I’ll be honest, out of all the Marvel films slated for 2021, this was the one I was looking forward to the least. For those of you familiar with the MCU, the character of Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff has been a mainstay in the Marvel movies since all the way back since 2010’s Iron Man 2. Played exceptionally well by Scarlett Johansson, Natasha has been there for some of the biggest moments in the Avenger’s history, from Loki invading New York all the way to Thanos’s galaxy-wiping conquest. Despite this, Black Widow had never received a standalone film like her male contemporaries. We’ve learned bits and pieces of her history through her interactions with the rest of the Avengers, but we never really got to delve into her character too much outside of these brief interactions and hints. With Avengers Endgame serving as the definite end to Natasha’s story (for now, at least) Disney has seen it fit to finally grant her her own movie…now that she’s dead.
I’m not entirely sure why Marvel waited until now to focus on a prominent, decade spanning character. Perhaps the not-so-transparent veil of sexism towards female led action films is starting to disappear thanks to Marvel’s success with Captain Marvel, or maybe the genuinely did not know what to do with the character for years. Either way, I can’t help but feel this film came a few years too late. COVID certainly didn’t help with this sentiment, delaying the film a whole year due to Disney’s refusal to let it go straight to streaming services. Leading Marvel’s triumphant return to the movies would be a daunting task for any of the new arrivals, yet Disney seems to have hope that consistent fans of Natasha’s will gravitate towards this film stronger initially than the films introducing complete newcomers to the universe like the Eternals and Shang-Chi.
Luckily for the fans, Black Widow delivers a fairly solid solo outing for the badass spy, strengthened by much of the action and humor fans of the MCU have come to love. On the flip side of this, not much has really changed or evolved to make this film feel like it’s introducing us into new realms of possibilities like Marvel’s Phase 4 has promised. Fans who don’t mind a little of the bread and butter will be happy that Black Widow gets her due, but those that have grown numb to the Marvel formula may be left waiting and hoping for the next few films to really shake up the universe.
Taking places in between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Natasha Romanoff is on the run from the US government after violating the Sokovia Accords put in place after the Ultron incident in a previous film. After receiving a suspicious package of chemicals and being attacked by ruthless, fight style mimicking assassin, Natasha returns to her old stomping grounds and is reunited with her long lost “sister”, Yelena. Linked by their upbringing in the Red Room, an organization specializing in kidnapping young girls and turning them into deadly sleeper agents, the two set off on a quest to bring the entire organization down and hope to find closure in their past.
For Johanssons’s Romanoff, the film is less about the development of her character and more about achieving catharsis. Her performance is serviceable for the role she’s been placed in, yet feels limited knowing the the emotional high points for the character have already been covered in previous films. Hints of Romanoff’s tortured past have been sprinkled across the MCU, but rarely do we actually get to understand the full scope of being a brainwashed Russian spy. The film explores this, but only so much. The opening credits sequence delves into the darkness of this world with a gritty, disturbing look into Romanoff’s upbringing set to a…questionable slow indie cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It sets the mood for a darker side of the MCU that the film unfortunately doesn’t follow up on. Most of the film is Romanoff talking about the sins of her past and the weight it puts on her, but rarely do we see the actual events except for quick glances. The infamous “Budapest job” Romanoff and best friend Clint Barton constantly refer to across several MCU movies is given a bit more context, yet still left me wanting to see the actual incident rather than the aftermath.
Tagging along in Romanoff’s journey towards revenge is Yelena, played by one of my current favorites, Florence Pugh. Yelena’s emotional journey of reuniting with the only family she had ever known, no matter how fractured it might have been, was the most engrossing element for me. Like Romanoff she yearns to redeem herself by toppling the Red Room, bringing a jaded but hopeful energy to Romanoff’s world, along with some of the funniest lines in the film. Speaking of funny, David Harbour flexes his comedic chops and his Russian accent as the boastful Red Guardian, the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America. Stuck in the memories of his heyday as he’s grown older and more rotund, the Red Guardian is not only trying to prove his greatness to the world, but to his “daughters” Natasha and Yelena. Often the punching bag for other character’s quips, Harbour manages to bring charm and pity to the downtrodden character, managing to make me laugh but still keep me engrossed in his road to redemption.
