This is a bit of a weird movie to talk about, for several reasons. A movie about Black Widow went through a number of iterations throughout the years. Back in 2004, Lionsgate Films began developing a Black Widow film, with David Hayter planning on writing and directing. He had previously written X-Men and X2, and the 2009 Watchmen movie. Oh, and he’s also the English voice actor for Solid Snake in the Metal Gear video game series. Clearly, that movie never got made, and the rights reverted to Marvel Studios in 2006. Scarlett Johansson was cast as Black Widow for Iron Man 2 in 2010, and made a number of other appearances as the character in other MCU films.
From early on, there were talks of a potential Black Widow solo movie. Hayter still attempted to work with Marvel for several years, trying to get the movie started. He never felt comfortable that he and Marvel found a place they were willing to take the movie, so he eventually abandoned the project, feeling “heartbroken”. Back in 2010, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige mentioned that talks already began regarding Johannson starring in a Black Widow solo movie, but at the time, they were focusing more on The Avengers. Then she had a major supporting role in Captain America: Winter Soldier, and also appeared in Age of Ultron and Civil War.
In 2014, after the release of Age of Ultron, Feige again talked of a potential Black Widow film. Nicole Perlman, who co-wrote Guardians of the Galaxy, even wrote up a “pretty in depth” treatment. Johansson expressed interest in the idea, and Hayter even chimed in, saying he’d like to be involved. Neil Marshall, the director behind Dog Soldiers, Doomsday, and 2019’s Hellboy, also expressed interest. Joss Whedon, who directed the first two Avengers movies, also expressed interest. However, with a packed Phase 3 already, Black Widow was pushed further back.
Plans finally started moving forward for the project in 2017. They focused mainly on female directors as part of a push by several major film studios, and met with 65 different directors for the project. They eventually landed on Australian director Cate Shortland. Her previous credits include Somersault, an Australian drama film that won a record 13 awards out of 15 nominations at the Australian Film Institute awards in 2004, Lore (a historical drama film based on The Dark Room), and Berlin Syndrome. All three films were received quite well, but it’s worth noting that they were all relatively small projects.
Soon, casting the other characters began. Florence Pugh joined as Yelena, another assassin from the Red Room (which Black Widow originated from). David Harbour joined as the Red Guardian, who is basically the Soviet Russia equivalent of Captain America. Rachel Weisz plays Melina Vostokoff, another graduate of the Black Widow program, who acts as a motherly figure to both Natasha and Yelena. The Red Guardian acted as their father. Ray Winstone plays Dreykov, the head of the Red Room and the main villain of the movie. Another major villain figure is Taskmaster, but stating the actor now would spoil a major plot point in the movie. I’ll discuss that plot point later, but not just yet.
The circumstances around this movie’s release are what makes it weird to talk about more than anything else. Black Widow was originally slated to release in May of 2020. I’m sure I don’t need to discuss why it was delayed, but once they announced its delayed release, they also halted the marketing. Well … apart from a handful of product releases, like a pair of Barbie dolls of Black Widow, featuring the black and white outfits worn by Natasha in the film. At that point, even though I felt like I needed a bit of a break from MCU movies, I was looking forward to Black Widow. I like the character in both the movies and the comics, and I liked the idea of a low-key thriller after the major epic known as the Infinity Saga. With the delayed release of June, 2021 coming up, Disney started releasing some new trailers, this time focusing more on Natasha’s legacy as an Avenger, and less on the spy thriller focus seen in the 2020 trailers. The following trailer specifically saw over 10 million views in the first 24 hours.
There was also Moneymaker: Behind the Black Widow, which is a half-hour documentary special focusing on Johansson’s stunt double, Heidi Moneymaker. I’m sure most would agree that a lot of the time, stunt doubles don’t get enough attention in the film industry. They perform most of the physical work, and often take big risks, so that was nice of them.
Black Widow premiered on June 29 in London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, and New York City, to limited crowds. It then released in the United States simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+, for a premium fee of $30. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t receive as wide of a release as Disney hoped. It never got a theatrical release in China for example, when China used to be a reliable boost to MCU profits for a while. I’m sure it seemed like a decent idea at the time to try for a simultaneous release, but that proved to be the movie’s downfall.
Black Widow performed decently well with the critics, earning 79% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 6.9/10. Audiences gave it an average grade of A- on CinemaScore, and similar scores on other sites. Variety’s reviewer stated that while he originally worried that the movie would be a pure action movie with a hot girl as the lead, he found it much more “interesting and absorbing.” He praised the movie’s “gritty, deliberate, zap-free tone that is strikingly – and intentionally – earthbound for a superhero fantasy.” The Hollywood Reporter called Black Widow a “high-octane espionage thriller that shifts away from the superhero template.” BBC Culture’s interview is particularly interesting, calling it the “least Avenger-like movie in the MCU so far.” The review praised the cast, the movie’s general tone, and the themes of Russia vs. the West. The review also criticized the title character as being the least interesting character among her Russian family, and felt that the film featured a “typically Avengers ending with an overwrought, too-long action scene that plays like a festival of stunt doubles tossing each other around a Russian lab.”
