It’s about damn time Black Widow got her own movie. She has been in seven of the previous MCU movies but always as a supporting player. Mind you Pepper Potts has been in seven of the films too so it isn’t just about long service. (For the record Rhodey is in eight and while he hasn’t had his own film up until now either, there is a TV show in production. For comparison Thor is in eight as well, behind Cap with nine and Nick Fury and Tony Stark clocking up ten.)
In terms of precisely how long Black Widow’s service has been, this is varied. She has only ten minutes of screen time in her first film Iron Man 2 and as little as five in Infinity War. Her most significant appearances have been in the first Avengers movie and in Winter Soldier, each of which gave her twenty five minutes but she only has sixteen in Endgame despite the huge part she played in events there (mind you, Endgame was a big ensemble piece; Steve and Tony only have half an hour each out of the whole three hours themselves).
In all of her appearances though Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff has added massive value to proceedings, initially through being incredibly wry, utterly level headed and totally kick ass in a range of combative situations, and then later giving a surprising amount of heart and compassion regarding how these situations are affecting others around her. This new film builds on all of this, taking these cool character beats and using them to fuel a whole narrative finally centred on her.
Of course it is a shame that she had to die before this happened. It does make this little sub series quite finite. It is hard to remember back, but this movie wasn’t announced until after we’d all seen her sacrifice in the last Avengers movie. It was made clear at the time that this film would be a prequel but that is only half true. This story falls right between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War so it is a prequel to ten of the Marvel Universe films and a sequel to twelve of them. (There is a flash back to 1995 at the start which would be happening concurrently with the events of Captain Marvel, making that part a sequel to one or two of them and a prequel to twenty three.)
The placement of this adventure works really well as this is a time when the Avengers are disassembled so Natasha is convincingly out on her own and free to have her own adventures. The opening moments of the film, as she lays low after breaching the Sokovia Accords, show a different side of a character who has always been first to jump into the action and it’s a nice change of pace as she hides out of view. Of course this isn’t Fanny Longbottom in the Deathly Shadows so there are no lengthy scenes of her camping out in the countryside before things crank up again. She is pretty quickly in the thick of it once more and surrounded by a different group of team members. The difference here is that no matter how good her companions are, and they are great, she is never eclipsed by them. They are all supporting her.
The celebrated comrades here are David Harbour’s Red Guardian – a cross between Captain America and Mr. Incredible, Rachel Wiesz’s Melina – a cross between Ilsa Faust and Marian Cunningham, and Florence Pugh’s Yelena – a mix of Kim Possible, Katniss Everdean and Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Each of them is a great character in their own right and it is a stand out ensemble in a series of films that has redefined ensembles. Pugh comes closest to stealing the film as another Black Widow but even though she doesn’t quite wrestle control from our lead, she looks set to take up her mantle (more on that later). She echoes so much of Johannson’s dry, get it done attitude but still manages to be a very different person.
It is hard to know if this film would have nailed the landing quite so well if Natasha’s fate had not been sealed but among Marvel’s normal astute mix of action, humour and character there is a sense that this is a well earned swan song. There wasn’t time for Ms. Romanoff to get a proper send off in Endgame, despite Tony getting a very star studded funeral, but this film addresses this lack nicely. Now is her moment to shine and ours to reflect.
With a plot that is more grounded (that’s a relative statement in a Marvel film) this almost doesn’t feel as though it is part of a series that has previously seen our heroes dealing with aliens, different dimensions and the end of worlds but the switch works. Of all the previous movies this is most akin to Winter Soldier but with the villain being a Russian bent on surreptitiously ruling the Earth (how very Hydra of him) if anything this is more similar to 007 than an armageddon. The movie even references this with a clip from Moonraker, deliberately choosing the least earthbound of all of the Bonds I’m sure but Bond nonetheless.
The Ripley Factor:
Interestingly in the same way that the Bond films track the evolution of action cinema over almost sixty years, so do Black Widow’s appearances over the last eleven show the progression of the representation of women in these types of movies. In Iron Man 2 she was heavily sexualised and while this was reduced it still carried over into Avengers to some considerable extent. Now though we have a strong female action hero who is smart, and empowered from top to toe without focusing so much on some of the body parts in between.
Before I close there are a few things I’d like to discuss in more detail, including one tiny gripe and the end credits sequence. Don’t read on if you’ve not seen the film.
I like the fact that Taskmaster is given a different origin and gender swapped from the comics but was it supposed to be a twist that it was Dreykov’s daughter behind the mask? Having Olga Kurylenko’s name come up in the opening credits made it kind of clear she was playing the character so it really wasn’t a surprise when we found out her identity. Also Kurylenko is five years older than Scarlett Johansson and looks it so I’m not sure it was the best casting and putting a recognisable actor (recognisable from a Bond film of course) in the part did seem a waste. Also, I assume I’m not the only one who when Loki was revealing that he knew of Romanoff’s dark past in Avengers in 2012 and started by saying ‘Dreykov’s daughter’, thought that he meant Natasha was Dreykov’s daughter. That was a twist, right? I guess you call that playing the Avengers Long game.
Speaking of turning things around, there was us thinking that it was all on Steve when he turned up heroically on The Raft at the end of Civil War to break his friends out of prison and that he’d linked up with Nat again later. Nope, that was all on her which is a nice little feminist moment that does not feel in any way forced.
Also, did you pick up on Natasha not wanting Yelena to do the suicide play to beat the bad guy? This adds to the power of her final actions later.
Finally there’s that scene at Natasha’s ‘grave’ where they teased her coming back with Yelena’s whistle. Alas though, no response. Clearly it was Yelena, Melina and/or Alexei who laid the tombstone as it said Daughter, Sister, Avenger on the engraving and the Avengers didn’t know she had family. Also, one of them knew the significance of the tree. How nice then that they put Avenger on the stone at all, being potentially anti-American as they are, in recognition of her other family.
Then there’s Yelena’s latest mission. Does anyone see a parity coming here where Hawkeye was sent to kill Nat but made her an Avenger and now will do the same thing when Yelena is sent to kill him?