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Black Widow

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What it’s about:

Natasha Romanoff, the MCU’s Black Widow, finally gets her own standalone film, a story about family, free will, karma, and kick-ass women.

Names you might know:

Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh (Little Women, Midsommar), Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), David Harbor (Stranger Things), Ray Winstone (The Departed), O-T Fagbenle (The Handmaid’s Tale), William Hurt (The Hulk plus lots of other MCU cameos). Directed by Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome), Screenplay by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok).

Why it’s worth your time:
Black Widow still
Image courtesy Disney

Black Widow has all the makings of a great MCU movie—an engaging, witty, character-driven story woven in between well-choreographed fight scenes, car chases, and large building explosions. This is why we love them. Come for Natasha sheepishly copping to leaving her little “sister” Yelena, played by Florence Pugh, behind, stay for Natasha taking on a whole clutter of Black Widows by herself. [Editor’s Note: the subject of collective nouns has come up recently around the Watercooler office, and yes, this is the proper name for a group of spiders.] Come for Natasha and Yelena’s horrified but bemused reaction to their “father” Alexei (David Harbor) praising them for being the most lethal women in the world, stay for Yelena shrugging off blowing up a helicopter while she’s on top of it as a “fun way to die.” And so it goes.

Like Natasha, Black Widow is smart and fierce, and willing to show its heart when called for. This movie is fan service at the highest level.

Black Widow begins where Civil War ended, with Natasha Romanov on the run. She escapes to a safe house in Norway to regroup, relax, and consider her next move. No sooner has she popped open her laptop, grabbed a bottle of beer, and settled down to mouth along the lines of her favorite James Bond flick (heh!) when that next move arrives, in the form of a package that her assistant Mason, played with a sardonic, Alfred-like air by O-T Fagbenle, has brought over from her Budapest safe house. Yes, Marvel fans, that Budapest.

Turns out her adoptive sister Yelena is—or was—a Black Widow team leader, and that project has gone from simply brainwashing young girls to mind control, eliminating all free will. She’s sent Nat the antidote, hoping that she’d bring the Avengers to the rescue. As we all know, her timing is a little off. Natasha believed the Black Widow program ended when she killed Dreykof, the founder. Yes, that Dreykov. But he’s not dead, and the Red Room is still active, and worse than ever, pulling in young girls from all over the world.

Black Widow still
Image courtesy Disney

Natasha and Yelena team up with the only parental figures they’ve ever known, scientist and Black Widow OG Melina, played by Rachel Weisz, and super soldier Alexei, played by David Harbor, to put a stop to it, once and for all. Herein lies the tale.

Marvel leans heavily into the idea that you can choose who you call family, so it’s ironic that in this film Natasha has to depend on the family that was created for her when she had no choice at all. It’s been 20 years since she’s seen any of them, and she was fine moving on with her life, even BS’ing to Yelena that she didn’t think they’d want to see her. But as Carrie Fisher wryly said, nothing’s ever over, it’s just over there, usually close enough to call you out on all your choices.

Here, that’s in the form of everyone’s ground-eye view of her life. Yelena, out of bitterness and hurt, is quick to point out that Natasha may feel that being an Avenger makes up for her past as an assassin, but she’s really just a “trained killer that little girls call their hero.” I mean, ouch. Alexei and Melina try to excuse the trauma the Red Room caused the two girls as necessary for the good of the State, plus they both turned out okay, didn’t they? I mean, Natasha is an Avenger—where did she get those skills from, huh? The four of them are forced to face the consequences of abandoning each other multiple times over the years and guess what? Karma is still a bitch. Facing your past is much different than putting it to rest.

One thing I love about Marvel movies is their insistence on hiring solid, high-quality actors, who always elevate the material. Johansson, Harbor, Pugh, and Weisz all have multiple Oscar and Emmy award nominations and wins among them, and it shows. Johansson makes Natasha’s quiet, fierce strength shine through her vulnerability, but isn’t overshadowed by it. Pugh’s begrudging barbs can’t quite cover her admiration of her sister, or that’s she’s slightly intimidated by her. Rumors are that Pugh is being set to take up the Black Widow mantle. If that’s true, I’m a little sad, but it would work. Weisz portrays Melina as smart, kind, focused, and with a wry sense of humor—it’s obvious where the two other women got it from. She’s a little too young to be playing Nat’s mother figure—there’s only a 16-year age difference between the two actresses—but you believe her. David Harbor plays Alexei, Russia’s super soldier Red Guardian, mostly for laughs, but you never doubt his commitment to his country, and to this jury-rigged family. He, more than anyone, is very excited that the band is back together again.

The takeaway:

Black Widow really is a love letter to the fans who have waited so long for this movie to happen, and then had to wait for another year after that due to the pandemic. Happily, it delivers, and does the character justice.

Watch it with:

Another big fan of either Marvel, the Avengers, or Black Widow. Do not use this movie to introduce someone to Marvel! That will be two hours of frustration and bewilderment.

Worth noting:

As every true MCU fan knows by now, you don’t leave the theater when the credits start rolling. I thought something was going to happen in the mid-credit scene that would have been awesome. But instead, it reminded me of the mid-credit scene in Spiderman: Far from Home. Felt odd. Interested to hear what other people thought. Go see the movie so you can tell me.

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