So. How did we get here, and why did it take so long?
To start with, there’s the matter of Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman and former CEO of Marvel. This was the guy who brought Marvel out from bankruptcy in the mid-’90s, mostly by selling the movie rights to various Marvel characters. One of those was Black Widow, who was set up with Lionsgate until the studios involved lost their appetite for female-driven action films and the rights reverted in 2006.
And lest we forget, Perlmutter is also the guy who leased the X-Men rights to Fox, then turned the entire Marvel conglomerate upside down to try and make the Inhumans a thing when he couldn’t get the Mutant rights back.
(Fuck you, Perlmutter.)
Most relevant to this discussion, Perlmutter was notoriously insistent that every Marvel film needed a straight white male lead. The female characters could only be afterthought support characters, except for maybe one romantic lead. And when Terrence Howard dropped out to be replaced by Don Cheadle in the role of James “War Machine” Rhodes, Perlmutter reportedly said “black people look the same.”
(Seriously, fuck you, Perlmutter).
Eventually, word got around to the new corporate overlords at Disney, who were naturally upset that Perlmutter was fucking with the golden goose. Trouble was, Perlmutter is so thoroughly entrenched in Marvel that firing him would only be slightly easier than curing cancer. Instead, Disney carved out all the MCU holdings into Marvel Studios — a brand new subsidiary of Walt Disney Pictures, out of Perlmutter’s control. This left Perlmutter to drive Marvel Comics and TV into the ground for the sake of his ego and his petty vendettas against Fox, and Disney didn’t care because he couldn’t do as much damage over there.
Except we still had to deal with Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon, whose career would later implode from accusations of bullying and misogyny, dating from “Buffy” clear up through Justice League. To be fair, I’m not aware of any such accusations against Whedon on the sets of the first two Avengers films, and Scarlett Johansson has personally spoken in his defense in recent years. Then again, Johansson is no stranger to controversy herself, and she’s previously stood up for other incendiary figures such as Woody Allen.
(In any case, fuck Whedon too.)
Eventually, Whedon left Marvel entirely, and most of the TV department went with him. (Remember, Whedon came up in television.) Shortly after, what remained of Marvel’s television holdings got folded into Marvel Studios in 2019, sticking Perlmutter with even less power. But I’m getting off-track.
(Fuck you sideways, Perlmutter.)
The point is that in the years immediately following the Disney/Marvel merger in 2009, Disney made a concerted effort to clear the cancer out of their new cash cow. By the time all the toxic bullshit had finally been cleared from the upper ranks of Marvel Studios, Avengers: Age of Ultron had come and gone. Which meant that certain multi-picture deals had expired and Johansson’s contract had to be renegotiated. This took up valuable time while Marvel was busy loading the bases for Infinity War and Endgame.
Oh, and there was also a little thing called COVID-19, which put more or less all of big-budget cinema on hold for a year.
And now, over a decade after Scarlett Johansson’s debut as the title character, here we finally are with Black Widow, a solo showcase for Natasha Romanoff. Two years after the character was controversially killed off in Endgame.
The film is overdue, yes, but that doesn’t change what’s owed. Johansson deserved this, the character deserved this, and the fans deserved this, and better late than never. Furthermore, can you imagine the backlash if Black Widow had been killed off and this movie wasn’t in the pipeline? No, Marvel owed a debt and there could be no moving on if that debt was never paid.
Furthermore, there are Marvel fans — both new and old — who watch all the movies in chronological in-universe order. I expect there will be still be fans out there who will watch the films in chronological order many years from now. And for those future filmgoers, it won’t even matter that the film came out too late. They can watch the narrative in its proper context and have a great time with it like the movie came out when it should have.
Moving on to the film itself, we open in the early ’90s, just after the end of the Cold War. Our stage is set in Ohio, which is where we meet Alexei (David Harbour). It seems that the USSR spent most of the Cold War trying to develop their own “Captain America”-style super soldier military mascot. And the best they could come up with was Alexei the “Red Guardian”. I might add that much later on in the movie, we see a Russian military base made in obvious imitation of a Helicarrier. It seems that Marvel’s USSR spent the back half of the 20th century trying to crib notes from SHIELD and churning out second-rate copies of whatever it was they were doing. And when you consider that so much of SHIELD was actually Hydra for so many years… well, cribbing from those particular notes won’t exactly result in anything good, suffice to say.
Anyway, the Cold War is over and Alexei has been assigned to more mundane covert operations deep in the USA heartland. His cover is that he’s a family man, alongside Melina (Rachel Weisz) and their two young daughters (Natasha and Yelena, respectively played in flashbacks by Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw). The kicker, of course, is that all four of them are Russian spies and their family life is entirely fake.
