Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Black Widow is an action spy adventure film released in 2021, and it is based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. It is the 24th film in Marvel's Cinematic Universe (known as the MCU), but it's the first film in Phase Four, a raft of film and TV projects released after the previous movie, Avengers: Endgame. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous Russian secret agent who is forced to confront the ghosts of her past when a dangerous new foe makes their presence known. The film also stars Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, Olga Kurylenko, William Hurt, Ray Winstone and Rachel Weisz, and it was directed by Cate Shortland. The film was one of many that had its original release date in 2020 postponed by the global COVID-19 pandemic before getting released simultaneously in theatres and on Disney's digital streaming service, a decision that was later challenged by Johansson in a lawsuit and ultimately settled out of court. Receiving a generally positive reception from critics, the film set several pandemic-era box office records with global takings at the time of writing in excess of $379 million. Pugh is set to reprise her role in the forthcoming Hawkeye TV series due for release later in 2021.
What's It About?
In 1995, Russian migrants Alexei Shostakov and Melina Vostakoff have made a life for themselves in rural Ohio with their adopted children, Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova. However, they are actually working undercover stealing information from SHIELD and reporting back to their Russian paymasters, represented by General Dreykov. When their cover is blown, the four of them flee in a private plane to Cuba where Dreykov has both Natasha and Yelena taken away and recruited into the Black Widow program, a top-secret training facility running out of the mysterious Red Room to turn female candidates into elite-level spies and operatives. Years later, Shostakov has been betrayed and imprisoned by Dreykov while Natasha, having completed her training, defects to SHIELD and blows up an office building in Budapest in an attempt to assassinate Dreykov.
Fast forward to 2016 and in the wake of the Sokovia Accords introduced in Captain America: Civil War, Natasha is on the run from the authorities led by US Secretary Of State Thaddeus Ross. While she attempts to lay low in an isolated cabin in Norway, her sister Yelena has also become a Black Widow but encounters a strange gas that neutralises the chemical mind-control agent used in the Red Room. Realising that Dreykov is alive and continuing the Black Widow initiative, Yelena fights for her life to escape her former colleagues and sends some vials of the gas to Natasha in the hope that she can help with the assistance of the Avengers. But the Avengers aren't exactly cooperating with each other and Natasha has no idea that the vials are being traced by Dreykov's top assassin, Taskmaster....
What's to Like?
After ignoring the clamouring of fans for a solo movie ever since the character debuted in 2010's Iron Man 2, Marvel have finally given in and produced something for Johansson to enjoy. Sure enough, the film has plenty of nods to the character's extended family with plenty of nods to her comic book origins despite the Cold War being long since over. In an odd way, this feels like a character origin story and a prequel of sorts in all one even though regular MCU viewers will be well acquainted with Black Widow already. The narrative juggles these perspectives well and gives her a story befitting of her status as a bona fide member of the Avengers as well as keeping things scaled back to a more human level. Natasha is not superhuman, of course, and the film reflects this with a more familial drama at the centre instead of repelling vast alien armies or whatever.
Johansson lets loose with the role, playing the always professional Natasha well. I especially liked it when her unflappable nature comes into conflict with her unconventional family - both Weisz and Harbour give plenty of humour as her adoptive parents (Harbour more so) but it's her interaction with her little sis that feels genuine and worth exploring more, although I suspect that due to the delay in the film's release, this opportunity may have come and gone. Speaking of Yelena, Pugh is excellent as the feisty rival not afraid to say what she's thinking and going forward, it's clear that she is being primed to replace Johansson within the MCU. Other than the central cast, this film is pretty much business as usual with lots of CG-heavy action scenes, briskly filmed fight sequences and thinly disguised plot twists sprinkled in for good measure. Had the film been produced much earlier, this would have been fine but these days, it feels tired and repetitive and nothing we haven't seen a dozen times before already.
- Pugh kept teasing Johansson about Black Widow's now-iconic pose so much that screenwriter Eric Pearson included it in dialogue within the film.
