Reviewed by Tim Robins
WARNING: SPOILERS! INCLUDING FOR PREVIOUS FILMS AHEAD – Just in case you still haven’t seen some MCU movies
The Film: In Marvel Studios’ action-packed spy thriller Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.
The Review: So I decided to risk my life and go to the cinema to see the long delayed Black Widow, now showing in socially distanced auditoriums. The film confidently delivers the usual entertaining mix of action adventure, humour and nudge, nudge references that audiences have come to expect and enjoy. Except the preceding trailer for Eternals and this film’s title sequence suggest that Marvel feel they have something to learn from the dismal Snyderverse – notably gloomy renditions of popular songs and, in the case of Eternals, a colour palette that includes fifty shades of mud.
Black Widow re-introduces us to Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous cold war spy, here dislocated to the 1990s and beyond, but prior to her death in an already-released Avengers movie. In the comics (remember them?), Natasha Romanov, aka The Black Widow, began life as a kind of attractive Rosa Kleb type in the pages of Iron Man before a stylish 1970’s upgrade – in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man – to a costume that seemed to reference the attire of Honour Blackman’s Cathy Gale (now there was a great member of The Avengers!).
There is a scene in Black Widow that sees Romanoff watching the notorious James Bond critical stinker, Moonraker (1979). Some cynics might suggest the clip was included to either defuse or pre-empt criticism of Black Widow or sneakily suggest that we are watching a similar load of box office arse. Stephen Dorff, star of the original Blade film, for example, has said Black Widow “looks like garbage” and that he is “embarrassed for the cast” because the film looks like a video game. Well, maybe it does a bit, but mainly because video and film technology have converged in the digital age.
In fact, the Moonraker reference actually prefigures several nods in the direction of James Bond: the plot owes something to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, while an extended action scene picks up from and elaborates on Moonraker’s precipitous, pre-titles jump from a plane (sans parachute) stunt. Of course, here the action is achieved with CGI rather than stunt men and miniatures. Thankfully, the art of computer rendering has moved on from Die Another Day.
Unfortunately, digital editing brings with it problems of readability. I longed for the director to slow such sequences down, so we could appreciate such cleverness as a character falling through the open sides of a helicopter and grabbing a parachute, as just about everything is tumbling to its doom. And physics takes a back seat. I have a feeling from the characters’ reference point they are all “weightless”, making a fight on some falling debris a bit unlikely, but maybe not. I’m sure YouTube will fill me in on this.
Indeed, Black Widow’s opening scenarios seem to pioneer a new form of film narrative aimed at the social media generation. Believe me, you need as many spoilers for the first 40 minutes that you can find. I sat there wondering what this film was actually about, through more narrative hooks than a Marvel Essential Collection. The tone shifts from a faux family tableaux of sibling rivalry to a title sequence that unpleasantly draws on the imagery of sexual trafficking.
These shifts in tone and staccato action sequences left me wondering if all there was to this film was a string of things. Has Hollywood storytelling descended into one damn thing after another? Looking back, I wished Black Widow had taken a leaf from Moonraker’s playbook. Those expositional moments delivered by ‘M’ and ‘Q’ really are necessary at the start of this film, otherwise the audience is just adrift in a sea of pixels.
After a long wait, the plot forms by echoing earlier scenes. An idyllic tableau is repeated as a grimly comedic dinner of the damned and the abusive childhood of Natasha and her sister is unveiled. The comedy is dialed down. Much of what we learn of the history of a Russian equivalent of SHIELD is a dark cocktail of chemical experimentation, violence and mind control. The eventual focus on the establishment of genuine, familial feelings between Romanoff, her “sister” (Florence Pugh), Red Guardian “father” (David Harbour) and pig-breeding “mother” (Rachel Weisz) is a heady mix of Hollywood Russian accents, violence and heart to heart, mid-battle conversations.
This talented cast, I’m pleased to report, carry the movie and I enjoy the naturalism of MCU performances.
Every character gets a chance at their very own redemptive arc, including “The Taskmaster/Mistress”, who could have done without one. I longed for them not to have been under the control of a microchip and conditioning. It would have been more impactful if they’d just said to the Black Window, “sorry, that didn’t work because I hate you for perfectly good reasons of my own!”. But that would have deprived Romanoff of a redemptive moment of her own – of which she has many, so very many. I guess God will let her into Heaven after all.
Johanson is not sidelined in her own movie as some critics have suggested. It is just that we MCU groupies know her eventual fate, while that of the other cast is not.
