Warning: contains spoilers.
This movie has been a long time coming. So long in fact that the proposed first female-led superhero movie of the modern era has been easily overtaken by DCU’s Wonder Woman (et seq) and MCU’s own Captain Marvel while it has been waiting in the wings. As such, it arrives with a degree of fan expectation that it was always going to struggle to meet. This is not Scarlett Johansson’s fault, nor is it the fault of director Cate Shortland; this movie should just have been pushed out a lot earlier in the canon. Marvel Studios don’t often miss the boat, but on this occasion they did; they were overly cautious about releasing a movie with a female protagonist in the tweenies and it eventually took the Distinguished Competition having an unexpectedly big hit with Wonder Woman to convince them that it was financially viable. I’m sad to say it, but it now appears a little late to the party… and having its release stalled by COVID hasn’t helped at all.
Taking place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow finds the title character on the run from the authorities when she encounters her estranged ‘sister’ Yelena (Florence Pugh). Not her actual sister, of course; we’re told in the opening sequence that as children, Natasha and Yelena were part of a ‘family’ of sleeper agents in the United States alongside ‘father’ Alexei Red Guardian Shostakov (David Harbour) and ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). When their cover is blown, they flee to friendly territory and the two kids are shipped off to the Red Room to be indoctrinated as trained assassins by moustache-twirling bad-bad guy Dreykov (Ray Winstone). These initial events take place in 1995, but since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, one can only assume time runs a little differently in the Marvel universe.
Yelana is being pursued because she has discovered an antitoxin that can free the victims of the Red Room from their conditioning which still allows Dreykov to use them as international assassins-for-hire. She reluctantly brings together the ‘family’ to help her in her task, which includes a big action sequence to bust Red Guardian from a high security prison. Red Guardian is supposed to have been the USSR’s answer to Captain America, but he’s presented as ineffectual, blustery and played basically for comedy. In some fight scenes, the super-powered Red Guardian fares much worse than his two non-super-powered ‘daughters’; I know it’s a story about female empowerment and all that, but that makes as little sense as the fact that Natasha can survive a fall from a building rooftop without so much as a broken bone.
That’s one of the problems with Black Widow, she’s presented as if she has super powers, but she doesn’t. Sure, she’s been trained to physical perfection as a martial artist and assassin, but that does not make you invulnerable to injury. It doesn’t matter how you land when you fall off a rooftop, or how many air vents you hit on the way down – that fall is gonna damage a person. This sort of thing would be okay if the story established a tone of heightened reality, but it begins very much as a real-world Cold War thriller. This is my problem with the film; it’s tonally all over the place, never quite sure if it wants to be taken seriously as an espionage thriller or frivolously as a superhero flick – it ends up being a bit of both… and neither. Ray Winstone and David Harbour are both giving very broad performances, but the star is understandably taking it very seriously. Only Florence Pugh is comfortably treading the line between drama and humour.
Apart from Dreykov, the other named villain is Taskmaster, played by Olga Kuylenko. In the comics, Taskmaster is a man who has appeared in various Marvel titles, but mainly The Mighty Avengers; however, here Taskmaster is Dreykov’s daughter Antonia, who was seriously injured by Natasha and had to be technologically altered to survive. For the most part of the movie, you don’t know that Taskmaster is a woman and (unlike most movies in which a character’s gender is hidden) this is actually quite effective, due in part to the character’s armoured appearance. Olga Kurylenko plays the part really well, though it’s somewhat ironic that the only actual East European in the main cast hardly gets any lines at all.
I’ve been quite critical of various aspects of this film, but it is an enjoyable couple of hours. It has its problems and it’s not in the upper ranks of MCU movies, but after such an extended period of drought, it’s nice to see any Marvel superhero movie on the screen. With such an extended period of development, I feel that it could probably have been better and it could certainly have benefitted from more focus and a greater sense of where it fitted into the scheme of things. If this had been made somewhere in the middle of the Avengers franchise – which it should have been – then it might not have felt like such an outsider, but as the MCU is building towards a new phase of movies, it feels like something that is slightly out of time. Marvel Studios’ reluctance to take a gamble with a female-led movie had left them with a product that feels like it has slightly missed its window of opportunity and, although enjoyable, is less significant than it should have been.
Having said all that, Black Widow has performed quite well at the box office. I think a lot of people are desperate to get out of the house and enjoy something spectacular on the big screen and this movie has swooped in and grabbed a big percentage of that market. It’s also available as a premium addition to the Disney+ streaming service, though I have my doubts about that. £19.00 in addition to your regular Disney+ subscription feels like a lot of money and pre-supposed that you have a certain number of people watching; if you are a family of four, then your cinema entry would cost well over £19.00, but if you’re just one person it’s a very expensive ticket. The system’s value-for-money depends very much on your circumstances. But hey, I’d still recommend Black Widow right down the line, because the oversized drama of the Marvel world is just what our mundane world needs right now.