‘Black Widow’ delivers on all that Marvel fans and moviegoers are after
Fanboys and fangirls and fan-critics are all bemoaning the fact that Black Widow is coming out now instead of sometime, any time, in the last decade. After all, Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow character, Natasha Romanoff, was introduced in Iron Man 2 way back in 2010, only the third film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fans have been clamoring for a stand-alone Black Widow movie ever since, and now, in the 24th (!) film in the MCU, Natasha finally gets her spotlight. Unfortunately, in the MCU, she’s already dead! She heroically sacrificed herself and died in Avengers: Endgame (2019).
This is all very irritating for hard-core MCU fans but most moviegoers, I suspect, probably don’t exactly remember or even care which Avengers died and which survived anyway. What they’re really after are Marvel’s patented thrills and chills, the spectacular CGI action set-pieces, the hyper-speed hand-to-hand combat, the constant quips amidst the heroics, and Scarlett Johannson in a dramatic black (or white) leather outfit. Black Widow delivers on all that.
And I have a hunch even the indefensible delay in getting Natasha’s story to the big screen just might have worked out for the best. After all, 2021 appears much more amenable to feminist sensibilities than, say, 2011. And Johannson’s worked hard over her eight Marvel films to make her character more than a sexpot, and that work culminates in Black Widow.
The film begins in 1995 when Natasha is a young teenager living in an idyllic small town in Ohio. She’s part of a fake American family — mom, dad, two daughters — who’re really Russian plants, and entirely unrelated to each other. Once the Americans figure out what’s really going on, the family has to make a harrowing escape to Russia. Upon their arrival, the four are immediately separated and the girls, the faux siblings, are sent off to a brutal camp called the Red Room where they are turned into merciless super-assassins, aka Black Widows.
The movie then jumps ahead 21 years. Natasha, who in the meantime has switched sides and joined the Avengers, is in hiding. For MCU fans, this timeframe is immediately following Captain America: Civil War when the Avengers are at their lowest point. They’re fighting among themselves and half of them are locked up by their own American government.
Natasha is lured out of hiding by an unexpected attack engineered by the evil Soviet General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who had set up the assassin school she’d been trained at, and who she thought she had killed in a previous MCU movie. She eventually re-discovers her long-lost “sister” and fellow Black Widow Yelena (Florence Pugh), and the two of them team up to go after Dreykov. That takes up the rest of this 2-hour-and-13-minute movie. It’s sisterhood empowerment come to life.
In the process, what’s uncovered is a massive worldwide network of Black Widows who’ve been groomed to do the bidding of their master Dreykov. Taken from their families at a young age, these girls are brutalized (forced hysterectomies, brains chemically altered, etc.) until they become perfectly skilled killing machines. I can’t have been the only one that saw these as comic book parallels of real-life tragedies like sex-trafficking. And as for Dreykov, at least as played by Ray Winstone, he’s not only a megalomaniac, he is also the sleaziest of manipulators. It had to be intentional that he comes off as a kind of supervillain version of Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer.
All this “messaging” does not get in the way of the rollicking good time fans expect from the Marvel Universe, but it’s no accident this film was made in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Despite the frustrating delay, this late release might be exactly what Black Widow and Scarlett Johannson needed. As they say, “Times Up.”
Listen to the Tom and Curley Show weekday afternoons from 3 – 7 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.