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Josh Reviews Black Widow

The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have finally returned, after their longest hiatus since the earliest days of the MCU, with Black Widow!  I have not yet ventured back into a movie theater, but I was delighted to be able to watch Black Widow on Disney+.  Marvel’s Phase 4 was supposed to launch with this film back in May 2020, but it was of course delayed by the pandemic.  This Black Widow solo film shines a long-awaited spotlight on Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, and it’s another strong outing from the fine folks at Marvel.  (Beware minor spoilers in this review — to go into the film completely unspoiled, you should watch the film first and then read this review!)

The film is set after the dissolution of the Avengers at the end of Captain America: Civil War, and before the events of Avengers: Infinity War.  I was wondering if the film would open with a framing sequence set after the events of Infinity War/Endgame (the “present” of the MCU, though I believe that Endgame takes place in 2023), but I was impressed that the filmmakers evidently thought that wasn’t necessary and that the audience would be able to quickly figure out this film’s place in the MCU timeline.

We’ve gotten hints in previous films, especially in Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, about Natasha’s past as a Russian assassin who has a lot of “red on her ledger”.  It’s exciting to finally get to explore her backstory in more detail here.  I wasn’t expecting the film to open with a set-up reminiscent of the wonderful TV show The Americans, in which we see Natasha and her sister Yelena as young kids living in Ohio with “parents” who are actually undercover Russian agents.  I loved that whole opening sequence and the great car/plane chase sequence it builds to.  That was a great way to open the film!

I was a little dubious of Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Natasha Romanoff back when she first appeared way back in Iron Man 2.  Ms. Johansson is a great actress, but she seemed so American to me that she felt miscast, and that film didn’t make the best use of her.  But I loved her immediately in The Avengers, right from that wonderful introductory scene when Coulson interrupts her on the phone when she’s undercover… and then the terrific next scene when she makes contact with Bruce Banner.  Suddenly the character seemed to come into focus, and I’ve enjoyed following her story through the films, building to her very moving sacrifice in Avengers: Infinity War.  I was sorry to see her go!  Thankfully, Marvel decided to give a gift to the character’s fans — and Ms. Johansson herself! — by following up Natasha’s death with her own long-awaited solo film.  I love the wacky notion of giving Natasha a solo film after she’s already died!  In case anyone wasn’t sure, both the character and Ms. Johansson easily carry this film.  It makes it doubly sad, when we arrive at the end, to remember that the character is dead!  (I was hoping the end of this film might undo that death, but they didn’t go there, which I respect.  However, if Marvel wanted, there is plenty of room for sequel films to tell more of Natasha’s story both before Infinity War and during the five year jump in Endgame…)

Once again the wizards at Marvel have excelled at their casting choices.  Director Cate Shortland and her team have surrounded Ms. Johansson with a wonderful array of supporting characters. Let’s start with Florence Pugh, who is cast as Natasha’s “sister” Yelena.  I’ve been a fan of Ms. Pugh’s since I first saw her standout work in Outlaw King.  Her career has been on quite a rise since then, and it’s well-deserved.  She is fantastic here as Yelena, a peer of Natasha’s who never left the mysterious Black Widow program.  Ms. Pugh is perfect at the MCU balance in which she effortlessly plays the drama of the scenes, but she also has a twinkle in her eye and is able to land some lovely comedic moments.  I loved her chemistry with Ms. Johansson.  The film really sparkles when the two of them are on screen together.

Can we all agree that David Harbour is a national treasure?  Thank goodness for Stranger Things, whose success has catapulted Mr. Harbour to prominence.  He’s magnificent here as Alexei Shostakov, Natasha’s sort-of father.  Alexei used to be the Red Guardian, the Russian counterpart to Captain America.  But when we see him in this film, he’s been abandoned by the Russian government and locked away in prison to rot.  Mr. Harbour is absolutely hilarious in the film, stealing pretty much every scene he’s in.  I want a Red Guardian solo film now!!!  (Watching how great Mr. Harbour is in this film makes the failure of his Hellboy reboot all the more disappointing.  Mr. Harbour should have been perfect as Hellboy, but that film was sadly a big swing and a miss by all involved.)