As much as Black Widow was well received, it’s also sadly the first box office bomb for the MCU. That includes both the theatrical earnings and the Disney+ premium for the first few months of its release. Combining the two, it earned $379 million on a $200 million budget. Generally speaking, a movie needs to earn back twice its budget to be profitable, and with this movie’s year-long delay, with two separate marketing campaigns, it needed more than that. Johansson actually filed a lawsuit against Disney over the simultaneous release, blaming it for the movie’s box office failure in July, and that was settled out of court two months later. Disney recently revealed that the movie was pirated so much, that if everyone who pirated the movie paid for it instead, it would have earned another $600 million. That’s not how pirating works … most pirates are going to pirate anyway, but the simultaneous release meant that high quality versions were available on day 1. That likely didn’t help.
As for my own thoughts, I thought this movie is OK. My excitement for the movie waned quite a bit during its year-long delay, to the point where I only watched it for the first time just before the new year. My thoughts are somewhat similar to the BBC Culture review I mentioned, but my complaints run deeper.
First, the good. The core story in this movie works very well, as does the dynamic of this weird Russian family of trained assassins and Soviet Russia’s answer to Captain America. There are clear trust issues between the four of them. Yelena feels that Natasha abandoned her. Natasha doesn’t know if Yelena is truly free of her conditioning. Neither of them trust Melina’s motivations. And of course nobody trusts Red Guardian’s intelligence, and for good reason. He’s a very effective soldier, but he’s kind of an idiot. A likeable idiot if you will.
The dramatic focus on the family reconnecting works quite well. You can tell that while they were never a real family, and there are clear trust issues that only worsened during their time apart, they still care about each other. They still manage to work well as a team when need be. The sisterly bond that Natasha and Yelena rekindle during their time together is probably the best part of this movie.
The new characters are quite entertaining as well. Yelena is very much an anti-hero, unapologetic in both her words and her fighting style. At the same time, she clearly has no idea how to live a normal life, something that she learns from the others throughout the movie. She’s probably the best character in this movie. Red Guardian is, like I said earlier, a likeable idiot. He’s a clearly flawed super soldier who doesn’t lack in confidence. Harbour actually gained a fair amount of weight for the role, both muscle and fat, to portray an old, out of shape super soldier. He then lost 60 pounds while filming in order to play a younger version of the character for the movie’s opening flashback. As for Weisz’s character, she’s clearly the most intelligent character of the group, and kind of takes over as the leader once she enters the picture. While her character is a villain in the comics, Weisz felt that this version is much more ambiguous and layered. She also found the character’s complete lack of a sense of humour amusing.
The earlier action scenes are very good. They take on a smaller scale than most of the Phase 3 movies, focusing on car chases, fights that are moderately similar to the Bourne series (just without the shaky cam), and focusing more on the characters acting intelligent than just shooting and punching people. Several of the early fights contain plot twists that bring up more questions than answers. There’s also a brilliant sequence toward the end of the film, where you believe that one member in the family betrays the others, only to later learn that it’s all part of the plan, and it only worked if several characters were left in the dark.
Sadly, there are three major problems that hold this movie back for me. The first is the most obvious. There are two action set pieces in this movie that are over-the-top in this otherwise grounded espionage thriller. First, there’s a prison rescue that involves an avalanche about to bury the entire prison. The plan is also way too bold and obvious to work in real life, seeing how it relies on the heroes breaking Red Guardian out with a single helicopter. The prison is in the middle of a frozen tundra, and contains several heavy machine guns that could take the helicopter down, armoured or not. It’s a fun action scene, but it’s over-the-top nonetheless.
The second is even more ridiculous, with the Red Room’s headquarters taking place on a floating platform similar to a Helicarrier. The climax sees the platform destroyed, and at one point, Black Widow is skydiving without a parachute, and Taskmaster is chasing her, also without a parachute. Somehow they both survive completely unscathed, even with all the debris continuing to crash down around them. I could see someone like Captain America surviving such a fall, and the Hulk definitely would, but Natasha is supposed to be fully human. She’s not enhanced in any way. That scene alone completely destroyed my suspension of disbelief.
Spoiler warning for the next few paragraphs.
On that note, the Taskmaster twist doesn’t work for me at all. In the comics, Taskmaster is a pure mercenary. He’s completely amoral, doesn’t ally himself with anyone in particular, and tends to be a thorn in everyone’s side from time to time. He’s got natural photographic reflexes that allow him to mimic any fighting style he ever sees, at the cost of his memory. He’s a legitimate challenge to combat masters like Captain America, can go toe to toe with Deadpool more often than not, and can even cause trouble for someone as strong and fast as Spider-Man, despite not having super strength or speed himself. He’s a fun character.
