A film about Natasha Romanoff in her quests between the films Civil War and Infinity War. (from IMDB)
Now over a year since its originally planned release of May 2020, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is here: Black Widow. This prequel/sequel of sorts follows in the wake of 2016’s Avengers fallout, Captain America: Civil War, with the super spy Black Widow on the run from General Ross and his team as they try to apprehend Natasha Romanoff for violating the newfound Sokovia Accords. Black Widow serves as somewhat of a bridge between Civil War and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, without it necessarily leading right up to the events of that film.
Ever since being introduced in 2010’s Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha had slowly become a significant part of the Avengers team, even if she hadn’t had any special superpowers or anything. (But that didn’t stop her from kicking butt.) By Avengers: Endgame, she had arguably become the heart of the Avengers, and her ultimate sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame became the topic of much controversy. Whether or not it was already part of the grand plan for the movies is unknown, but Marvel made sure to appease fans by granting Natasha her own solo movie in the wake of her retirement in Endgame, and Black Widow is the end result.
Black Widow is a unique Marvel film because it’s actually different than most of the Marvel entries so far. If there’s a film that it comes close to, however, it’s definitely 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, in which Natasha actually played a significant role. But Black Widow takes the spy fugitive traits of that film and makes an entire movie out of it. This movie answers the question of what a Marvel movie might be like if it emulated a James Bond or Jason Bourne film. And even though it even contains actors from both franchises (and even shows Natasha watching a Bond film at one point), it just naturally captures that globe-trotting, undercover secret agent feel that those modern spy films deliver.
Although this is Black Widow’s story, she’s not alone. The opening scenes give some back story about her upbringing, and we’re introduced to new characters that served as Natasha’s undercover family in 1995. We meet her little “sister,” Yelena, who ends up playing a significant role in the rest of the story, as the two reunite as adults, with Yelena played by rising star Florence Pugh. And like any Bond, Bourne, or Marvel film, things turn into a kind of group effort. Without spoiling the story and surprises within, Black Widow‘s entourage includes Stranger Things‘ David Harbour as Alexi – AKA The Red Guardian, and Rachel Weisz as Melina. Harbour provides much of the film’s comic relief without overdoing it, and he’s a real highlight of the film. Pugh is also surprisingly great as Yelena, and also is one of the best parts of the film. (I say “surprisingly” because I couldn’t stand her character in the recent adaptation of Little Women.) In fact, most of the characters around Scarlett’s seem to naturally upstage her a bit – in presence and character. But as much as I do like her as an actress, Scarlett has never been a big leading lady kind of star. She definitely does her best here as Natasha, and does turn in a good performance with memorable moments, but it’s really the sum of the characters in the film that make Black Widow work as well as it does.
I also have to say that Ray Winstone works well as the film’s central villain, Dreykov. I’ve hated him in nearly everything I’ve ever seen him in – especially Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but he plays Dreykov right here. I actually would have loved to have seen a character like Kenneth Branagh’s Sator from Tenet as the villain here, but Winstone does his best to provide a foe that is similar in size and subtleties (and subtlety has never been Winstone’s strong suit).
The pacing and feel of Black Widow is a little schizophrenic, which is almost the film’s undoing. It often feels grounded and gritty when the chase is on, but then the film balloons into these over-the-top effects-drenched action scenes where non-superhero character accomplish the impossible with near ease, evading disaster at usually the last possible second. For example, a prison sequence unfolds into an avalanche that threatens the lives of hundreds of people in the valley below. And the film’s climax is a bit overlong and a sort of rehash of Winder Soldier at times, with the impossible happening over and over again. It doesn’t sink the film, especially because there are so many highlight moments before the big finish, but it is unfortunate. I would have loved to have seen the movie keep things more grounded instead of catering to what one might expect from a Marvel superhero movie. (Again, Natasha isn’t a “superhero,” so try to imagine Bourne or Bond doing much of what you see in the climax and you’ll see what I mean.)
