“Before I was an Avenger, I made mistakes... and a lot of enemies.” – Natasha Romanoff
Finally, Marvel’s movie universe can get its long awaited, several times delayed Phase IV underway though, technically, it might be argued that Phase IV started with WandaVision, but we’re talking about cinema released movies – so we’ll go with this as the beginning. We’ve waiting a long damn time for this, anticipation is of course high, and it’ s fair to say that that the repeated postponements have added to the pressure of this film needing to be a good one. After all, in the pre-Covid world, we should’ve seen this in May 2020 and its release has been pushed back a further three times since.
So, I guess the big question on everybody’s lips that I should answer first is “is it any good?”
Short answer is “yes”. Followed by “imagine if Marvel Studios made a Bond movie”. If that delicious notion of a super-spy film with a bit of super-heroism thrown in whets your salivating taste buds, you’re in for a treat.
I guess the second question would be “but wait – didn’t the Black Widow die in an act of noble self-sacrifice in Endgame, to secure an Infinity Stone? Isn’t this a cheat that undoes that?” To which I say, “calm down and breathe into a bag or something”.
My perfect, wish-list Black Widow film would’ve been made a few years ago, and would’ve shown, in flashback, how Natasha Romanoff became the Black Widow, what actually happened in the Red Room, how were they trained, what did she have to endure to become the Widow. What happened in the Budapest incident with Clint (Hawkeye) Barton? What’s the story behind having red on her ledger? I wanted a full-on origin film, for a character which is one of the Marvel Movie Universe’s most mysterious and intriguing characters. She doesn’t have any super powers, she’s not a metahuman, she doesn’t have a flying suit of armour, she wasn’t dosed with a super soldier serum, she’s been trained as a spy and assassin in Communist Russia, part of her graduation” was being forced to have a hysterectomy so she’d never be distracted by pregnancy or childbirth. There would be only “the mission”. That makes for an absolutely devastating backstory, and results in one of the most interesting characters in the whole Marvel Movie Universe, brought to three-dimensional life by Scarlett Johansson.
But sadly, this isn’t THAT film. If you want to see that film, I guess the closest you’ll get is Red Sparrow (2018) which, incidentally is an incredibly good film.
But Black Widow comes close. It does what it does in filling in some of the gaps in her background very, very well.
Let’s answer the big question – how is she still alive? Answer – she isn’t. This is a flashback film that takes place while she’s on the run following the events of Captain America: Civil War, which kicked off Marvel’s Phase III in 2016, BEFORE Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. This raises the question of should this now be watched after Civil War in order to get the straight timeline, as some people like to watch the film series beginning with Captain America: The First Avenger? Well, you CAN, but the end of credits sting will give a massive spoiler as to the outcome of Endgame.
SO, what DO we actually have here?
Well, the Widow’s on the run, a fugitive. The rest of the Avengers are mentioned, but they don’t form a part of the story. This is Natasha Romanoff, teaming up reluctantly with her fake sister to try and take down the infamous Red Room, the facility where she and many others have been trained. Fake sister? Yes, we first join Natasha as a young child, being told by her parents that they’re going on “an adventure” and leaving the family home.
They’re on a deep undercover, three-year mission having integrated themselves into their small-town Ohio neighbourhood with ease. Those aren’t her parents. They’re Russian agents. “Dad” (David Harbour) is in reality a Russian superhero code named Red Guardian who has earlier received the then-USSR version of the super soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America. “Mom” (Rachel Weisz) is also an agent – a Black Widow, and a leading scientist. Younger daughter Yelena isn’t even aware that these aren’t her real parents as both kids are heartlessly removed from their surrogate parents and are sent to the dreaded Red Room for training.
The head of the Red Room is Dreykov (Ray Winstone) a man that Natasha is convinced that she killed some time ago, along with his daughter, on a mission to shut down the Red Room for once and for all. A mission she undertook as part of her defection to SHIELD.
Informed by Yelena that none of this is actually true, Dreykov is still alive and the Red Room is still taking in children, torturing them in training and using mind control in order to churn out more Black Widows. But they can’t do it alone.
Ultimately, what we have is very much a Bond style story of a super-agent, capable of doing just about anything that the situation at hand calls for, armed with an array of vehicles and finding allies along the way. It IS very Bond. In fact, Natasha is even watching Moonraker in one sequence. But as I said, it’s as if Marvel Studios made a Bond film, there are of course some superpowered characters in Red Guardian and Dreykov’s personal assassin, The Taskmaster, a masked villain who has Captain America’s deftness with a shield.
But the super powered characters don’t fly around, saving the world – this isn’t their story, this is an opportunity to examine and flesh out who Natasha Romanoff is, who she was. Most of it is revealed in conversational dialogue but it fits in a lot of the gaps we die-hard fans have been wondering about for a long time. And this filling in for fine detail is what makes the film work most of all. Rather than be a pointless exercise where we already know the Widow’s eventual fate, thus diluting the drama because we know she survives this in order to die in a couple of films – this film skilfully makes the character fully real to the audience, making her death all the more a tragic loss.
As for Yelena, this is a very strong introduction to a character I’m sure we’re going to see more of as the Marvel Movie Universe proudly marches on.
Expectations were high, as I said at the beginning of this piece – and those expectations were met head on. But this isn’t a big, sprawling intergalactic adventure with space battles, cities being levelled and dropped, there are no aliens. This is very much Earthbound and a personal revenge mission. The Widow is out to finish something she thought she’d finished years ago. This is a more restrained Marvel movie than we’re used to, and having to follow the true epics like Infinity War and Endgame, not to mention Spider-Man Far from Home, this is I think the best move Marvel could have made, in not even trying to out-do those films to kick off Phase IV, but go with a smaller scale, character driven piece to ease audiences back to the fold. (But of course, even restrained, a Marvel film is more action packed than most other films.)
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