We meet this ersatz family shortly after the surrogate parents have stolen data from SHIELD. This same data would later be used to develop the “Red Room” program, which is exactly where Natasha and Yelena are swiftly abducted to while Alexei and Melina are whisked off to places unknown. Thus Natasha is trained and tortured and traumatized in the process of becoming the Black Widow we all know and love. And it turns out that Yelena has gone through her own lifetime of the same, even as Natasha was running around the world as an Avenger.
Our story picks up shortly after the events of Civil War (complete with William Hurt in a speaking cameo role to tie it all together), at a time when the Avengers — Natasha’s other, more loving surrogate family — is fractured and Natasha herself (Johansson, of course) is on the run from pretty much the entire world. Long story short, Natasha crosses paths with her estranged “little sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh), who’s stumbled onto the MacGuffin of the film: A synthetic gas that works as an antidote to the Red Room’s mental conditioning programs.
Further complicating matters, Natasha herself had previously killed Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the director of the Red Room, as her final act of defection before she joined SHIELD. What’s worse, Dreykov’s daughter was killed in the explosion that Natasha directly caused to get to Dreykov. Alas, it turns out that Dreykov isn’t as dead as previously thought, the Red Room is still up and running all these years later, and nobody knows where to find it. Thus Natasha and Yelena seek help from their old fake parents so they’ve got a shot at ending this once and for all.
In the other corner, Dreykov is played to the hilt as a bona fide bastard, the heartless incarnation of a white male patriarchy that deprives women of their freedom and their bodies to assert his own power. (The allegory is overt to the point where forced hysterectomies are invoked. Didn’t think a Marvel movie would ever go there, did you?) Even better, the climax exposes Dreykov as a sad little blowhard with no intelligence or ability of his own. All that Dreykov has is his ability to manipulate women, and he didn’t even figure out how to do that on his own — that all came from other scientists and/or stolen tech. The man is a fraud, and his ego keeps him from acknowledging it. Even better, Ray Winstone has no problem leaning into everything that makes this character a scumbag, and he makes for a fantastic hate sink.
Though the Red Room has no shortage of hot female goons to hunt our heroes down, our main heavy for the film is Taskmaster. For those who aren’t aware, Taskmaster of the comics is an assassin renowned for his photographic memory and his uncanny ability to perfectly replicate any attacks or defenses that he sees, to the point where he can accurately predict the moves of anyone he’s fighting against.
(Side note: Taskmaster is typically a Deadpool antagonist, as Deadpool is so notoriously screwy that he’s pretty much the only one Taskmaster can’t really gauge.)
I won’t go into details about Taskmaster’s revised origin here, except to say that it’s suitably disturbing. Plus, there’s something about this mute killer with that skull mask and that high-tech visor and the unnatural movements… I really like this take on the character. Plus, the character’s skillset is so unusual that it’s tough to explain, I’m impressed that the filmmakers did such a solid job of conveying that to the audience.
As for our main character, you’d be amazed how much is going on here for Natasha. First of all, the prior films have consistently alluded to the blood on Natasha’s hands and the trauma she’s endured, and here’s an especially huge and bloody assignment come back to bite her. (Not surprisingly, Hawkeye gets name-checked extensively). Remember, killing Dreykov and his daughter was supposed to be the end of this chapter in her life, her final break from the Red Room, and the immediate aftermath of that event meant that she and Clint Barton had to run and hide from the authorities for several days. And now she’s returned to the scene of the event because it turns out that the chapter wasn’t as closed as she had thought. One can imagine the impact that might have on her mental/emotional state.
On a similar note, getting torn away from her family in Ohio was another hugely traumatic and important event in her life. Again, that was the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another, except that Nat can never go home again and she knows it. Instead, she can only dig up old memories and baggage she’s been carrying for years.
Which brings us to the issue of her childhood family and her childhood home. It was all fake. They all knew it was fake. All four of them knew the whole time that there was no shared blood between them and they were never a family before they set foot in Ohio. Which means that their fondest memories are built on a pack of lies, which hits especially hard for the daughters who never knew a life before Ohio and knew nothing but hardship after Ohio. And yet those memories are so fond precisely because they were built on a kind of mutual love that was very real. It’s tough to square that circle, but all four of them — most especially Natasha and Yelena — have to learn how to take the good with the bad and reconcile the genuinely loving relationships borne of the dishonest circumstances.
What’s worse, this was always meant to be a family of spies. These are kids and “parents” who were set up in the United States for the explicit purpose of committing crimes against that nation, with ramifications that could potentially cost millions of innocent lives. Moreover, both daughters were sent to the Red Room for the specific purpose of training to become assassins. Yelena went on to become the youngest and most proficient killer in recent memory, and Natasha went on to become… well, Black Widow of the Avengers.
