BLACK WIDOW (directed by Cate Shortland, 133 minutes, 2021, USA)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC While all her male Avengers counterparts launched with their mandatory solo vehicles, the Black Widow standalone film has quietly languished in development hell ever since it was teased circa 2010’s Iron Man 2. I honestly thought the film had lost any relevance it once had, given that’s she perished in Endgame, and we are now neck deep in the new batch of heroes who have stepped in to fill the vacancy left by their battle with Thanos. But after a decade in development limbo and a lost year of delays thanks to COVID, we finally have the Black Widow film and that long gestation process has birthed a film that I don’t think could’ve have been made or released by Marvel before now, largely due to its dark themes and unflinching take on the character.
Black Widow is a prequel of sorts, and is basically a bottle episode of the MCU. The film begins in Ohio, in 1995, when Natasha’s “father” Alexei (David Harbour) comes home after work and announces to his “wife” and two young “daughters” that their deep cover mission in the American suburbs is over and they must escape back to Russia. We soon discover the girls were nothing more than props in this ruse as the credits roll to an orchestral version of Smells Like Teen Spirit and they are cast aside. The next time we see the young “sisters” they are pulled from a shipping container dirty, crying and then separated. We then jump to right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, where Black Widow receives a box from Yelena (Florence Pugh) that leads her to Budapest, to her long lost “sister,” who’s on the run from Widow’s previous masters.
Yelena alerts Natasha that the man who once ran the Red Room, the shadow Soviet organization that trafficked in and trained young girls in the Black Widow assassin program, is still very much alive and active. Natasha was tasked with killing Dreykov (Ray Winstone) to prove her loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. and it’s here we discover that because Natasha had broken through the psychological conditioning of the Red Room. To keep this from happening again Widows were conditioned through a powerful drug regimen as well. Yelena sent for Natasha when she was freed by an older rogue Widow, who she was tasked in killing. It’s during this mission that Yelena is freed, but it’s immediately after killing her target that she fully comprehends the gravity of what she has just done, i.e. killed her savior. The sisters then set off to find their lost “dad” and go on a family trip into the underbelly of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to take down the Red Room once and for all.
While Marvel is known for action that relies heavily on comedic beats to offset the tension, we quickly discover one thing is off limits in this film and it really locks the tone for the piece. I mean aside from that opening, where we essentially witnessed human trafficking of young girls. When the two women rescue Alexei from prison, who is the comedic relief here, he immediately jokes that the reason Yelena is giving her “dear old dad” a hard time is simply because it’s her time of the month. Yelena then launches into why she can’t have a period, graphically describing the Black Widow “graduation ceremony,” i.e. the forced hysterectomy she endured as part of her conditioning. Like I said, “dark themes” and “unflinching takes.”
I’ve been a huge fan of Florence Pugh since her turn in Midsommar, and here she’s a force of nature on screen. Not only does she have the requisite action chops, she kills when she fires off a volley of Marvel’s trademark meta-comedic one-liners, just like the boys. David Harbour here is pretty damn great as well as the Russian super soldier, the buffoonish Red Guardian. I just love how Harbour adds depth and sadness to what was meant to be a knock off Captain America, who has no doubt seen better days. While Johansson long ago established her ass-kicking action bonafides, she finally gets some real time to inhabit the character’s skin and explore Natasha within some quieter moments without having to struggle with the fragility of the other male egos on screen. We are treated to some rather genuine moments of introspection on screen as we see her make peace with her past which gave her the strength to sacrifice herself in Endgame.
I personally think if this came out any sooner, it might have been diluted in some way or Black Widow would have had to have Captain America show up for a two-hander in the third act. Instead we get what is arguably the darkest character film in the MCU and a film I know some will sadly write off simply due to the fact that there’s a woman superhero in the forefront of the poster. But this story really isn’t for them. The film also has a much more complex relationship with death and consequence given our protagonist and where she ends up in Endgame. This plays off her recurring themes of unfinished business about having a lot of “Red in her ledger.” Black Widow was worth the wait and actually does this character and her shadowy world justice, while taking care to finally give her the narrative arc she desperately deserved. Also while this is a very self-contained plot, stick around for those credits, because there are some repercussions for an upcoming Disney plus show. Hint: we just might have our new Black Widow in Pugh.