Review: Marvel’s ‘Black Widow’ Spins a Web of Espionage & Intrigue
by Adam Frazier
July 1, 2021
Co-created by Stan Lee, Don Rico & Don Heck, Black Widow made her first appearance in 1964’s Tales of Suspense #52, published by Marvel Comics. Introduced as an antagonist for Iron Man, Natasha Romanova was a Russian spy who later defected to the United States, becoming an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a member of the Avengers. In 2010, the character (renamed Natasha Romanoff) made her film debut in John Favreau’s Iron Man 2, played by Scarlett Johansson. She has since appeared in six Marvel movies, including 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, in which she sacrificed herself so Hawkeye could retrieve the Soul Stone, saving her best friend — and all humankind — from the genocidal warlord Thanos. Now, Natasha is getting her own standalone adventure, a prequel exploring the fan-favorite character’s origins in surprising & exciting ways.
Directed by Cate Shortland (of the films Lore and Berlin Syndrome) from a screenplay by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok, Godzilla vs. Kong), Marvel’s Black Widow begins in 1995, where young Natasha (Ever Anderson) leads a normal life in suburban Ohio with her mom (Rachel Weisz), dad (David Harbour), and little sister (Violet McGraw). Life is good, until Natasha and her family are forced to flee the States after her father, Alexei, carries out a mission that blows their cover as Russian secret operatives. As a result, the family is split up, and Natasha and her sister Yelena are recruited by the ruthless General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) to join the Red Room, a top-secret Soviet program that brainwashes young girls and turns them into deadly assassins.
Fast-forward to the events of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War (released in 2016) where Black Widow, having broken the Sokovia Accords, is wanted by Secretary Ross (William Hurt) as an enemy of the state. With the Avengers disbanded, Natasha finds herself alone and on the run. Even worse, Dreykov — long thought dead — is somehow still alive, operating from the shadows with an army of Black Widows, including Yelena (Florence Pugh). Forced to confront her tortured past, Natasha must go back to where it all started, reunite with her family, and bring down Dreykov and his latest creation, Taskmaster, a skull-faced assassin armed with the ability to mimic his enemies’ every move.
Shortland’s Black Widow is an action-packed and emotionally engaging spy-thriller — think Captain America: The Winter Soldier meets GoldenEye, with a dash of La Femme Nikita as well as Léon: The Professional. Shortland and Pearson’s entertaining MCU entry doesn’t feel like an afterthought, despite being an origin story for a character who’s already dead. It has its fair share of spectacle and explosive set pieces (expertly lensed by cinematographer Gabriel Beristain), but Black Widow thrives on its ensemble of fully-realized characters and a plot with smaller, more personal stakes. The fate of the universe, or multiverse, isn’t at stake here. It’s about unfinished business between Natasha and Dreykov. Like Natasha says in 2012’s The Avengers, “I’ve got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.”
As you may recall, that line of dialogue is delivered during a conversation with Loki, in which the Asgardian replies, “Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Dreykov’s daughter?” Shortland’s film brilliantly pays off this piece of Natasha’s backstory that was set up nearly a decade ago. And while the movie brings closure to Natasha’s story, it also elevates Yelena as a supporting character that will no doubt show up in future Marvel movies and/or Disney+ series. Pugh (of Midsommar and Little Women) is fantastic as Natasha’s sister, another product of the Red Room’s ruthless training program. After being deprogrammed, Yelena is able to think for herself and act on her own for the first time since childhood, instantly making her a likable and relatable character in a world filled with brainwashed assassins, evil overseers, and super soldiers.
The dynamic between Yelena and Natasha is fun, as is their interplay with their father Alexi, also known as the Red Guardian, the Red Room’s answer to Captain America. Harbour (of Stranger Things) is delightfully unhinged as the Soviet superhero whose belly is just a little too big for his old costume. And then there’s Melina, the family patriarch who has become one of Dreykov’s top scientists in the time that has passed since her family was broken up. Weisz is great, as always, and effortlessly plays the conflicted mother who must decide where her allegiance lies. Winstone is sufficiently scuzzy as Dreykov but it’s the mysterious Taskmaster that impresses in a limited role. Fans of the character will enjoy dissecting fight scenes to find all the moves he mimics from heroes like Captain America, Bucky, Hawkeye, Black Panther, and more.
All things considered, Marvel’s Black Widow was worth the wait (after all the delays). Shortland, known for modestly budgeted dramas, directs the $200 million superhero blockbuster with absolute confidence, and it’s clear that she’s as invested in the character as the fanbase is. All killer, no filler, Scarlett Johansson’s swan song as Natasha Romanoff is fun, thrilling, and surprisingly poignant. It’s got great characters, plenty of action, and a story that expands and deepens the mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Natasha’s story may be over, but her impact on the MCU will continue to be felt for a long time. Do svidaniya.
Marvel’s Black Widow opens in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 9th.
Adam’s Rating: 4 out of 5
Follow Adam on Twitter – @AdamFrazier