Movie Review: Black Widow (2021)

TL;DR – When the past catches up to her, Natasha Romanoff needs to confront more than her previous sins, she needs to confront her family.

Review (warning: spoilers)

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), this movie occurs after the events of Captain America: Civil War and before Avengers: Infinity War. It’s not an origin movie for Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) a.k.a. Black Widow but more an examination of past choices and their impacts on her present life.

For fans of the Marvel comics (note I said ‘comics’ and not ‘movies’), there will be a number of elements adapted into MCU that may rub the comic purists the wrong way. For example:

  • Natasha was raised by a man named Ivan Petrovich. She was given to him as a baby during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 by a woman who perishes in a burning, collapsed building. In the movie, Melina (Rachel Weisz, ex-Black Widow) and Alexi (David Harbour a.k.a. Red Guardian) are depicted as Natasha’s surrogate parents.
  • Speaking of Alexi, in the comics, both he and Natasha meet through the KGB and are trained as agents (no familial ties through blood or otherwise). They fall in love, get married and are husband and wife until Alexi is trained to be the Red Guardian and told he can no longer have contact with his wife by the Soviet government.
  • In MCU and the comics, both Natasha and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) are trained in the Red Room. But they were never adoptive siblings as depicted in the film. In fact, the story-line in the comics has Yelena as Natasha’s foe and is sent to kill her.

All the above may be acceptable differences when adapted to make a movie, and in fact, I found Yelena as the younger sibling allowed for much greater character development for Natasha. Their relationship also serves as an integral stepping stone to what is revealed at the end credits (yes, there’s a post-credit cut scene so stick to the end). There is also a scene where Yelena mimics Natasha signature, superhero landing pose (one leg spread apart, crouch position, hand hitting the ground… you know the one).

“Why do you always do that thing?” asks Yelena.

“Do what thing?” asks Natasha.

“The thing you do when you’re fighting. The….like, the…” Yelena proceeds to do the superhero landing, flicking her head back, crouched position, hand out and making her long hair fly backwards. “…you’re a total poser.”

It makes you gravitate toward the pair in ten seconds of screen time.

However, there will be one difference that comic fans may take particular exception to, and that is Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko).

Taskmaster is the Red Room’s ultimate weapon and plays a role as the main one-on-one kick-ass threat to Black Widow. The fight scene on the bridge where Natasha is ambushed by Taskmaster is brilliant. Taskmaster’s abilities involves “photographic reflexes” where she is able to copy the fighting style of her opponent. She is part of the (predictable) twist in the Black Widow film.

The problem that purists will have with Taskmaster isn’t that she’s female (in the comics, Taskmaster is a male character), it’s the fact that the character is so far removed from the comic story-line that the MCU writers might as well have created a new character. Heck, it’s revealed Natasha’s belief that she destroyed the Red Room and its spymaster was mistaken. Both are alive and well and there’s a bunch of Black Widows all over the world. The writers could have honed in on one “other” Black Widow and given her the ability to copy the exact fighting styles of her opponents. Oh wait… that’s exactly what the writers did. The problem is they called her Taskmaster.

In the comics, Taskmaster has different origins entirely, and his history is complex using his unique abilities on both sides of the hero/villain fence; he’s not in it for the power, he’s in it for the money and thus is more a mercenary type figure. He has fought against HYDRA and the Avengers at different times; assisted both the US Government, S.H.I.E.L.D and criminal organisations. Was the teacher responsible for training the likes of Crossbones, Diamondback, Spider-woman and U.S. Agent. And clashed with Spider-man, Fantastic Four and Deadpool to name a few. None of this fits the story-line in the Black Widow movie, yet they tie the name to one of the characters anyway.

Putting all this aside, the story still struggles in some other key areas:

  • The surrogate parents in Melina and Alexi are confused; do they care more about their jobs or their adoptive children? It doesn’t even seem that they know. It takes Natasha and Yelena together to make their parents realise what their actions have cost them and for the ‘family’ as a whole.
  • In the prologue start of the film, Red Guardian gives his two girls over to the Red Room program. Twenty years later, it is revealed the Red Guardian is locked up in an arctic, maximum security prison because he criticised his own government (forget the fact that he gave over his two girls to be brainwashed into assassin drones). Doesn’t really make much sense but I guess those Russians can be a stickler to critique.
  • Then there’s the puppet-master behind the Black Widow program, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), whose global machinations never feel quite as earth-shattering as they should be (it probably doesn’t help that we know that what is around the corner is Thanos, a much greater threat to humanity).

Still, for all its shortfalls, Black Widow is carried through to the end by the great chemistry between Johansson and Pugh. Their sibling rivalry and bond is the highlight. Every scene the pair are together is where the Marvel magic is unleashed.

Fast forward to post-Avengers: Endgame (or the Black Widow post-credit cut scene), and Yelena is visiting Natasha’s grave. A mysterious woman appears next to her, but those who have watched “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” series on Disney+ will know she is Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Her exact character role is not revealed in either movie or TV series but if you can’t wait, you can search and get the character bio. Valentina hands Yelena a photo of Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye and says he is the one responsible for Natasha’s death. Thus Black Widow 2.0 is born, and I look forward to seeing Florence Pugh taking on the title character in future MCU movies.

7 out of 10

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