Director: Cate Shortland, Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanov/Black Widow), Florence Pugh (Yelena Belova), Rachel Weisz (Melina Vostokoff), David Harbour (Alexi Shostakoff/Rd Guardian), Dreykov (Ray Winstone).
The much-delayed Black Widow is well worth the wait. And we should all be thankful that it was saved for viewing in move theaters instead of debuting on Disney+, because the Big Screen is where it deserves to be seen. It IS an MCU movie after all, and I am here to tell you, it is an event, like every other MCU film has been.
Call me old school, but my measuring stick for an action movie has always been the James Bond franchise. For decades, that was where the best, most epically mind-blowing movie stunts could be found. Granted, other franchises have come along that probably have surpassed it (I’m looking at you, Jason Bourne), but we’re talking long-term rep here. Black Widow measures up just fine. There are action sequences as imaginative and well-constructed—if not better, thanks to CGI assist—than anything experienced by 007.
The James Bond comparisons don’t end at epic action sequences. Black Widow follows the formula of the famed franchise in many ways. A master villain with a plan for world domination, check. A seemingly invincible henchman with special abilities, check. An impressively constructed evil lair that must be infiltrated and destroyed, check. Nail-biting, razor thin escapes, check. Battle scenes with lots of specially-trained enemy soldiers and lots of big explosions, check. Cool tech weapons and gadgets, check.
As all MCU fans know, Natasha Romanov met her dramatic end in the most recent Avengers movie, Endgame. So any new Black Widow movie must happen in the past; events here take place in 2016, after Captain America: Civil War and before Avengers: Infinity War.
The plot borrows from Marvel Comics storylines and characters, with major twists of course. The 1999 3-issue miniseries Marvel Knights: Black Widow, fully introduced Yelena Belova, another Red Room trainee like Natasha, who was sent to “relieve” her of her duties and become the new Black Widow. In the movie, Yelena is the “sister” of Natasha, in a 1990s flashback subplot pulled right from The Americans. Russian operatives Alexi Shostakov and Melina Vostokoff are sent with two children to America to become husband and wife sleeper agents, and gather intel. The two girls form a deep bond and the younger Yelena believes their family was real.
A family reunion is required after Natasha discovers the dastardly plan of a man named Dreykov. Dreykov (a villain with no comic book background) is using the Red Room to create an army of Black Widows, to be used as agents around the world, under his direct control. Natasha needs the knowledge of her estranged foster parents to find Dreykov and the Red Room. After an extended travel section that focuses on the two “sisters’ getting reacquainted, and an epic prison break sequence that would make Bond jealous, we get that family reunion…and what an awkward one it is. In turn comedic, touching, and heartbreaking, the scene around the dinner table is instantly classic.
The casting and acting are excellent. We all know what an amazing actor Johansson is, but Florence Pugh (Yelena) steals every scene she appears in. She is nasty, sly, sarcastic, and even mocks Natasha in a hilarious gag that runs throughout the film.
David Harbour (Alexi Shostakov) brilliantly plays Russia’s supersoldier Red Guardian mostly for comic relief, and Rachel Weisz plays Melina very coolly, echoing her comic character, Iron Maiden. While her Iron Maiden persona doesn’t appear in Black Widow, there is more to Melina than the hermit we see holed up in the Russian outlands.
Ray Winstone is fine but kind of restrained as Dreykov; Brian Cox would’ve been a sleazier, slimier, nutjob villain we would have disliked more.
A film’s director determines more than acting direction: they shape and have final say on every aspect of a movie from cinematography to costuming. That said, I found Cate Shortland’s film direction, leadership, and taste to be flawless, especially with costuming. Designing comic book movie costumes can be a fine line to tread: being faithful to the source material, while making it look believable and not laughable-looking in live action.
Red Guardian’s uniform borrows a design technique from Captain America’s best on-screen versions, using parachute straps as color bars crisscrossing his torso. It’s a definite improvement on the comic Red Guardian’s plainfully simple original uniform, or his fussy recent incarnation. Cool touches included star imagery and details found on Soviet medals and propaganda pins.
Even the tricky task of translating Taskmaster’s skull and impractically colored comic book armored uniform is done well. We still know who this is on sight, even if we hadn’t seen the preview character posters.
My other measuring stick for a great movie: After the lights come up, was the movie SO AWESOME that I immediately want to see it again? Once again, the answer is ABSOLUTELY.
The end credit scene features a surprising meeting and expands on events from Falcon and Winter Soldier…don’t miss it.
Marvel Knights: Black Widow (1999)
Marvel Fanfare #11-12 (1983) First appearances of Melina Vostokoff/Iron Maiden
Avengers Vol 1 #196 First appearance Taskmaster
Avengers Vol 1 #43 First appearance Red Guardian