Black Widow is pretty much “spy sisters are doin’ it for themselves”. The main male cast is henpecked (SHIELD’s Rick Mason), gone to seed (The Red Guardian) or just obnoxious. Before seeing the film, I had watched Jordan Peterson tell Russell Brand that young males are attracted to ANTIFA (a non existent organisation) because it offers them an adventure narrative, and allows them to enact the hero’s journey – something “woke” culture denies them. Watching Romanoff and rescuing hapless bros, I imagined Peterson choking on his lobster bisque. The film with its “strong woman” protagonists and fem-bot army of villainous “widows”certainly has an embarrassment of bitches. But, politically, the film adopts only the most classically liberal position that women should have an equal opportunity to stab, maim and kill and be killed rather than a more cultural stance that finds value in gender difference.
Call me old fashioned (“You’re old fashioned!”), but the sight of women being trafficked, beaten up, flipped over in cars, shot at, blown up and compared to pigs is difficult to watch, and far from entertaining.
Marvel may have left it way too late for a Black Widow movie. The inevitable references to The Avengers (here and in the trailer for Eternals) felt, sadly, past their sell-by date. I’m over phases one through three of the MCU and am looking for something fresh.
This movie may not be peak Widow, but it is an accomplished adventure even if some of its tricksy moves are at times really obvious – will there be anyone who doesn’t get while Romanoff allows the Big Bad to repeatedly punch her in the face?
See the movie. In addition to cinema screenings, it’s also coming to Disney+ Premium this week, so maybe you can find another reason to risk your life!
• Black Widow is in cinemas nationwide now, and available on Disney Plus Premium from Thursday 9th July 2021
Dear reader, do remember a review is an opinion, not fact.Other opinions are available, including yours
BOOKS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS
Marvel Select Black Widow Bookazine – on sale now
Once she was Natasha Romanoff, now she is the Black Widow – super-spy, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent and Avenger. A product of the infamous Red Room, her deadly training has made her one of the planet’s greatest undercover operatives.
But Natasha’s past comes back to haunt her when the mysterious ‘Icepick Protocol’ is activated, striking down her friends and family. Scouring the globe for answers, Natasha must use her incredible espionage skills to unravel the mystery of who is targeting the people she loves most, before it’s too late!
Reprinting Black Widow: Deadly Origin #1-4, Tales of Suspense #52, The Amazing Spider-Man #86 and The Avengers #111. £9.99 ISBN: 9781846533013 Available from supermarkets, newsagents, bookstores or direct from panini.co.uk/marvel
Features interviews with the stars, including Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Rachel Weisz. This behind the scenes book also features stunning photos and imagery from Marvel Studios’ latest movie, along with interviews with the crew responsible for bringing Black Widow’s world of espionage to life along with an indepth look at the comic history of the iconic Marvel character.
This behind the scenes bookazine from Panini includes stunning photos and imagery from Marvel Studios’ latest movie. It’s available now from WHSmith and comic shops later this month, according to listings.
This title also includes interviews with the crew responsible for bringing Black Widow’s world of espionage to life along with an in depth look at the comic history of the iconic Marvel character.
Collecting the origins of the Black Widow for the very first time.
From her debut as a Russian spy in the pages of Tales of Suspense, Natasha Romanoff was instantly one of Marvel’s most iconic characters. This amazing collection takes you through her early days with Hawkeye, into her first adventures with the Avengers – and on to her first solo series. Thrill to a captivating and complex saga as the Black Widow evolves from villain to hero – and defines herself as one of comics’ greatest characters. Boasting stories and art by a who’s who of Silver Age greats, this Epic Collection is ground zero for every Black Widow fan, and includes background material on the character and early art, too.
Collecting: Vol. 1: Tales of Suspense (1959) 52-53, 57, 60, 64; Avengers (1963) 29-30, 36-37, 43-44; Amazing Spider-Man (1963) 86; Amazing Adventures (1970) 1-8; Daredevil (1964) 81; material from Avengers (1963) 16, 32-33, 38-39, 41-42, 45-47, 57, 63-64, 76
Kelly Thompson. Black Widow. ‘Nuff Said! The best-selling, Eisner-nominated writer of Captain Marvel joins rising star artist Elena Casagrande to change everything for Natasha Romanoff! The Widow has been a spy almost as long as she’s been alive. And she’s never stopped running, whether she was working for the good guys or the bad. But now something is very wrong with Natasha: she’s…happy?!
Retirement definitely agrees with the world’s deadliest woman, as she revels in the perfect life that she never dreamed she could have. But scratch the surface of that perfect life and you’ll find something very wrong lurking beneath it…and a woman like Nat just can’t help but scratch. Beyond San Francisco’s Golden Gate lies a mystery that only the Marvel Universe’s greatest spy can solve! Prepare for a heartbreaking, can’t-miss thrill ride!