It’s been more than two years since the last MCU film (Spider-Man: Far From Home) – we’ve been lucky to have WandaVision and Loki, (my thoughts on them here and here, respectively), but there’s something about a big MCU film that is special. Unfortunately, it’s the first MCU film I didn’t see on the big screen – these notes are based on watching it Disney+; I’m sure that cinemas are doing a great job with their procedures to minimise the possibility of catching COVID-19, but I’m more worried about the general public, who have seemingly been persuaded by our terrible government that the pandemic no longer exists.
Anyway, let’s leave aside my hatred for corrupt, lying, racist Conservative government, to focus on a fictional character taking down a corrupt villain with even more destructive plans. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been a great character and a pivotal part of the MCU – she has no special powers yet is a valuable member of the Avengers, plus she was for a long time the only woman in the sausage-fest that was the MCU. She’s not always been given her due, her own solo film has been too long in arriving, and unfortunately (spoilers) she is dead in the MCU, but at least we finally get a Black Widow-starring film, even if it’s a ‘What she did between films’ concept.
The usual warning about spoilers here – I will talk about things that are important plot points and reveals – even though no casual reader will happen on this blog post who doesn’t already know what occurred.
The first thing to say is that your enjoyment of this film will depend on how much you enjoy the Bond films – the movie is quite blatant in its connection, with a scene where Natasha mouths along to Roger Moore’s dialogue in Moonraker (not even a good Bond film) – with globe-trotting, gadgets, action set pieces and an evil villain with a secret lair. I have to confess that the Bond films don’t really do it for me; they can be entertaining, but the sexism and jingoism get in the way. Your mileage may vary.
The film starts with a flashback to 1995, where a young Natasha is undercover in Ohio as a family with other Russian agents: Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weiss) and a younger sister, Yelena Belova. Alexei steals SHIELD intel and they escape to Cuba, where his boss, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), takes the girls to put into the Red Room. The present day for the film is after Captain America: Civil War – Natasha is on the run, escaping Thaddeus Ross, before hiding out in Norway. Meanwhile, Yelena (Florence Pugh) is a Black Widow on a mission – she kills a rogue former Widow before exposure to a synthetic gas breaks the chemical mind control implanted in the Red Room. Yelena is given the remaining vials of the gas by the dying agent and sends them to Natasha in the hope that the Avengers can release the remaining Black Widows. Natasha receives them without knowing what they are; she is subsequently attacked by Taskmaster, from whom she escapes and realises she must go to Budapest, the site of an incident that has haunted her ever since, to find her ‘sister’, ‘father’ and ‘mother’ and deal with matters …
The film is a successful ovation for the Black Widow character, precision-tooled with a plot to connect with what she represents and what she fights against. Dreykov is an evil man who uses women as resources for his own end and is the perfect choice of villain for Natasha, apart from the connection to her past – not only was he in charge of the Red Room when Natasha was there, but the assassination attempt on him by Natasha was the job she was given so she could defect to SHIELD (which seems a particularly strange choice, but let’s go with Hydra having an influence on the choice). She thought she killed him, so his return and position as Bond villain is appropriate. It’s a shame, then, that Winstone is so bad in the role – his accent is diabolical and he phones in his minimal screen time, leaving it up to the script to demonstrate how evil he is; it’s as if the casting a famous British face as the villain was as far as they went in regard to the role.
The film has a lot going for it: Johansson is great, as always, as Natasha and leaves you wanting more (even though she said she has finished with the role). Harbour is a lot of fun as the Red Guardian (a lot more fun than Hellboy), now stuck in prison and reliving his former glories by arm-wrestling new inmates and reminiscing about fighting Captain America in the 1980s (an indication of brainwashing or a replacement Cap we have yet to learn about?). Weiss is reliable as a former Black Widow with more red in her ledger than Natasha, as she is the person responsible for the fine-tuning of the chemical mind-control used in the current Black Widows. The stand-out is Pugh as Yelena, who has the best accent and perfectly plays the role of little ‘sister’ to Natasha, mocking Natasha for her ‘superhero landing’ pose and hair flicking, but also calling her out as ‘the killer little girls call their hero’. The post-credit sequence shows that Yelena will be a continuing part of the MCU, which can only be a good thing.
Cate Shortland does a good job as director, mixing the action pieces with a character study and examining the dynamics of the forced family before the final act’s MCU formula comes into place. There are nice touches linking to previous films and the comic books, and she has focussed the story into a woman saving other women from an evil man, while finally telling the story of Budapest. This is manifested physically in Taskmaster: it is revealed that the red in her ledger is mainly the killing of Dreykov’s daughter during the assassination attempt; however, the daughter survived and Dreykov turned her into a mind-controlled Black Widow with tech inside her that can copy anyone’s moves once she’s seen them. I have no problem with Taskmaster being a woman – it’s an interesting idea and I understand why it was done – but Olga Kurylenko as Taskmaster is 5 years older than Johansson yet her character was supposed to be a child when Natasha was an adult. Kurylenko is also the only person who has a genuine Russian accent but only gets one line of dialogue while others are doing passable imitations around her. The problem I have with the character is I cannot believe that a child would have survived the explosion, so she couldn’t have grown up to be an incorrectly aged assassin – a stupid hill to die on, I’m sure you’ll agree, but there you go.
There are other small niggles that interfered with my enjoyment. The pheromone lock installed in all Black Widows so they can’t attack Dreykov is a stupid idea biologically speaking – I understand its necessity as a measure to prevent Natasha immediately killing him to add drama, but there should have been a more elegant solution. There’s a lot of forgiveness involved from the two sisters for a ‘family’ they haven’t seen but who haven’t treated them well and have gone on to do bad things, particularly Melina, and not enough punching them for what they did. The botched assassination attempt on Dreykov from a professional killer (unless we’re supposed to believe that other people planted the bombs) seems implausible for the sake of a narrative device.
I’m being picky (but, hey, this is a blog – kind of on brand, really), but the film as a whole is entertaining and exciting and funny when needed (the scene when Yelena and Natasha retaliate against Alexei for his sexist joke about periods, with them talking about the Red Room removing their ovaries and uteruses, is fantastic), so small details can detract from the experience. I enjoyed the movie, but I haven’t had the urge to revisit it again, despite the fact that I can watch it as many times I want on Disney+. But I’m sure I will, because it’s the last time we get to enjoy the adventures of the original MCU Black Widow, and it was a good send-off.