“Black Widow” led the way for Marvel’s return to theatrical releases last year, which has had mixed-to-great results, with “Black Widow” only making money when you factor in what the studio took in through Disney Plus Premier Access fees, “Eternals” barely breaking even, “Shang-Chi” doing fine, and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” being legitimate hits.
It is, however, a film that I passed on when it came out. COVID cases were on the rise, I had just been vaccinated, and I just didn’t feel the need to risk it for “Black Widow,” which didn’t look amazing based on its trailers and early reviews. I also think it suffered from being delayed too long, originally slated for a 2020 release. This is a film that I think would only sell a lot of tickets if it were allowed to ride the goodwill and hype of other recent Marvel projects, much like “Captain Marvel” did by being sandwiched in between “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.” In retrospect, “Black Widow” was a poor choice to lead off not only Marvel’s Phase 4 theatrical films, but serve as its first film to premiere in theaters since the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“Black WIdow” takes place between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) for being in violation of the Sokovia Accords. We see in a 1995 flashback that when she was a little girl, she had a fake family of Russian spies living in America, which included her sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) — who was also a super soldier known as the Red Guardian, which was Russia’s version of Captain America — and mother Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), who is a scientist and older generation Black Widow.
They become central to the film’s plot in which Romanoff sets out to destroy a man named Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who is revealed to still be running the Black Widow program and the Red Room in which they were created. Basically, the Black Widow program was run originally by the Soviets, but it seems at the time of the film, Dreykov had full control of it, and it involved taking promising young women from their families and have them undergo extensive physical training and psychological manipulation, but modern Widows are exposed to a chemical agent that takes away free will. They also have their uteruses cut out to ensure loyalty to the program.
Romanoff thought she killed Dreykov and his daughter, Antonia (Olga Kurylenko), who was collateral years ago. But no one ever dies in an explosion off-screen in these films, so both survived, with Antonia serving as Taskmaster, an agent who can mimic the fighting style of anyone, including the original slate of Avengers.
In order to take Dreykov out once and for all, Romanoff assembles her surrogate family, who — despite the fact that they were only together for three years under the guise of a covert mission in the United States — all treat each other like real family, and serve as the closest thing to a family any of them have. Romanoff, Belova and Vostokoff were all Black Widows, and as such, have similar backgrounds. Shostakov was betrayed by his government, and has been locked up for most of the time he’s been away from Romanoff and company.
That family dynamic works, and it’s the best part of this film. Pugh shines — even though this film underperformed, this served as a breakout role for her. Harbour and Weisz also serve as great supporting characters, with Red Guardian being clueless but hilarious and Weisz being wise but also naturally at ease with her stand-in daughters.
We don’t see enough of Dreykov to really care about him — he’s just a bitter old man holding onto power, who has done heinous things. The atrocities of the Red Room are alluded to but are never shown — I feel like the scene we got of it in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” did a better job at portraying why the program is so evil. Taskmaster works well as an action foil to Romanoff, but as nothing else; she is mind-controlled throughout the film, there is little to nothing to her as a character.
But what really holds this film back is its third act, in which the flying Red Room base is destroyed, and the film takes us through a cartoon fight scene through the air. I bet the filmmakers thought this would be thrilling, but it’s a completely impractical CGI mess of varying quality that is more likely to make you laugh. It serves as something the film could’ve done without, both to cut back on its exorbitant $200 million budget and to keep the film level and grounded.
As a whole, “Black Widow” serves as an underrated film many missed not only because of the unfortunate timing of its release, but also because a “Black Widow” film post-“Endgame” — where Romanoff dies definitively — inherently lacked stakes and relevance. This film should’ve been released in 2017, and it unfortunately looks like it’s from that time due to the quality of its CGI.
However, Yelena Belova, Melina Vostokoff and Red Guardian are great additions to the MCU, and make this film worth watching. I hope to see them in future Marvel projects. At its core “Black Widow” is a pretty good family drama hidden under a ton of really bad CGI fight scenes.
“Black Widow” (2021) gets a 7/10