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Film Review: Black Widow

WARNING: HEAVY SPOILERS

When Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was given the spotlight in the original Avengers movie in 2012 after her debut in Iron Man 2, Marvel fans quickly came to love this previously obscure Marvel heroine and thought for a long time that she was going to be the first female MCU hero to get a solo film, only to be disappointed when this ended up being Captain Marvel, a new hero introduced at the last minute before Endgame. And it’s only now that the character is already dead that she’s finally getting her movie, ten years after Avengers. But hey, better late than never, right?

Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow is a prequel that takes place at some point between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, in which Natasha Romanov is on the run from the US government after her involvement in the events of the former movie. The film reveals her complete backstory, which had been hinted at several times in previous movies, and has her reunite with figures from her past to take down the organisation that made her who she is. Natasha was brainwashed from childhood and trained to be an assassin alongside many other young girls by a top-secret Soviet facility called the Red Room, forming what came to be known as the Black Widow project. The film opens with a flashback of Natasha as a child as she is brought to the Red Room’s leader Dreykov (Ray Winstone) alongside another girl by one of its lead scientists Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), a Russian super-soldier formerly known as the Red Guardian, created to be a Soviet rival to Captain America, after the two raised them in the US as if they were their parents. Twenty years later, Natasha reunites with her “sister”, Yelena (Florence Pugh), as the two seek the help of their former “parents” to destroy the Red Room once and for all.

The film reveals that the Black Widows have been more than just brainwashed, and have actually been bio-engineered to be controlled from a console as if they were robots. Yelena was the first to overcome her brainwashing after being exposed to a chemical agent that neutralises its effects, and set out to manufacture more of it after she and Natasha defected from the organisation. She now plans to use this chemical to take down the Red Room by exposing all Black Widows to it, and sends a sample to Natasha alongside a childhood picture of the two of them to get her to join her, setting the events of the film in motion. But as it turns out, this isn’t the first time Natasha tries to take down Dreykov, and the first time was an absolute disaster. Remember in Avengers when Natasha and Clint Barton mentioned something that happened between them in Budapest, and it then became a sort of meme throughout the MCU as to what actually happened there? Well, Black Widow finally reveals what happened. Or partially, at least. The two of them had set off to assassinate Dreykov after locating him in a building in Budapest, and simply blew up the whole place, killing everyone in it in the process, including Dreykov’s young daughter. Natasha never forgave herself for killing the girl, and always told herself that her death was a necessary evil. But now that she learns Dreykov is still alive, and thus the girl died for nothing, Natasha is determined to finish what she started.

Although the knowledge of her fate in Avengers: Endgame somewhat cheapens the whole thing, the film does a wonderful job of deepening Natasha’s previously rather shallow character, revealing her traumatic past and the moral dilemmas she has faced, as well as introducing her to her hectic but endearing “family”. Although their past is full of betrayal and abandonment, and the four of them understandably have trouble trusting one another at first, Natasha, Yelena, Alexei and Melina form a touching ‘found family’ that has all the love and playful bickering of a real one, and the viewer can’t help but hope that all of them will come out of it alive and well. Alexei and Melina’s characters in particular are not without issues though. Alexei accomplishes very little in the story, and is mostly there to be the butt of the jokes, most of which amount to “aha he’s fat”, and the film goes out of its way to make Melina’s character as confusing as possible, by hiding her plan from the audience and making us doubt what side she’s actually on. In fact, the whole plan sounds more like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon rather than a movie for older audiences, with Melina seemingly betraying the group and delivering them to Derykov, only to reveal once they are in the Red Room that she was actually Natasha in disguise all along, and who we fought was Natasha was actually Melina in disguise, and her plan was to infiltrate the Red Room by pretending to still be loyal, and everyone knew except the audience. Don’t ask me why this required the two to disguise as each other though. I almost expected them to keep taking off more masks one after the other for increasingly absurd reveals like in a cartoon. Oh, and Pugh and Harbour’s fake Russian accents get annoying after a while too. But besides that, these four characters are definitely the highlight of the movie, especially Natasha and Yelena’s absolutely relatable sibling relationship, and you just can’t help falling in love with them.

And then there’s the Taskmaster. One of the most anticipated Marvel comic villains to make it to the screen for the first time in the MCU, fans were hyped as hell for his role in this movie. And, well, they should prepare for disappointment, because they gave him the worst character assassination for an MCU villain since the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Instead of being the mercenary mastermind that he is in the comics, he is now a literal puppet created by Dreykov to do the dirty job for him, and he is barely more than a side character in the movie. At least he still has his iconic ability to copy the moves of anyone he sees, which makes him an extremely dangerous and intimidating foe, but aside from one Hawkeye and one Black Panther moment which were both already shown in the trailers, he is mostly just using Captain America’s moves – and the most interesting moments of that were also already in the trailers. Oh, by the way, did I say he? Because as it turns out, the Taskmaster’s identity is actually – cue the drumrolls – Dreykov’s daughter! Yep, that’s right, she actually also survived the explosion in Budapest but was left paralysed and with half of her body burned, and Dreykov decided to turn her into the Taskmaster, implanting a chip in her brainstem to turn her into a remote-controlled puppet and giving her the villain’s iconic ability in the process. Another gotcha moment that is overall mildly impressive, and might leave some fans hoping to see the “real” Taskmaster in the future, the same way the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is going to reveal the “real” Mandarin.

Overall, the film is definitely an enjoyable popcorn flick to turn your brain off to and enjoy the action. While it is far from the most thought-provoking film Marvel Studios have put out, with Dreykov being a typical one-dimensional Bond villain who plans to take over the world with his army of mind-controlled women, it has some of the most endearing characters we’ve seen in the MCU for quite a while. And some of them are going to return too, because the post-credit scene, which takes place after Endgame, is basically a teaser for the upcoming Hawkeye TV series. And don’t let yourself be deceived by Disney’s feminist marketing: Natasha is just as sexualised in this movie than in any other one, with her outfit being purposefully more revealing the those of the other characters, and the movie has its fair share of boob and crotch shots of not only Natasha but also other female characters, which made even me, a straight guy, roll my eyes. Overall it’s exactly what you would expect from a Marvel movie, and while it’s far from a masterpiece, there is nothing wrong with some fun escapism once in a while.

“Black Widow”—the first film in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — will launch in cinemas July 8, 2021.

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