Both women are world-class killers, and that’s no small accomplishment. But is that really anything for anyone to be proud of? Especially when neither Natasha nor Yelena ever asked for it and neither of them seem to want that anymore (if they ever did)? In particular, the movie has a lot to say about how Black Widow has been so heavily glamorized and sexualized (in and out of universe), conveniently overlooking all the blood on her hands.
Then again, if neither of them want to be assassins anymore, then what do they want to be instead? What could they possibly be instead, given that neither of them had much of a life outside the Red Room until relatively recently? This is an especially prominent question for Yelena, as she’s never known any kind of freedom until the end of the first act. This is all still new to her and she’s only just begun to figure out who she is.
As great as the character-driven stuff is, there are a couple of missteps. One example concerns Natasha’s true origins and the fate of her actual birth mother. I have no idea why she’d care at this point, and it seems a bit of a reach that anyone would still know or remember for all the difference it makes. Another misstep is the one-sided rivalry between Captain America and Red Guardian. I get that it’s played for laughs, but the film has far more effective comic relief than Aleksei’s jealousy over Steve Rogers. Seriously, I was surprised how funny the movie can be and how well the jokes typically land.
The action, however, is sadly uneven. I’ve seen worse, to be sure, but several shots were still too quick and too shaky for my liking. I’ve heard other critics comparing the fight scenes to the Bourne franchise — I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I can see a passing resemblance. I’d also agree that using Bourne as a frame of reference would be a much better idea in theory than in execution.
Speaking of which, a colleague of mine recently complained that Marvel execs and producers have a nasty tendency to take over the action sequences themselves without letting the director handle that aspect. Assuming that’s true — and I must stress emphatically that it’s a huge, HUGE assumption — it bears remembering that this was directed by Cate Shortland, whose only prior feature directing gigs were three coming-of-age dramas. And that’s through no fault of her own, because cinema (most especially action cinema) is so male-driven and there are so few opportunities for female filmmakers, experienced female action filmmakers are terribly few and far between. By contrast, Marvel has made enough of these movies that they know perfectly well what they’re doing. If the Marvel higher-ups are willing and able to step in so that Shortland can watch and learn, then I’m all for it.
Moving on to the cast, of course Scarlet Johansson needs no further comment. She knows the character better than anyone else, and she’s going at it like she’ll never get another chance. David Harbour is a delight, Rachel Weisz is solid, and we’d all better hope that this is what gets Florence Pugh to the A-list because we’ll all be better off when that happens. And of course I’ve already given my praises to Ray Winstone.
Elsewhere in the supporting cast, Olga Kurylenko shows up. She barely gets a line and she’s onscreen for maybe two minutes in total, but she’s creepy as all high holy fuck. That’s all I dare say about that.
Further down in the supporting cast, this is where things get shaky. William Hurt only barely shows up long enough to sleepwalk his way to another paycheck. O-T Fagbenle is here as a pathetically limp suggestion of a possible waste of a love interest, a character so useless that he complains ad nauseam about how underappreciated and underutilized he is.
Also, Julia Louis-Dreyfus pokes her head in after the credits. If you’ve seen “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, you’ll have some idea of what that means. And in light of the upcoming “Secret Invasion” series on Disney+, I’m calling it right now and predicting that she’s a Skrull. That’s the only conceivable way that any of this could possibly make any sense.
Ultimately, Black Widow is probably the best film that this portrayal of the title character deserved. It’s not upper-tier Marvel, but let’s be real — with all due respect, Black Widow was never exactly an upper-tier Avenger. This movie was never going to have huge far-reaching ramifications involving the Infinity Stones or the unfolding multiverse because the character was never built for that. She might’ve had some impact on SHIELD and Hydra, potentially, but the Captain America films didn’t leave much for her to do on that front. And anyway, given all the persistent hints at Natasha’s checkered past, the film retroactively turns all of those into setups to be paid off in this movie, and that’s highly valuable in the grand scheme of this superfranchise.
This character got irreparably fucked over by management squabbles between the studios and execs behind the scenes. Even at the very beginning, Natasha got screwed out of her initial chosen actor (namely Emily Blunt) because of a contractual dispute with Fox. Black Widow may have been given the chance to roll with Iron Man and Captain America, but she was never going to be recognized as a superfranchise lead on their level because the character got kneecapped by a misogynist asshole in charge.
At least we got a worthy — albeit not exceptional — sendoff for this franchise mainstay, and a welcome middle entry for those watching the entire Marvel saga in chronological order. And now that the book has finally been closed on Natasha Romanoff, we can wipe the slate clean and start fresh with Florence Pugh and Yelena Belova’s tenure with the Black Widow mantle. Here’s hoping they have more to work with than Johansson did.
(One more time: FUCK YOU, PERLMUTTER!!!)