Black Widow is a reasonably well-made movie that juggles a handful of weighty issues in a way that doesn’t feel condescending or heavy-handed. It’s also a standalone feature for a character that should have had her own movie a long time ago .
Set mostly in 2016, prior to the events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and after Captain America: Civil War (2016), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is a fugitive fleeing the American government for breaking the Sokovia Accords. Our story begins when Romanoff receives a vial containing an antidote to a mind-controlling serum used by the Red Room; a top-secret Soviet training program led by the monstrous Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Dreykov’s program takes young children – including a young Romanoff – and transforms them into assassins after inflicting them to years of abuse. The remedy for Dreykov’s serum was sent to Romanoff by her former surrogate sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), in a bid to try and convince her to help bring down the Red Room and emancipating the regime’s victims.
At its core, Black Widow is a film about abuse inflicted upon women in a world that dehumanises and exploits them at every opportunity. While the feature depicts this in the form of a science fiction concept – i.e the mind-controling serum – it still very much taps into real world issues and the ways in which said issues impact and reshapes the lives of its victims. It handles this topic remarkably well, successfully incorporating these themes into the story it’s telling. It’s a film with a point, and it’s capable of communicating that point in a way that feels natural and engaging.
Romanoff and Belova were forced into slavery as young children; forced into a life of fighting and espionage before they’d even reached their teens. They even spend an early portion of their lives living in a faux family in the States, while their pretend father and Red Room employee, Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), spies on the American Government. Once Shostakov’s mission comes to a sudden halt, Romanoff and Belova are whisked back to Dreykov who subjects them of years of abuse and forced labour in a bid to mould them into killing machines.
Black Widow makes a cogent effort to depict the dissimilar ways in which Romanoff and Belova internalise the abuse inflicted upon them as children. Romanoff responds by fleeing the clutches of her oppressors and defecting to S.H.E.I.L.D. Working her way up the ranks and ultimately becoming an Avenger is just one chapter in a long game that Romanoff is playing. She’s calm, calculated and patient. Instead of charging in at the first opportunity, she has spent years earning the trust of the American Government in a bid to become part of a system she believes has enough resources and intel to eradicate her oppressor’s kingdom. Romanoff doesn’t simply use S.H.E.I.L.D to immediately seek revenge, it becomes her career, one she dedicates herself to beyond just eradicating Dreykov.
Even when her time at S.H.E.I.L.D comes crashing down following the Sokovia Accord debacle, Romanoff continues to play a long and silent game that doesn’t involve desperately cobbling together a plan B. She prioritises remaining in the shadows, hiding away from the US Government more than anything else. Even when Belova falls back into her life in a bid to recruit into taking on Dreykov, her hesitance shows us someone unwilling to charge right up to her oppressors’ front door. Even when she does finally agree to Belova’s request, she remains secretive and patient, formulating plans so confidential, even audiences aren’t fully clued up on the situation until we see her acting them out onscreen.
Romanoff is a character scarred and hardened by the brutality of her past. Her experiences have turned her into a withdrawn warrior who keeps to the shadows. She’s spent her life fleeing from a trauma she’s also been working to destroy. A survivor who has spent her adult life both trying to flee the pains of her past while also allowing it to shape her present-day decisions. For all her reserve and patience, Romanoff is a silent soul plotting revenge in the shadows.
Yelena Belova, on the other hand, is a much different kettle of fish. A wrecking ball, hell bent on firing herself headfirst at the architects of her pain-ridden past. Her explicit emotional drive is perhaps best showcased during the scenes in which she rekindles with her former pseudo parents, Alexei Shostakov and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). During the dinner sequence, Belova expresses both resentment and sorrow toward her pretend family, berating them for creating a false sense of security that they then snatched away from her once their duties were done. It’s a scene that best sums up her character, depicting a character driven by an intense anger and tendency to retaliate the moment she is provoked.
Belova’s pain is much more unrestrained than Romanoff’s. She’s certainly one who’s less keen on remaining in the shadows for decades, and more intent on getting her hands dirty, particularly if it means getting the job done more quickly. While Belova’s reactive and enraged nature is a characteristic that helps kickstart the main plot of this movie, it’s also a trait makes her rife for exploitation by those with ulterior motives. The film’s post-credit sequence certainly seems to hint at this. Angered by Romanoff’s inevitable death during the events of Avengers: End Game (2019), it looks as though her thirst for revenge will be used by interested parties to pit her against Clint Barton (Jeremy Jenner) in the upcoming Hawkeye TV series.
In addition to Black Widow’s depiction of traumatised protagonists, it also examines the ways in which the abused interact and understand those who were complicit in their abuse. One of the more interesting part of the movie is its decision to saddle Romanoff and Belova with their former surrogate parents, Alexei Shostakov and Melina Vostokoff, for a sizable portion of the runtime. The super-soldier and seasoned spy were both key players in Romanoff and Belova’s abusive upbringing, raising them in artificial environments before dumping them back on Dreykov’s doorstep . As the film progresses, an ambiguous and complex relationship between the four of them is fostered, one that feels tangled and strangely authentic. The film doesn’t attempt to redeem Shostakov or Vostokoff for their irredeemable actions, however the it does reveal two characters appearing to try and find some sort of absolution for their atrocities. There is perhaps a reading to this which suggests Black Widow excuses the actions of abusive parents, and while I can empathise with such an interpretation, I think the movie does a reasonably good job of portraying a group of people who’ve been caught up in an abusive regime. They aren’t a family dynamic in the same way that the Guardians of the Galaxy or the Avengers are. Instead they are four people at odds with one another, all of whom possess the same goals for slightly different reasons. Romanoff and Belova want revenge for their suffering, whereas Shostakov and Vostokoff want to eradicate the Red Room in a bid to find some sort of peace.