Also great in this film is Rachel Weisz as Natasha’s sort-of mother, Melina Vostokoff.  Ms. Weisz perfectly nails the balance between being motherly and kind and absolutely tough-as-nails fearless.  She’s the perfect G1 Black Widow character; it’s very cool to see the “family tree” from where Natasha’s Black Widow sprung.  And when Ms. Weisz dons a Black Widow suit of her own in the finale?  Fantastic!

The film’s success really rests, in my opinion, on the strength of this foursome.  I loved the dynamic the film created between these characters.  I would gladly watch many more films following their further adventures.

I was suprised by the violence in this film.  This feels like a more dangerous MCU film than we’ve gotten for a while.  There is a lot of great action in the film.  There are some big sequences — my favorite being the rescue of Alexei from prison in the middle of the movie — but what really caught my attention was all of the exciting hand-to-hand combat scenes.  There  are a lot of great, grounded fight sequences, including a surprising (to me) amount of knife/blade fights.  I loved this stuff; it helped give Black Widow it’s own identity as a film.  If we were to reduce Natasha Romanoff down to her archetypes, one could describe her as a female James Bond character.  And so it makes perfect sense that this Black Widow film is a globe-trotting espionage adventure film, with some big action sequences but also a lot of more gritty, personal, rough and tumble fights.  (Just like a Bond film should be!)

Other thoughts:

* Taskmaster is a fun B-level villain in the comics, and it was fun to see that character brought to life on screen.  I loved the character’s design, and they did a great job visually showing how he is able to mimic other characters’ fighting styles.  I liked his Cylon red-eye scanning device.  And I liked the twists they gave to this character in the third act.

* The film seemed to enjoy taking the piss out of Scarlett Johansson’s depiction of Black Widow, making jokes about her posing and her accent (specifically her pronunciation of Budapest in The Avengers).  I laughed at those jokes, though I wonder if this film is being harder on this female character than they generally are on the males… and also I loved it when they gave Natasha a great Iron Man-like hero’s action landing during the prison break scene.

* I loved seeing William Hurt in the film.  I’m delighted that recent MCU films have been using this character (who was introduced in The Incredible Hulk, a film which has mostly been ignored by the MCU).  I only wish Mr. Hurt had a larger role!  He mostly drops out of the film after the early scenes.

* I love Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, The Departed), but I wish his villainous Dreykov, the head of the “Red Room”, was a more memorable villain.  We didn’t get to see nearly enough of Dreykov in the film for this character to have sufficient depth or interest, in my opinion.  He winds up just being a generic horrible person.

* On the other hand, O-T Fagbenle’s charisma and good humor help him to make the most of his brief appearances as Natasha’s friend Rick Mason, who helps connect her with the equipment and supplies she needs.  I hope we see more of this character in future MCU films.

* I really liked Olga Kurlyenko in Quantum of Solace and I was excited when I read she was in this film.  (I loved the idea of a former Bond girl in this Bond-like superhero film.)  I can’t discuss her character without major spoilers.  I’ll say that I wish Ms. Kurlyenko was in more of the film.  But she does a solid job with her short but very important scenes.

* One of these days I’ll be able to write that a MCU film has a truly great score with memorable themes for its characters.  One of these days…

* Alexei seems to have super-powers… what is the origin of those powers?  Was he given some version of the super soldier serum?  Also, he talks about Captain America as if the two were long-time adversaries… but surely Alexei wasn’t around during WWII, and Cap was frozen between WWII and the first Avengers film, at which point Alexei had long-since been in prison.  So when could the two have been adversaries?  (In the comics, there were other people who stepped into the Captain America role in the decades after Steve Rogers’ disappearance… I wonder if the MCU is going to go there?)

* I was very pleased to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus appear in the post-credits scene.  I guess we were supposed to have seen this BEFORE her appearance in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier but it works perfectly well in this order as well.  I guess she is assembling her own team of anti-Avengers?  (She now has a version of Captain America in the U.S. Agent and a version of Black Widow with Yelena…)  I am very interested to see where all this is going…  (The idea of setting up Yelena to hunt down Hawkeye seems a little contrived, but I’ll give the MCU folks the benefit of the doubt for now.  Will Yelena be appearing in the upcoming Hawkeye Disney+ show…??)

I quite enjoyed Black Widow!!  It was about time for this character to get a spotlight film.  After a long COVID-caused hiatus, we have a lot of MCU films coming in the coming months!!  I can’t wait for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in September!!

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