What They Say:
Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy, and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
With plans originally for a late spring 2020 debut, the pandemic pushed back Black Widow until summer 2021 and was considered one of the first films to really show that you can get more people back to the theater, though that happened just as the Delta variant of the COVID-19 pandemic was getting underway. While I’ve seen every Marvel Studios film in the theater up on opening day, this was the first of several that I wasn’t able to for a variety of reasons. I ended up holding out until the Blu-ray release came out to get a copy that I could have in hand and enjoy whenever I want without having to worry about data caps, since we’re a heavy streaming family.
The Black Widow film is one that confuses me mostly in its reception by the vocal “fans” that are out there. There was plenty of harumphing about telling a story from before the Infinity War period but that just makes no sense to me. If they’re only watching films, sure, but these folks claim to be comic book fans. And comics spend an inordinate amount of time telling flashback tales and gap fillers in order to flesh things out. And often these are areas where we can get some really neat things introduced to connect various ideas together. I wasn’t opposed to a Black Widow film in the slightest and figuring that it was basically Scarlet Johannson’s last run at the character for the foreseeable future, I liked the idea going into it that it was going to see for other projects – one of which has already had some connective tissue revealed with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The upcoming Hawkeye series is a likely continuation piece as well.
For me, this film feels very much like the epilogue to a couple of other films, though it very much does two other key things – it stands on its own and it also serves as a good chunk of continuation of Natasha’s story. With some design elements set so that it uses the same style as both Winter Soldier and Civil War, it has an epilogue element of those films as we see Natasha dealing with the fallout from there that has her on the run while several friends are in The Raft and Steve is on the run. She’s living quietly and trying to stay off the grid for the most part, and in Norway at the early part of the film. What intrudes on her life is that her past has come back to the present as her sister, who was in the same training program as her as a child, has sent her a batch of vials with no idea what they are as there’s no note or anything. That puts a big target on Natasha, who in turn decides to try and find her sister, Yelena, figuring that Budapest is a good first stop.
The film covers some interesting things in the early part of it. We get to see what happened back in the mid-90s when she was a child with Yelena, living in the US with her parents. This isn’t a real family in the sense because their father, Alexei, is actually a planted spy working for Dreykov, who was at the time a Russian general that over time became the one in charge of the Red Room with the training of spies. Their mother, Melina, was also a spy and the kids were used as cover to help cement them there. When his mission is accomplished, which becomes relevant later in the film, there’s a fun action sequence that gets them out of the country and only serves to put the kids into the Red Room training program itself. The rest is history from there, though only because we know the basics of Natasha’s journey over the course of many films.
What happened to the others becomes the journey of discovery here for Natasha as she had only freed herself. Yelena has now managed to do the same, as we discover that the Red Room has changed its method of control over the years to something far more insidious. Both of them are conflicted in their feelings of abandonment, in regards to each other and what happened prior to being placed with Alexei and Melina, and abandonment toward them with how they ended up in the Red Room. Alexei provides the comedic humor for the film as he’s been in prison for decades and doesn’t think much was wrong with the kids’ childhood while Melina retreated to a farm and basically keeps to herself, though that in itself is just another cover since her own past is far deeper and, quite honestly, worth a movie or some other form of storytelling in and of itself.
This is a Marvel movie so there are plenty of familiar beats here with the mix of action and humor, big set pieces, some globetrotting, and seeded areas for the future, though that mostly comes from the post-credits sequences and not deeply embedded in the main structure of the film. It delivers well on these points and it fleshes out things with Natasha’s past more and tries to deal with the uncomfortable 1st Avengers film’s dialogue regarding her with how Yelena views things. With this taking place pre-Infinity War, it works well to show some of what was going on with Natasha until the world changed and she came back in from the cold to do as much good as she could to help. This also leaves open story material for Yelena while also setting her up at the end for the post-Blip period.
For me, one of the delights of this was to get the Red Guardian character. I remember way back in 1983 picking up a copy of ROM: Spaceknight which involved the Soviet Super Soldiers that introduced me to Darkstar, Vanguard, and Ursa Major. That eventually got me to reading about more of them and Red Guardian. They’re not a deep or extensive team going by their wiki material, but as a kid of twelve in the height of the Cold War, these were interesting characters, especially tied to the Dire Wraiths. Which is why even a small mention of Ursa in the film as a quick character bit absolutely delighted me. David Harbour clearly had fun as Alexei here and he does all the right kind of scenery chewing that the character requires happen and it plays well against the Yelena and Natasha characters since both are so classically “stoic Russian” when placed against him. The banter between them mixed with the real issues and anger definitely worked for me.
If there’s an area where I’d have a complaint about the film it’s with the Taskmaster villain. It plainly is not the character from the comics, pure and simple. It’s just a name used for a new character here and it fits within the film perfectly fine and uses the ideas behind the comics character in a way that makes sense. I have no bones to pick with it, though it’s a criminal use of the actor behind it who has done some phenomenal work elsewhere. Taskmaster is another of those characters that I remember when I first saw that Avengers cover with its bright green background that had this gaudy orange and black and whatnot character on it, wielding weapons of familiar heroes. It does not translate well to live-action in that form and I didn’t mind what they did here overall. But it does have me holding out hope for something more authentic eventually that will give me what I had hoped for. I completely understand why they did what they did, and it works, but it just left me wanting more.
With only one viewing experience but a lot more to come as this gets inserted into my playlist with the other films from the MCU, Black Widow was a solid middle-of-the-road Marvel film for me. It delivered some good character material, it provided more background to help flesh out the character and the larger world, and it introduced new characters that can be really problematic going forward. I’d love to see more of all of those that survived, and if things had worked out better in the behind-the-scenes stuff, I could easily imagine another one-off Black Widow film that could have played with things more, even something like a post-Snap Disney+ series focused on Natasha’s efforts to keep things together. Regardless, the core work itself here is solid, entertaining, and had me enjoying it not just throughout but in thinking about it for a few days afterward. Once separated from all the garbage with COVID-19 delays, lawsuits, and theatrical issues, with just a focus on the film itself, it delivers the right experience and I’m glad I finally have it.