of work, something promised a couple of years ago with the wrestling dramedy Fighting With My Family. We find, also, that Natasha is a Bond fan: with the character watching – and mouthing along to the words of – Moonraker. This could be taken as a playful nod to the classic spy franchise, with perhaps there being some Bond fans in the creative team. More likely, it reflects Natasha’s confused feelings about the spy life. It has brought her so much pain, but with her love for the lightest of the Bond actors, in probably the silliest of his films, it could suggest that she had an image of a much more fun and glamorous existence than the one eventually experienced. It is a nice touch.
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The supporting cast are fun, with David Harbour in particular being a highlight; though the comic nature of his 2016 persona is both at odds with the 1995 take, and can take the film in an occasionally sillier direction than intended. You can take Ray Winstone out of London, but you can’t quite take London out of Ray Winstone – the Russian accent is all over the place. He is, however, sinister and playful at the same time – something that can said for the best parts of the film as whole. Finally, it must be said that the Taskmaster has divided opinion in intial reactions to this film: we’ll come right down the middle and say this character – and the portrayal – did not really sway us either way: in some respects that is damning in and of itself.
Black Widow is not quite a top-tier Marvel film. What it is, is a top-tier Marvel production. The action is assured and flows exceptionally well, the film looks expensive, dialogue choices are generally very good, and effects work (apart from a de-ageing effect on Scarlett in a flashback to that Budapest mission that doesn’t look quite right) is flawless. Sadly, the film missed its ideal window (which, to clarify would have been 2016, not 2020 or 2021), and then came out at a time where is really doesn’t give fans of the MCU anything, strictly, that they need. What we are left with, however, is a perfect tribute to 11 years in the role, and a potentially terrific successor to the role in Florence Pugh.
Black Widow is out now in Cinemas and on Disney+.