In the movie, Taskmaster is secretly Dreykov’s daughter, thought to be killed years ago in a bombing. She’s just as much of a slave to him as the younger generation of Black Widows. Also, it’s technology that gives her the photographic reflexes, along with some sort of chemical that makes her easy to control. I don’t have a problem with the technology aspect of her abilities, but it just doesn’t feel right. Not only does this remove all agency from such an entertaining villain, but it feels like they made it Dreykov’s daughter just to make him seem even more heartless. Raising generations of brainwashed assassins makes him bad enough without him doing the same to his own daughter. The worst part is, this change makes Taskmaster boring. She’s played by Olga Kurylenko, but seeing how she rarely speaks, and you barely see her face, it’s kind of pointless. It’s a waste of a fairly decent actress, with movies like Quantum of Solace, The Death of Stalin, and Johnny English Strikes Again in her filmography.
In the climax, it’s revealed that there’s some sort of chemical that Dreykov is still using to prevent Natasha from attacking him, based on some sort of scent. On the one hand, it lengthens the relatively quiet confrontation between the title character and the man responsible for most of her bad memories. On the other hand, it leads to a solution that brings up a couple new problems. Natasha spends several minutes insulting Dreykov, only to get punched one way or another. When he doesn’t break her nose, she decides to do it herself by smashing her face against the desk so she can’t smell this “trigger scent” anymore. On paper, it’s a decent move by Natasha. On the downside, it’s implied that he’s somehow not strong enough to break her nose.
About that … breaking the nose is much more about how you strike it than it is about how hard you strike it. Furthermore, those who do a lot of boxing or fighting training tend to have stronger noses than average, as it tends to get stronger when its used to impact. As a former assassin/superhero, it’s safe to assume that Natasha’s nose has grown quite strong. I’m not claiming to be an expert here, but I’ve studied Kung-Fu enough to know this.
Beyond that, if Dreykov is smart enough to think of this contingency plan years ago, and has developed even better plans for the younger generation of Black Widows, you’d think he’s smart enough to make sure he doesn’t break Natasha’s nose. It’s not that he’s not strong enough to – it’s that he’s smart enough not to. But the movie just implies that he’s not strong enough and leaves it at that. On top of that, Natasha doesn’t seem to be all that affected by her broken nose, when some of the symptoms can include trouble breathing, black eyes, excessive bleeding and mucus running out of the nose, a headache, watery eyes that affect your eyesight … the list goes on. There’s a bit of blood under one nostril at the moment, but in the very next scene, the blood is gone. She didn’t even bother to put a tissue in her nose to stop the bleeding. I experience enough nose bleeds during the winter to know that’s not how it works.
Beyond those major problems, there’s another issue that’s not necessarily a problem, but it’s still a disappointing factor. Natasha doesn’t feel like the main character in her own movie. Much of the movie is told through Yelena’s perspective. Of the two, she’s the more charismatic. She goes through the most character growth. She’s the one who ends up in the most precarious situation at the start of the climax, and doesn’t know what’s actually happening. I won’t talk about that in detail, but that scene would be much more interesting if you flip Natasha and Yelena, and Natasha’s the one in the most dangerous situation, not knowing if her Russian “sister” betrayed her or not. Besides the fact that Natasha’s the one who faces down Dreykov, it often feels like she’s a secondary character in her own movie.
This wouldn’t be a problem if this movie was released before Avengers: Endgame, but considering this is likely the last MCU movie that Natasha will appear in, this movie really should have been more about celebrating her character and closing out her backstory than it is about introducing her replacement.
Black Widow is a good movie overall. For the most part it works quite well as an espionage movie, featuring a dysfunctional family of spies and assassins that learns to appreciate each other by the end. What holds it back from being great is a climax that feels way too over-the-top for the movie’s good, several plot twists that really don’t work all that well, and the fact that the movie focuses a bit too much on the new characters, making them more interesting than the title character. That’s not to say that Johansson is bad in this movie. Natasha is still good in this movie. But of the four members of the “family”, she’s the least interesting.
But the biggest problem is that Black Widow released too late. It probably should have been part of Phase 3, instead of being delayed until after the lead character was killed off in Endgame. The extra year’s delay only makes that worse.
Would I recommend this movie to fans of the Black Widow character? Yes. Will I watch it again sometime? Sure. Is it the send-off that the first female member of the movie Avengers deserved? No.
Next up is Shang-Chi, the first martial arts movie in the MCU, and the only one of the three movies distributed by Disney that made a profit in 2020. Yeah … I’ll get into that with my Eternals review, but Disney had a very rough 2021, financially speaking.