Minutes into Black Widow, the MCU’s first major theatrical release since 2019’s prophetic Endgame, we’re greeted with one of the best MCU opening sequences to date. A haunting acoustic cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit from cinematic group Think Up Anger is a set to remember. It says so much in such little time as a montage of girls training for a lifetime of deadly service mixes with circled newspaper clippings and agitprop, heralding evil plans. This is no easy upbringing for the likes of the Avengers crowd: this is pain, anger, and a lost childhood all rolled into a gritty package, an MCU story of a different calibre.
Director Cate Shortland (Lore, Somersault) brings a new perspective to Black Widow -the character and film- and attempts to inject the backstory with a little more warmth than has previously been attributed to Natasha Romanoff throughout the MCU. Her casting can’t be faulted, a worthy lineup featuring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Rachel Weisz. But whether or not this disjointed family unit pulls together is a question exclusively for cinemagoers, many of whom will vote with their feet. After all, the power to resurrect the MCU from streaming purgatory rests solely on them.
Director: Cate Shortland
Release date: July 9, 2021 (Theatrical and Disney+)
The expectations for this film have been sky-high. Since this film was first in its inception, the landscape of the MCU and film consumption has altered dramatically. The Disney brand, which has recently fed its viewers on a steady diet of serialised adventures throughout Phase 4, has risked a lot on a 123-minute, dual theatrical and streaming release ($29.99 for premier access on Disney+). If anything, you’d expect cinema and theatres to be rolling in it, but it seems from my not-completely-sold-out screening that punters are still reluctant to return to the big screen. Instead, it rides on the strength of the plot to recoup some of the losses from the past 18 months.
It’s the mark of a female director to lead with a strong, character-driven plot that doesn’t completely mirror Captain Marvel. Facile comparisons are likely (there’s a throwaway line about ‘the Avenger from space not needing an ibuprofen after a fight’), but really it’s a whole different ball-game. We begin the film in Ohio, 1995. Two sisters, Natasha (Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) are enjoying their lives and are supported by their parents Melina (Weisz) and Alexei (Harbour: his namesake, a nice Stranger Things tie-in.) Only, their cheerful dynamic is suddenly thrown into chaos when they have to flee inexplicably. Alexei and Melina were ready for this, had been preparing for years, but for the girls, their entire way of life is shattered in a matter of hours.
We have our opening sequence, then jump right forward 21 years to 2016, directly following the events of Civil War. Long estranged from all family, Natasha is a fully-fledged member of the Avengers, used to slipping between alter-egos, and on the run. This elite superhero banding is experiencing a bit of a messy divorce, a fact remarked by her sister (Pugh) when they reuinte. Now a notorious assassin, her likeness to Killing Eve’s stylish and deadly Villanelle cannot go unnoticed. Once you can get past the contrived accent (it’s something I never quite reconciled with Wanda), you can appreciate her important role in helping uncover the whereabouts of their family: Alexei, languishing in prison, and Melina, innocuously raising pigs on her farm. More importantly, she has insights into the mastermind behind the indoctrination of young girls the world over (a web of Black Widows, living among the public as spies.) Together, the family must work to find an antidote to a mind-altering controlling force that is being used to coerce trainees into senseless acts of violence.
While I felt that Black Widow had legs in terms of a character-driven narrative, its premise around the deadly training zone ‘The Red Room’ and its mastermind (an uninspiring Ray Winstone) needed work. Simply put, it’s an assassin school exclusively for girls: think Red Sparrow but infinitely more brutal. It’s all too easy in scenarios like this to make comparisons to an Aryan training camp, but at times the acts of violence women committed against each other felt entirely gratuitous. They’re mutilated to the point at which they can never have children, in allusions to a disturbing FGM act. We’re promised, of course, an awakening of conscience, but for a film that purports to be female-led and self-aware, there are times when it misses the mark. Sometimes it felt like the filmmakers were using women in the films as playthings – just as much as the characters criticised such flippant use of women as assassins within the narrative.
That’s not to say it completely falls short of an entertaining blockbuster, though. The characters really make this film stand out. There are plenty of moments of fun, with Harbour as the Red Guardian, and snarky one-liners causing a smirk or two. We may not learn a whole lot more about Natasha that we didn’t already find out during Endgame (stick around for the end credit sequence if you want to hear more), but isn’t the idea to humanise her and show she has a bit of a life outside the insular Avengers team? There’s plenty of soul-searching in their own small family and it feels more reflective than other MCU characters’ origin films. You could level criticism at the fact that their family unit came back together unexpectedly easily, or at the cliched sequence leading into the climax of the film. But then, we’re all just here for fun – aren’t we?
If I’m taking away any thoughts from Black Widow, it’s that the film was a strong re-entry back into the realm of theatrical releases for Disney and the MCU. For a release that almost didn’t see the light of day, it’s a relief it’s finally out in the world. I’m appreciative of a female-directed movie and, while I don’t have space here to delve into an entire comparison to Captain Marvel (that’s for another day), I can say I enjoyed Black Widow just as much and without reservation. It’s an entertaining film that could perhaps do with a little polishing around the edges but otherwise stands as a solid installment in Phase 4.