The content is pretty rough for a PG-13 Marvel movie. They clearly aren’t catering to the younger audience for this movie. While it’s still pretty clean when it comes to sexual content (there are just some subtle remarks from Alexi about Melina, and Yelena’s blunt descriptions of how the Widows’ reproductive organs had been torn out), the violence is upped a few notches, matching what you’d expect from the more mature Jason Bourne movies. The first time we meet Pugh’s Yelena, she’s slashing an agent with a knife, and then stabs them in the stomach, twisting the blade in a really violent motion. The censors must have had a say, however, as the victim’s clothes only ever look “wet” and not soaked in blood as you would expect. Another scene shows a big man losing in an arm-wrestling contest with Alexi, where Alexi shatters the man’s wrist and we see it limply hanging at the end of his forearm for a moment. Another scene shows a person fall from a building and land on the ground with a visibly broken knee (the leg is bent the wrong way, and we see this a couple times), and then they commit suicide by zapping themselves in the face and we see half of their face is charred. A lot of the action involves cuts and blood on faces, and we see a few views of a person’s deformed face with dramatic burn scars on them. The climax also shows a lot of violent fighting, with stabbings, hand-to-hand violence, and more. It’s not a light action movie by any means.
When all is said and done, though, Black Widow is another solid entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While it’s unknown where the Marvel movie universe will be going from here (and how much will be marred by the growing tension in social politics), it’s safe to say that the Infinity Saga is a pretty good batch of 24 films (I realize Black Widow is technically part of “Phase Four,” but it fits in the first three phases of movies nicely), and continues Marvel’s cinematic winning streak.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 7/9/21)
iTunes / Digital Copy Bonus Features Review
Black Widow has been out for a few weeks digitally, but is now available through various disc options as well. Along with the feature film, the iTunes digital copy of Black Widow includes the following extras:
Black Widow in 4K UHD (iTunes): I’m a firm believer that 4K discs look better than streaming 4K. With that said, I was pretty impressed with the streaming quality of Black Widow in 4K. The clarity definitely was noticeable beyond standard HD (Which is often very dependent upon the streamer’s wifi speed). I still prefer 4K discs (but a review copy wasn’t available for this title), but the 4K streaming quality is certainly strong for this one. I also really enjoyed the movie the second viewing. It holds up well and is a nice “send-off” for Black Widow. It’ll be fun to revisit the Marvel series with this one serving as a nice lead-in to Infinity War (maybe right before Thor: Ragnarok?).
Sisters Gonna Work It Out (5:25) – Florence and Scarlett talk about their roles as Yelena and Natasha, respectively, while the crew talk about Florence joining the cast and how great she was for the role. Here, we also see behind the scenes footage, training footage, and scenes from the finished film. It’s built more like a promo than a featurette, but it’s still really cool. (2 uses of “Oh my G-d”)
Go Big if You’re Going Home (8:51) – In this one, director Cate Shortland talks about the project, set design, shooting on real locations, etc. We see some behind-the-scenes for the Budapest street chase, while David Harbour talks about how brutal the gulag fight was.
Gag Reel (2:54) – This is a really fun little gag reel. It features some of the cast goofing off, mistakes made during scenes, and the usual chaos that happens while shooting a Marvel movie. (There’s one bleeped-out swear word and Scarlett mouths the “S” word at the camera once.)
Deleted Scenes (14:12) – There are 9 deleted / extended scenes with a Play All option. “Grocery Shopping” (1:12) shows a little more of Natasha getting groceries in Norway and driving to her secluded trailer in the woods. “Bike Chase” (0:43) gives us some some extended driving and dialog with Yelena and Natasha on a motorcycle together. “Gulag Fighter” (1:26) is an interesting extended scene. After Alexi falls off the wall while trying to escape, he’s faced with several other inmates who attack him. In slow motion, he gets kicked in crotch, punched in the face and kicked down. So when we see him look up and he sees Natasha coming to his rescue, it’s because she saw him getting beaten, not falling off the wall. (1 “a” word) “Smile” (1:39) shows Taskmaster’s Widow handler sort of mulling around the base before going to activate her in the training room. It’s kind of pointless filler that was wise to have cut out. In “Come After Me” (1:20), Ross captures Natasha’s resource friend and Ross finds a note from Natasha that says “come after me.” “Walk and Talk” (1:49) is more of Alexi and Melina talking before he has to fight Taskmaster. (1 “d*mmit”) “Widows in Training” (3:20) shows Yelena on the operating table while “Melina” walks away and goes to find Dreykov. Alexi wakes up and tries to escape. Melina walks by and witnesses the Widows training (in slow motion). “Kiss” (1:26) shows Melina and Alexi after their helicopter crashes during the finale. Melina says she has a broken leg and they share a passionate kiss. This should have totally been left in the film. “Ohio” (1:16) is another unfortunate omission. In this alternate ending, Natasha returns to her childhood home to witness kids playing in a nearby yard as the Avengers. A little girl playing as Black Widow recognizes her and they share a little moment, pretending to shoot each other with their wrist rockets.
