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Thursday, July 8, 2021

Black Widow



It took 24 films for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to deliver a Bond movie and director Cate Shortland's Black Widow is both a great Bond movie and a top-tier Marvel movie. At last, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) takes center stage in a film that delves into her origins and her complicated feelings about the family she had before she became an Avenger. Black Widow also details what makes Natasha special and unique, even among the scores of other young girls who were taken into Russia's mysterious Red Room and trained to be relentless female assassins codenamed Black Widow. We know Natasha died saving the universe in Avengers: Endgame, but in Black Widow, she is, appropriately, never more present, more capable, more alive, more human, and more glorious.

Not that Natasha doesn't have competition from her own sister. Florence Pugh makes a spectacular debut in the MCU as Yelena Belova, who is 5 years younger and was part of a spy family planted in Ohio for three years in the 1990s. Natasha and Yelena's origin is a page out of The Americans; their 'parents' were Russian agents Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokov (Rachel Weisz). Alexei is Russia's first and only Super Soldier codenamed Red Guardian and his career is made up of war stories against Captain America (Chris Evans) that he never fought because Steve Rogers was still frozen in ice when Alexei was Red Guardian. Melina was a loving mother figure to young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and young Yelena (Violet McGraw) but when their mission is compromised in 1995, they had to violently flee from S.H.I.E.L.D. before they were betrayed in Cuba by their handler, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Their fake family is separated and the two girls are handed over to Drekov's Red Room to be turned into Black Widows. This not only includes weapons and spy training to make them deadly assassins but they were also subjected to hysterectomies, although the adult Yelena and Natasha joke about it now.

Natasha's story is obviously world-famous: she defected and joined S.H.I.E.L.D. before becoming a superhero and an Avenger. When they're reunited, Yelena taunts her sister that little girls look at Natasha on magazine covers and made an assassin their hero. But when Black Widow picks up Nat's story, it's 2016 in the MCU's timeline, and Captain America: Civil War has just happened, meaning Romanoff is a fugitive being hunted by Secretary Ross (William Hurt) for violating the newly-minted Sokovia Accords and the Avengers have just fallen apart. Black Widow is set before Natasha reunited with her fellow ex-Avenger on the lam, Steve Rogers, and the film happens two years before Avengers: Infinity War. Of course, as a superspy, Natasha has resources of her own, including Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenle), a fixer who set her up with a hideout in Norway and acquires her supplies and gear, including her Black Widow costumes and even an Avengers Quinjet. It's amusing that Natasha hid in Norway years before the Asgardians arrived to set up New Asgard after Thor: Ragnarok.

Yelena and Natasha reunite when the younger Black Widow is freed from her mind control thanks to a special red gas. Natasha is stunned to learn that not only is the Red Room still active but Dreykov is still alive when assassinating the Russian master spy was her ticket to joining S.H.I.E.L.D. That was the Budapest mission that Natasha and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) joked about in The Avengers, but it was a tragic job Natasha had to do which led to Dreykov's daughter Antonia (Olga Kurylenko) ending up in the line of fire. But unbeknownst to Natasha, both of the Dreykovs lived. The father reestablished the Red Room and perfected his mind control of the Black Widows, planting a legion of brainwashed lady assassins all over the world. Meanwhile, Dreykov's greatest mind-controlled creation is his own daughter, who he turned into a silent assassin called Taskmaster, who can instantly learn anyone's fighting style and use it against them. Amusingly, Super Soldiers who can topple governments was the basis of the failed Winter Soldier program in Captain America: Civil War, but Dreykov achieved the same plot with Black Widows. He even turned the Red Room into his version of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarrier, which was foreshadowed early in the film when Natasha watches the Roger Moore Bond movie, Moonraker.

Natasha and Yelena are electric together; both are equally skilled and dangerous but they fall into a sisterly dynamic where Yelena goofs on Natasha for her superhero landing pose and for hanging around with Avengers like the 'god from space' who she considers her family. But to get to Dreykov, the Black Widows bust Alexei out of a Siberian gulag and they reunite with Melina, who has been working for Dreykov as his architect all along. What transpires are years of pain spilling out at the dinner table from a family that was thrown together and cruelly torn apart by their own government. Still, as Natasha learned with the Avengers, the only people you can trust are your family, and Black Widow delivers thrilling spy double-crosses as Natasha masterminds a face-to-face confrontation with Dreykov in the Red Room. The Bond-style spy games give way to Marvel-style mega-action (which also the modern Bond style led by Rachel Weisz's real-life husband, Daniel Craig, in his 007 movies) where Natasha takes on dozens of Black Widows solo and repeatedly hurls herself from the plummeting space station to perform impossible rescues. Daredevil is called the Man Without Fear but Natasha Romanoff can see but does what she does anyway, so she one-ups Matt Murdock there.

As a swan song for Natasha Romanoff, the original and best Black Widow, her long-awaited solo movie delivers in spades. Johansson, who is also executive producer, knows Natasha inside out, and she's a calm, wise, uber confident, effortlessly cool, but appropriately emotional and suitably awesome center who is every inch a superhero. Black Widow is also a rollicking passing of the baton to Yelena and Pugh has a bright future in the MCU, as evidenced by the post-credits scene setting up her next appearance in Disney+'s Hawkeye. With the MCU already introducing the Multiverse and Loki setting up the concepts of Variants, Johannson could return someday but the Natasha Romanoff who fans have watched for a decade since she debuted in Iron Man 2 is sadly gone. But Black Widow was worth the wait and it's gritty and globetrotting Marvel superheroics at its finest. Even the opening credits sequence (rare for a Marvel film) is spectacular: a disturbing montage of Natasha and Helena's indoctrination into the Red Room set to a moody cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that plays like the brainwashing scene in A Clockwork OrangeBlack Widow is Johansson and Natasha's equivalent to Captain America: The Winter Soldier and there's no higher compliment.