When it comes to villains in the MCU, the spectrum of their success can be a mile wide. When they work, they come with depth, emotion and a serious mean streak, such as Thanos or Loki. At the other end of the spectrum, there are villains so forgettable and one note that you struggle to even remember their names, like Yellowjacket or Malekith. For Black Widow’s big bad, General Dreykov, he lands somewhere in the middle. As the leader of the Red Room, Dreykov is manipulative, sadistic and potentially saddling an inferiority complex. While not as flashy or deep as some of the MCU’s best villains, his influence and power can at least be felt through the film. While he lacks memorable elements to give him true staying power, I at least enjoyed having a villain who is bad just because he wants to bad. Assisting Dreykov in the destruction of Natasha Romanoff is his go-to assassin, Taskmaster. A character known for his photographic memory and learned ability to copy any fighting style he sees, I was actually pretty excited to see the hired merc introduced to the MCU. While the Taskmaster from the comics is a smart-mouthed, money hungry assassin with something to prove, the MCU’s Taskmaster is, “shockingly”, completely different. A voiceless, Terminator-like killer whose sole existence seems to be tracking down Romanoff, the character is a far cry from what fans know him as outside of his skillset. Yet, in the context of the story, the character makes sense in order to connect them to Natasha’s history. While lacking a memorable personality, Taskmaster at least delivers on fun fight scenes mimicking the fighting styles of Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Panther.
While much of the fight choreography is fairly well done, the cinematography during these scenes unfortunately relies on far too much closeup, shaky camera work. This has been a style that has infected many modern action movies, the MCU included, that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be going away. For a film centered around one of the MCU’s best hand-to-hand combatants, its a bit disappointing. The action set pieces are at their best when they take a more grounded, brutal approach, such as Natasha and Yelena’s initial fight. When the scenes tend to go bigger and more extravagant, the CGI does the heavy lifting to mixed success. It makes sense where it’s needed, like a fight in the middle of free fall, but you can only see so many SFX explosions before it starts to really take you out. This isn’t a knock to the VFX crew behind these films, but more to those behind the curtain whose over-reliance on computer generated sets and assets becomes more and more telling with each passing film. A bit off topic, but was I the only one that noticed there was a ton of low, butt-tracking shots of Natasha? I don’t know, it felt weird after all the complaints about sexualizing the character.
While I praise the script for its comedic elements, the story itself is modest at best with some of the weakest dialogue the series has seen. The cast does what it can to keep us engaged, but the film never really feels like a worthwhile journey that honors the legacy of one of the MCU’s longstanding heroes. What should have been a satisfying, bow-tying farewell to Johansson’s character feels like another prime example of what the MCU is constantly criticized for; scattering breadcrumbs alluding to even more MCU to come. A heartfelt goodbye to the character that finally gave her due seems to an afterthought, as the story is filled with conveniences and a half-hearted feminist message that feels tacked on at best. The MCU likes to dance around these big issues like child trafficking and forced hysterectomies while making them feel completely weightless in the long run, and never has it been more apparent here. At least there’s some semblance of a message here, when many other MCU films can’t say the same. Furthermore, for a film about the original Black Widow, she feels severely overshadowed by the supporting players, proving further that Marvel can only look towards the future but struggles to live in the now. This is more to the fault of Marvel than the actual players involved, including director Cate Shortland whose style is never apparent here thanks to what I can only assume is Marvel’s heavy handed demand to keep all of their movies stylistically and tonally the same.
I have been a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its inception, yet I can recognize where they misstep and when they are just trying to tick a box. Black Widow could have been a lot of things, but at the end of the day it’s simply serviceable. It succeeds in its performances and some of its action, but for someone who has been watching these films for nearly 15 years, I can’t help but be fatigued. As the film set to kick off a new age of Marvel movies, it is egregiously stuck in the past in its presentation and storytelling. Not to mention the timing of this movie just seems way too late, as the closure for this character has already come in another movie so this movie’s existence only feels questionable now. Diehard MCU fans will find their enjoyment out of it, but as someone who considers themselves a supportive but hopeful fan, something has got to change.
Made with Russia’s finest export, the Widow’s Kiss is a complex, fruit-flavored tribute to one of the true OGs of the MCU. There are many sweet fruit flavors to discover here, but the crowning jewel is the iconic Black Widow logo stenciled on top thanks to some delicate shakes of raspberry powder. The powder is not only adds a nice aromatic element, but it also gives a slight sour candy taste as the drink’s foam begins to disperse. It takes a steady hand to get the powder placed ever so gently on top of the foam, so be sure to practice!
Or just be like me and fail to do it 2 times, wasting 2 whole drinks like a true professional.
- 2oz cherry vodka
- 1oz Blue Curacao
- 1oz cranberry juice
- 1oz pineapple juice
- 3/4oz Grenadine
- 1 egg white
- Garnish: Raspberry powder
- Before getting started, create a stencil of the black widow hourglass logo using either paper or a plastic lid.
- In a shaker, add your ingredients and shake vigorously without ice for about 15-20 seconds.
- Add ice to the shaker, then shake to chill.
- Strain your cocktail into a chilled coup glass.
- Place the stencil over the glass and carefully sprinkle the raspberry powder on top to create the design.