Many Marvel releases require the use of the word “event” to describe the experience. Set up to reward loyal fans and film buffs alike, they put the characters from comic books up on the big screen in new adventures that are usually considered exciting, but honestly aren’t for all moviegoers. All movies were put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Marvel titles suffered a different kind of setback given that they all fit into a neat universe and follow each other both thematically and chronologically. This meant that Black Widow was delayed again and again until now. You know what you get with a Marvel movie, and the trailer for this film has been available for a long time. Nevertheless, I was surprised by a different angle that I didn’t expect. Marvel beat out the James Bond franchise with Black Widow as what feels like the first female James Bond movie.
Director Cate Shortland (known for the fabulous Lore) and writer Eric Pearson (cowriter of the popular Thor: Ragnarok as well as recent disappointment Godzilla vs. Kong) take us on a journey all over the world that begins in suburban Ohio in 1995. Alexei Shostakov (aka Red Guardian) (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) live a normal American life… as Russian spies with two planted children, Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson) and Yelena Belova (Violet McGraw), to simulate the nuclear family. When the cover’s blown, the four get scattered to the wind with Alexei ending up in prison somehow, Melina off on her own and grown Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) dealing with becoming brainwashed “black widows” for bad guy Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Natasha went into hiding after the events of Captain America: Civil War, so both the U.S. government in the form of Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and Dreykov are after her when Yelena reaches out with vital information.
The lead actors deliver some solid performances, especially in the quiet moments, that you would not expect. Johansson accumulated accolades over her long career, and she commands the screen both physically and emotionally. She supposedly wanted to go out on a high note with her Black Widow character, and it’s clear that she succeeded. Pugh wowed audiences in 2019 with back-to-back hits in Midsommar and Little Women, and if anyone’s a scene stealer, she takes the title. Harbour anchors Stranger Things, and his character on that show ironically ends up in Russia somehow with a serious beard, just as Alexei does. Weisz has never been anything other than excellent, and her presence adds some emotional depth to the quiet scenes. Winstone has a history of playing the heavy in crime dramas, so he slips right into Dreykov’s skin as the main villain. Although action-packed most of the way, Black Widow still pulls at the heartstrings in a few scenes as the leads cry about their past lives and current predicaments.
If you watch the credits go by, you’ll see a parade of people involved with the special effects, and it shows. That’s always the case with Marvel films, and it’s a safe bet that almost all of the action scenes and certainly the finale showcase the best digital artists in seamless work with the physical sets and actors. Surprisingly, the de-aged Hurt looks bad and rubbery, which proves that we just aren’t there yet with the technology to simulate human beings without noticing. The stunts outweigh the special effects from my perspective. From car chases to aerial work, Black Widow has it all. You won’t believe where a car ends up at the end of a chase sequence. The stunt performers deserve special mention because they make a number of female fights (Natasha versus Yelena, Natasha versus widows, etc.) believable and painful to watch. The leads all take part in the hoopla, so nobody’s safe from a punch to the face or bullets flying in their direction. A daring prison escape made my jaw drop, and with the finale, you’ll throw your hands up in disbelief. If there wasn’t enough action, the mysterious armored character of Taskmaster delivers relentless damage when in battle with characters. Disguised with a skull-like helmet, Taskmaster reminds me of the unstoppable nature of the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Earlier, I made reference to the James Bond films. Allow me to support that comparison. Bond films take place all over the planet in real-world locations. The filmmakers shot Black Widow on location in Budapest, Norway and Morocco for authenticity that you can’t truly create in a studio. Natasha takes on various personas and sets up in new locations as easily as Bond would. You can expect outrageous stunts and scenes that defy physics from the Bond series, and that’s on display dozens of times here. Helicopters, cars and other aircraft and vehicles aren’t supposed to be able to pull off some of the moves that you’ll see, but you suspend disbelief anyway. Bodies can’t take as much damage after some of the fight scenes, yet James Bond always gets up again just like Natasha and Yelena. For another Bond connection, a cast member from a past Bond film makes a surprise appearance. You have your slimy Bond villain with no conscience in Dreykov and a force of nature in Taskmaster that seemingly can’t be killed. Intrigue, plot twists and surprises keep the plot moving. The only thing missing to finish my comparison would be a love interest for Natasha between fights and other spy stuff. Black Widow feels like a different kind of Marvel movie, and those unique aspects elevate the entry to a place higher than some of the aerial stunts.
Production design surprisingly stands out among the action with some amazing sets as simple as Melina’s library to Dreykov’s office with the high chandelier and wall of video screens. As a “Weird Al” Yankovic fan, two songs early in the movie made me think of his parodies of those songs, which is ironic in a movie about brainwashed characters considering that I’ve now been conditioned to think of Al’s versions. I’m not sure if this is the last that we’ll see of Johansson as this character. Nobody ever truly goes away forever in comic books after all. I’ll hold out hope just like Yelena that Natasha will once again echo back their secret whistle and we get another movie as pulse-pounding and different as Black Widow.