All of this creates a strange and interesting dynamic of characters piloting Black Widow’s narrative. There’s an authenticity to the lead cast that makes this film feel real. They are protagonists who share experiences and a purpose, yet are not friends in a traditional sense of the word. They are damaged and difficult souls who have been tied together by unspeakable circumstance.
They say all good antagonists often have something in common with the protagonists of whichever film they belong to. If this is the case, then it’s possible to argue that Black Widow’s Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) appears to tick all the right boxes. The daughter of General Dreykov, Taskmaster is a soldier formally known as Antonia Dreykov, who was badly mutilated by Romanoff when she was just a small child. Dreykov has used this incident to weaponize Antonia for his own gain. She becomes both a victim of Dreykov, and collateral damage caused at the hands of one of his other victims. A monster forged through the lies and manipulative methods of her father, Antonia has been warped into a killing machine.
Although the decision to reinvent Taskmaster as someone with a shared history to that of Romanoff and Belova is a great way to make this character more interesting than the character’s interpretations, it’s perhaps let down by the fact that she’s one of the few characters this film fails to focus on in any particular detail. Not only is this antagonist side-lined for much of Black Widow, her origins are furthermore simplified by having her actions be the direct result of that mind control potion we discussed up top.
In concept, Taskmaster is interesting because she’s a victim who has been radicalised by her abuser. Having it turn out that she’s just been controlled by a magic sci-fi chemical makes her less intriguing than initially presumed. Then again, this is a comic book movie. Using a science-fiction plot devices doesn’t necessarily nullify the real-world issues being addressed. After all, metaphors and substitutions are core components when it comes to raising real world issues through the lens of a fantastical narrative. Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that can’t help but feel the removal of the mind control serum in favour of an antagonist forged through lies and exploitation would have made for a far more fascinating and bona fide villain.
For the most part, there’s a lot of things to like in Black Widow. Then again, there’s also something a bit off about it. I think the reason for this largely lies with the time period in which it was released. Covid 19 did a real number on this one. Originally intended for release in May 2020, the shutting of cinemas across the globe forced Disney to place the feature on ice until things returned to normal. As hindsight taught us all, normality never came to pass, and cinema doors remained shut for far longer than predicted. Even when entertainment venues did return, the ever present threat of the virus meant many weren’t as keen as they once were about sitting in a crowded room filled with strangers hurling popcorn at their faces.
It took 14 months after its planned release to finally reach audiences. By which time, Marvel studios had already dished out a handful of Covid-friendly products in the form of Disney+ TV shows. Among these were the reality-bending WandaVision (2021), and the time travel/multiverse romp Loki (2021-present). By the time Black Widow reached our screens, fans we’re ready up for a far more ambitious strand of stories from the Marvel canon; ones which transgressed everything we’ve come to know thus far in the MCU. It was all about Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022). Black Widow didn’t offer the same level of scope or cosmic insanity that upcoming Marvel features and TV shows were promising.
I’d go one step further than this, suggesting that perhaps Black Widow didn’t belong in May 2020 either. After all, back in 2019, we’d been spoiled with a time travelling heist movie in the form of Avengers: End Game (2019), not to mention the narrative shattering chaos served up to us in Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019); two movies that upped the stakes in terms of what the franchise was capable of. Black Widow was more suited to the timeframe the film’s story is actually set in. Had this come out in the fall of 2016 – after Captain America: Civil War (2016) and prior to the release of Doctor Strange (2016) – it would have slotted in more fittingly with its surroundings. It’s a gritty, nuts and bolts kind of movie that feels more like a spiritual successor to Civil War than anything else. Tonally, that’s where it should be, not as an introduction to a phase intended to thrust the franchise sideways in time. Plonking this at the top of phase four makes the whole thing feel like Marvel are dishing out a flashback at a time when everyone is psyched for the franchise’s future.
Truth be told, Black Widow should have had a feature film long before Civil War was even a thing. Natasha Romanoff has been a key player in the MCU as far back as 2010. The fact that Marvel Studios dragged their feet on this one for so long is absurd. Ideally, Johansson should have had a standalone origin story either at the tail end of phase one, or at the top of phase two. The film we ended up getting this year should have been a 2016 sequel to that origin story intended to close off her arc and prepare audiences for Romanoff’s final outing in 2019’s End Game. We shouldn’t be getting this story after the character has already died within the franchise. Think how shocking her death would have been if we’d already seen two standalone features that fleshed out her character and wrapped up her character arc. Surely it would have been more effective in that order than treating her story as a posthumous afterthought. A 2021 release date makes for a film that feels as though it’s trying to make up for lost time. In a lot of ways, this does a disservice to both the character as well as the audience members who’ve invested in Romanoff’s story.
Black Widow is a satisfactory and noteworthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic line up. It’s exploration of trauma and the multitude of ways in which abuse impacts the lives of its victims makes for a movie packed with interesting character dynamics and arresting ideas. Where it’s mostly let down is in its timing. Covid 19, the surrounding multiverse fanfare and the decision to tell Romanoff’s story following the character’s death has turned what could have been a smash hit into a movie that feels out of place in the world it was released into.