Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
The official start of phase four is the long overdue solo film for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and many of us are still trapped at home. This year has been full of Marvel projects though and with WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier under our belts and Loki about to wrap up, it might be that we’ve all become old hats at watching Marvel premieres from home. While I very much enjoy finally getting a woman-led superhero film in the MCU there’s something very wrong, tonally, with Black Widow (2021).
Taking place immediately following the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), the film borrows the enormous letters that film used to denote locations. But Civil War was a tragedy and Black Widow informs us it wants to be a James Bond romp. The film whips so acutely from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other with about as much subtlety as a bullwhip. For once the accusation of Marvel’s issues with juggling tone rings true. Even the opening montage wields the needle drop of a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” like a cudgel to remind us it takes place during the 1990s. This, immediately following a deliberately dissonant “American Pie”. Also, and this one is just weird, nobody seems to have decided on what’s going on with the accents and languages. Characters who shouldn’t seem to speak English for our convenience, but inconsistently. For the most part the main characters stick to English, even when speaking to other Russians. Meanwhile the background actors continue to speak Russian. Thick accents come and go as they please. As nitpicks go, it’s a tiny one but for the most part Marvel has been sensitive to this sort of thing in the past.
The film opens with Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) being whisked away from their idyllic childhood in Ohio by their parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) who are revealed to be Russian sleeper agents under the orders of General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). After escaping to Cuba the parents are separated and the children are drugged and put through Dreykov’s secret assassin training program, the Red Room. It’s a complicated backstory; the children were orphans adopted for the cover, Melina was a scientist specialising in mind control therapies and Alexei a socialist Captain America style super soldier nicknamed Red Guardian. None of them are related by blood.
Decades later, Black Widow is on the run from General Ross following the events of Civil War when she is contacted by her sister who has just accidentally been freed from Dreykov’s drug-induced mind control by a powerful antidote in the form of a red mist. The sisters fend off assaults from Dreykov’s even special-er assassin Taskmaster and an army of “Widows” to free their “Father” from a Siberian prison, reconnect with their “Mother” at her mind-control pig-farm, locate the Red Room and bring an end to Dreykov’s reign of terror. Dreykov, a man whose (apparently failed), assassination was evidently what “Budapest” (Black Widow’s quip about her background with Hawkeye in Avengers ) was about.
This film is primarily set between other films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe specifically between the events of Civil War and Infinity War (2018) starring a character who has, in fact, died and doesn’t seem to accomplish anything of consequence, including introducing villains who Natasha thought were dead in order to kill them again (for good this time, one assumes). It gives very much the air of one of these Marvel Studios TV shows which I continue to maintain are of dubious continuity. However the end credits stinger of Black Widow does feature an appearance by Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Madame Hydra. A character which was introduced in Captain America and the Winter Soldier providing comfort to USAgent (Wyatt Russell) and appears here giving Yelena her next “target”, a man named Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner). This appears to be simple fodder for the upcoming Hawkeye TV miniseries and thus, sadly, these mini events continue to evade genuine relevance to the canon of the MCU.
But folks at Porkchop have evolved beyond the need for canon. Plots aren’t puzzles for us to solve or outwit, they’re vehicles for storytelling and storytelling is about emotion, not logic. What is this movie about? Well, it’s pretty upfront about being about Family. It presents us with three families: The Avengers, who are described as being “divorced”. The nostalgic lie and messy reality of Natasha’s fake three years of American childhood. And, lastly, the abusive, manipulative, psychotic Dreykov as father-figure to his arsenal of female assassins. The Avengers are all off-screen but the lesson there appears to be that families are in fact worth fighting for. Natasha initially is on the run from General Ross (William Hurt) while several of the Avengers rot in prison. Resigning herself to a life of isolation once again. Her fake family, all consummate liars, reveal to her that deep down they truly do care for each other. Even her biological mother, who Natasha grew up believing abandoned her, is revealed to have died trying to uncover what happened to her daughter. This all seems to heal something in Natasha who ends the film running off to rescue her other family.. It’s an interesting lesson, though one that goes by quickly despite being laid on rather thickly. Perhaps if the film had spent slightly less time justifying itself to a roomful of people who paid to be there it would have had more time to spend on pathos.
Even though they’re getting pretty great at making CGI doubles I just want to take the time to thank the filmmakers on behalf of all the female stunt actors on set for giving everyone full suits and outfits in which to hide pads and cushions for all the flips and falls. I don’t even think they were wearing “battle wedges” in this one.