Play Movie with Intro (2:14:45) – In this minute-long intro, director Cate Shortland introduces the film and says that the theme of the story is about accepting and loving each other for who they are.
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 9/15/21)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: Natasha removes her shirt and we see her back in a bra (the camera focuses on bruises on her back); Alexi makes a few suggestive comments about Melina’s strength and endurance. When he sees her again after many years, he comments on how she hasn’t aged and how he’s been in prison for a long time and has “a lot of energy”; Yelena graphically describes to Alexi how all of the Widows’ reproductive organs have been taken out; We see Alexi in his underwear as he struggles to get his Red Guardian uniform back on.
Vulgarity/Language: About 9 “S” words (with one of them written in subtitles), 1 “g*dd*mn,” 1 “b*tch” in subtitles, 3 “a” words, 1 “d*mn,” 1 “p*ssed off,” 1 “h*ll,” 3 “Oh my G-d,” 1 “My G-d,” 1 “G-d,” 1 “douchebags” in subtitles.
Alcohol/Drugs: Alexi and Yelena drink frequently; We see Natasha having a beer; Yelena pours alcohol on a wound. We then see Natasha and her drinking beer; Other characters clearly drink during the film.
Blood/Gore: We see some blood on the clothes of a person who is sliced in the arm and then stabbed in the stomach; Yelena jabs a blade into her own clothed leg, reaches in and pulls out a bloody transmitter and throws it on the ground; Natasha has some blood on her face after a car accident; Yelena has a bloody cut on her upper arm which we see several times, including as it’s being dressed. We see a trail of blood on the ground after Yelena’s arm is first cut; We see large deep bruises on Natasha’s back when she removes her shirt (and we see her back in a bra); A person falls off a rooftop and we see their visibly broken knee twisted. They then use a charge on their wrist to shock themselves, committing suicide. We then see half of their face is charred and burned; Alexi arm-wrestles various criminals and when he comes to a very big man, he slams his wrist on the table, shattering it. We then see the man’s limp and deformed wrist and his flopping hand; We see a trail of blood on the ground after; A character is hit repeatedly in the face, with a little blood; A character slams their own face onto a table, drawing blood from their nose and onto the table surface.
Violence: Some Semi-SPOILERS ahead… In 1995, as they race in a plane away from a pursuing car, Alexi hangs on the wing and shoots at the vehicles behind them; We see many random images flashing during the movie’s opening credits, some of them involving the Red Room and the girls being trained as assassins; Natasha’s vehicle suddenly explodes and she fights the Taskmaster; Yelena and Natasha have a pretty brutal fight when they meet in an apartment. They throw each other into walls and cabinets and then call a truce as they choke each other with a shower curtain; A room goes up in flames as agents chase Natasha and Yelena. A person falls off a rooftop and we see their visibly broken knee twisted. They then use a charge on their wrist to shock themselves, committing suicide; Alexi arm-wrestles various criminals and when he comes to a very big man, he slams his wrist on the table, shattering it. We then see the man’s limp and deformed wrist and his flopping hand; Guards shoot up a helicopter that flies around a prison. Yelena then shoots a grenade at a guard tower, blowing it up. The sound then causes an avalanche from the neighboring mountains, and the snow rushes down to the prison below (to presumably bury everyone there). There’s a frantic scramble for Natasha to get out of there with Alexi; Melina demonstrates mind control with a tablet and a pig. She gives it the command to stop breathing and the pig struggles for a moment and then falls over. She then turns off the command and the pig gets up and walks away; Alexi is hit in the chest with multiple tranquilizer darts. He then falls face-forward onto the floor; We see a character strapped to an operating table. There is talk about cutting into their brain and we see a line drawn on their forehead. They then use a blade to cut out of their restraints, stab and fight people in the operating room, and escape; Alexi and Taskmaster fight in a prolonged sequence; A character tries to shoot or stab someone but cannot. They are then hit repeatedly in the face, with a little blood; A character slams their own face onto a table, drawing blood from their nose and onto the table surface; A woman hits a man repeatedly. He hits her back and then the room is filled with agents to fight. There is a brutal hand-to-hand combat scene where a character is stabbed in the shoulder and hit repeatedly, and even hit in the face multiple times; A character sets their own broken nose; Part of a flying base is damaged and explodes, causing a chain reaction throughout the base which slowly escalates, causing it to crumble; A helicopter is consumed with flames, killing characters inside; Some characters have rough landings with parachutes; and other action violence.