Black Widow

4 STARS

Director: Cate Shortland
Writer: Eric Pearson
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone

So, here we are, two years after Marvel’s last cinematic release (Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019 – thanks, Covid-19), beginning the MCU’s Phase 4 with a character who has been overdue her own movie for quite some time. Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, has been an Avenger since before the Avengers even knew they were Avengers, always kicking names and taking ass before that quote was ever misquoted, and giving girls and women representation in what started out as very much a man’s (Tony Stark’s) world. As the first female Avenger in the MCU to get her own solo movie (The Wasp’s involvement in Ant-Man and The Wasp notwithstanding and Captain Marvel being post-Avengers assembling), it’s arguable that a lot stands on her shoulders. Has the movie been up to standard, both as an MCU movie and doing female characters justice, or is it too little too late for this Widow?

*Please note: there are no direct spoilers for other MCU movies in this review, but if you haven’t seen any of them by this point then I must question why you are here..?

Written in part as an origin story, Black Widow sees Natasha (Johansson) on the run post-Captain America: Civil War and coming face to face with her past. She is reunited with her surrogate sister, Yelena (Pugh), who is trying to free all the Widows from the Red Room, a training camp for young girls run by General Dreykov (Winstone), whom Natasha believed to be dead. In order to find Dreykov, they track down their surrogate father, Alexei (Harbour), who in turn tells them to find their surrogate mother, Melina (Weisz), if they want to know Dreykov’s whereabouts. As the “family” reunites and we’re shown flashbacks explaining how they came to be together and how Natasha and Yelena became Widows, they make their plans to take down Dreykov once and for all, but, of course, it’s not all as straightforward as it sounds.

One of the movie’s greatest strengths is certainly the writing. Pearson has done an excellent job of writing strong characters, both female and male, and creating a plot and dialogue that reflects and upholds everything the MCU has worked hard for since its inception. Natasha is still a strong character with a moral compass, and she melds well in tandem with Yelena – both are written with their own strengths and weaknesses and yet they compliment each other. The movie is never stronger than when these two appear in a scene together. Alexei provides much of the film’s comic relief and pathos as he reconciles the past with his present actions, and Melina, whilst also providing some comic relief when partnered with Alexei, is also a well-written woman who, in many ways, is relatable. Where the characterisation lacks is in the antagonist department. Dreykov isn’t really all that fearsome, perhaps in part because he’s one of those that hides behind stronger villains, but also because the casting was a little off. Dreykov’s chosen warrior, Taskmaster, is much more fearsome, both in strength and presence and providing an actual barrier to Natasha and Yelena, as well as having depth of character when it comes to who Taskmaster really is. So, to sum up: surrogate family storyline and characters are a big yes, antagonists are a resounding and disappointing no.

Production-wise, we’ve got so much in the way of action and explosions and car chases and weaponry that there’s no mistaking this for a Marvel movie. The women are given every bit as much action, whether on a large (huge, even, as the movie comes to its final battle) or small scale (hand-to-hand with Natasha and Yelena), as the men in other movies, and it keeps the same pace and excitement. It’s a shame to keep comparing this to male-led movies, as this should all be the norm by now, but it’s good to mention that this film stands strong with all other MCU movies and ought to provide something of a blueprint for future female-led action-heavy movies. Shortland has done an excellent job of ensuring that there is balance between story and action and no oversexualisation of the women. We’re focused on who they are and what they’re doing, not how they look or are perceived via the male gaze. Shortland isn’t here to impress anyone but MCU fans. And despite having a very minimal filmography, Shortland has proven herself very much up to the task and has done for Black Widow what Patty Jenkins did for DC’s Wonder Woman.

Without giving away any major spoilers regarding previous MCU movies, it’s good to see Johansson back in the saddle before we potentially lose Natasha for good from the MCU. Everything we’ve come to love about Natasha is magnified in Black Widow, and she wouldn’t be the bad-ass she is without Johansson giving her all to the character. The MCU and its fans owe a lot to her commitment and portrayal of Black Widow over the years, and if this is her swan song for the character, it’s a fine one to have. However, the real MVP of this movie is Pugh, and that’s not a bad thing. Yelena is not only excellently written but brilliantly portrayed by Pugh, with equal parts humour and emotion as well as general bad-assery. It can only be assumed she’s being set up to take on the mantle left by Johansson/Natasha, though perhaps not in a way we’d expect (see the end credits scene). I for one am very excited to see the character again in the future. And then rounding out the family are Harbour and Weisz, with Harbour bringing that deft comedy that we love in an MCU movie, and Weisz bringing some heart into it. All four characters together make the kind of dysfunctional family we love to love and relate to. Finally, as mentioned, the casting was off for Dreykov. The character isn’t particularly strong anyway, but if Winstone is doing an accent that’s anything other than his own London Cockney, you’ve got to look the other way. If Dreykov is the chalkboard, Winstone is the chalk. Let’s leave it at that.

One of the biggest takeaways of Black Widow is that a female-lead movie can be just as strong as a male-led movie. Thankfully, it’s still made very decent money (taking just under $220m on its opening weekend with its budget having been $200m) despite the pandemic, again proving the appetite for this kind of movie. If it had been able to keep its March 2020 release, it may have made less as cinemas were closed not long after, so it wouldn’t have had its time to settle in, cutting its life short and maybe making it seem like it wasn’t worth doing. Thanks to the release of shows like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki on Disney+, fans have had their appetite satiated while waiting for Black Widow, and credit is due to Kevin Feige et al for holding their nerve and waiting for a better time to release Black Widow. It was worth it.

Next up in the MCU we have Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, slated for an early September release (but, unlike Black Widow, with a delayed Disney+ Premier Access release). Much like Black Widow, a lot is riding on Shang-Chi when it comes to the MCU opening up is doors to diversity, but if Black Widow is anything to go off of, all signs point to Marvel getting it right.

As a side note, I was on the fence with the rating, wanting to award it 3.5 stars, but as I don’t do halves, I decided to round up out of optimism for what the film has potentially set in place for Yelena as well as giving a good send-off(?) to Natasha.

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