- Johansson's contract for this appearance was a one-time deal following the character's demise in Avengers: Endgame. Her fee was a reported $25 million with a $6 million bonus if the film earned more than $900 million worldwide. This became the subject of Johansson's legal action against Disney who, by releasing the film simultaneously on their streaming service, drastically reduced the film's earning potential. The lawsuit was settled out of court with Johansson reportedly earning $40 million as a result and subsequent Disney releases in 2021 (such as Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings) being exclusively in theatres.
- In the comics, Melina Vostakoff becomes the villain Iron Maiden but the film role was designed to have more depth and a dead-pan personality. Weisz particularly enjoyed playing the character with no sense of humour and has expressed interest in reprising the role in future.
What's Not to Like?
I, like many MCU fans, had been waiting for this film for some time so it's a real pity that on this occasion, Marvel have shanked it. The film feels far too similar to other MCU pictures, as though Shortland (who has no experience directing a big budget picture like Black Widow) was attempting to imitate earlier films like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man. The action scenes feel cluttered and too busy with fight scenes feeling muddled and confusing. The CG isn't as impressive as it has been in previous MCU films and by the time the finale arrived, with flaming wreckage falling from the sky as characters battle in the midst of free-fall, it just felt like the ideas had come off the rails somewhere. A character like Black Widow should be about infiltration and close combat, not epic explosions and silly superhero tropes that have already become cliché.
I didn't like Winstone in another obvious bad guy role and not just because his Russian accent is appalling. The good work done in the opening half of the film is completely undone by the second half which didn't feel like it fitted in with the wider MCU narrative. The film cannot avoid what I had always feared: that the entire movie is simply fan service, a film made out of a sense of obligation rather than any appreciation for the character although why Marvel never recognised Johansson's brilliance in the role is beyond me. Frankly, if this film had been released ten years earlier - say, as part of Phases One or Two - then it might not have felt like such a let-down. This isn't me moaning because Black Widow isn't as fantastic as Endgame or Infinity War were. This film sadly doesn't stack up alongside the competition it now finds itself in - Marvel films are trying to expand their scope and appeal and rightly so but this film feels like a throwback. It needed more punch and far better timing for it to be as memorable as its stablemates.
Should I Watch It?
Die-hard fans of the MCU will probably watch it anyway but truthfully, there isn't much here that they are missing. Compared to the more imaginative and unusual efforts like the WandaVision TV series, this feels old fashioned and far too behind the times. Worst of all, it feels irrelevant and this is not the swansong that Natasha deserved. Here's a tip, Marvel: try making films that fans want to see when they want to see them and not because you feel like a character needs some exposure.
Great For: Johansson's bank balance, anyone desperate for a female-led action movie, Vladimir Putin or anyone else pining for the good old days of Communism
Not So Great For: seasoned MCU viewers, pushing the envelope, Disney's wholesome reputation
What Else Should I Watch?
The frustrating thing is that Marvel can do genuinely great movies when they put the effort in or are a bit braver. Take Guardians Of The Galaxy, a film with characters that most viewers might not have been aware of and set far away from what was happening in the MCU at the time but blew audiences away with its quirky humour, chemistry and sheer sense of fun. Of course, superhero films are the bread-and-butter of the MCU and recent films like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok have all been very enjoyable, comic-book outings for popular characters. But I fear that not only are Marvel running out of bankable characters to bring to the screen (anybody interested in a Scarlet Scarab movie?) but also ideas after the enormous success of Endgame, a film that literally saw the MCU's major stars sign off for good.
It's unfortunate that as the first female character in the MCU to have a real impact, the untimely delays in getting Black Widow made (admittedly, not all of them the fault of Marvel) have left the once-pioneering character something of an afterthought. Not only did Captain Marvel beat the character to the punch of getting a solo movie but arch-rivals DC also trumped them with Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984. At this point, I suspect that some comics super-fan is going to point out that 1984's Supergirl beat all of them to become the first female-led superhero film but given that film's reception, you can perhaps forgive Marvel for being hesitant about pursuing another.
Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow
Yelena Belova / Black Widow
Alexei Shostakov / Red Guardian
Melina Vostakoff / Black Widow
Release Date (UK)
7th July, 2021
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
© 2021 Benjamin Cox