By now, the fate of Marvel’s superhero known as Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, is probably known to all, even those who are not really avid MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) followers. This writer needs to admit right off the bat to being part of the latter camp. I’ve only seen the first of The Avengers, Iron Man and Thor movies, and the second Captain America, but I have seen both Ant Mans, both Guardian of the Galaxys, plus Captain Marvel, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther. Spiderman is my favorite so I’ve seen all of those. Clearly there are holes in my recognition and understanding of the universe, or rather multiverse, due to what I haven’t seen, which, if you count all the Disney+ stuff, is a lot.
L.A. Weekly’s resident expert broke down the MCU films and their connection to Disney+’s TV shows in her excellent cover story about Wandavision earlier this year, but there’s a lot to understand and it takes effort. Fans love it, but some of us just aren’t that invested beyond the action and excitement we all know these movies deliver, especially since the powerhouse visionaries at Disney took over.
So yeah, you don’t have to be a Marvel uber-nerd to enjoy the latest “origin story” based movie starring Scarlett Johansson. In fact, it’s so well done, you kinda don’t even need to know anything about Marvel to be entertained on a face-value level. There’s a lot of fighting and expertly-measured CGI-infused fanfare as you might expect, but there’s also a lot of chemistry between the leads who are really at the top of their game here, making us believe they are real people with real inner-struggles and real relationships with each other.
In terms of learning more about Natasha, we get to see her smalltown American childhood and her “family” life in the opening scenes, which quickly takes a turn to showing us how she became an assassin in Russia (before she became an Avenger) along with her younger “sister.” We come to learn the two siblings were separated and became estranged over the years, with sis Yelena (played with irresistible moxie by Midsommar’s Florence Pugh) also getting swept up in spy life only to discover that it was due to mind control. In fact, all of the “widows” in Russia have been forced to kill and do nefarious deeds against their will as Natasha once did, thanks to Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who works out of an HQ called the “Red Room,” and sends out a masked robot-looking killer by the name of Taskmaster to stop the sisters from learning more. Also, he probably wants revenge on Natasha for killing his daughter, which (thanks Google) was apparently mentioned by bad guy Loki in the original Avengers movie.
The connection between the two female leads makes for the heart of the movie and after playing mostly supporting eye candy in the Avengers films, it’s truly nice to see Johansen spread her wings and tell Black Widow’s story in full. She’s still a somewhat dark character (the whole sterilization aspect of her backstory isn’t explored deeper, only referenced) but the movie has a lot of light moments thanks to Pugh, and to the comically slanted Alexei Shostakov aka “The Red Guardian” — a perfectly cast David Harbour. He brings the lovabilty of his Stranger Things sheriff to this role as the ladies’ “father” and his audaciousness and complexity reminds you that nobody, not even comic book villains, is really all good or all bad. Same goes for Rachel Weisz as the “mom” in this deadly and dysfunctional faux family.
Though the film is mostly set in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, (when Romanoff was on the run from the government), by the end and requisite post-credit scene, we are back to the present and -no big surprise- there’s a set-up for something new on Disney+ in the works. It appears that Pugh will probably be seeking revenge against Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton in Disney+’s Hawkeye due at the end of this year for what transpired in Avengers: Endgame (thanks again, Google).
Directed by Cate Shortland and co-produced by Johansson herself, the film does a great job of fleshing out the title character and explaining things that were in some cases, only utterances in previous movies. And again, no matter how much of the franchise you’ve seen or comprehend, the details enrich the film and backstory on its own.
Is there a feminist subtext that overtly at times and subtly at others, addresses the box Johansson has been put in the past several years by these movies? Totally. And that’s what makes it so good. Black Widow makes a statement in how Natasha is written, what she wears, who she spends time with and mostly within the full narrative concerning young women turned into Stepford-esque fembots who dress alike and do stuff they don’t want to do, all because of a man. Pretty meta if you think about it. You don’t have to get every Marvel easter egg, or read comics or watch Disney+ to see it and get it. This is a movie about rebellion, and it’s a proper sendoff for one of the Avengers’ most complex heroes. If her sacrifices in previous films didn’t make her supreme badassery obvious, this one does once and for all. ❖