What an unusual yet beguilingly brilliant Marvel movie Black Widow is. The Disney-owned saga’s USP is that everything is interlinked: each episode powers up the next, like nodes lighting up on a superhero circuit board. Cate Shortland’s film, however, exists almost entirely outside this continuum.
The prequel is set after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and acts as a stand-alone adventure for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff. This is probably a good thing, as Black Widow has a narrow window of opportunity for adventures left before she suffers a tragic demise in the events of Avengers: Endgame. But it does mean we’re into entirely new territory for the Marvel Cinematic Universe: an episode that goes nowhere, yet in dazzling, femme, power-fuelled fashion.
A trip into the past
In Black Widow, Romanoff reconnects with her family-of-sorts – Florence Pugh’s Yelena, a hilarious David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian and Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff – as we explore the back story we were never permitted more than a glimpse of in the other Marvel films. We even find out why the character never picked up a Russian accent despite having been a highly skilled graduate of the infamous Red Room before defecting to the US and joining the Avengers. It turns out Natasha was a teenager living in Ohio as the unwitting daughter of Russian sleeper agents when mum and dad were forced to make a rapid return to Moscow. She and young sister Yelena appear to have been immediately inducted into the Red Room on reaching Russian soil, but it seems Natasha never quite had that Ohio jaunt beaten out of her. Did getting to meet Romanoff’s bizarre nuclear family help you see Black Widow in a whole new light?
The James Bond stylings
The Black Widow comic books lean heavily towards the espionage genre, and Marvel’s big-screen adaptation has everything you’d expect from one of 007’s cold war outings; as if to make the point, Moonraker is even fleetingly shown on a background TV. There’s a big bad villain with a dodgy accent, Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, with a fittingly ambitious plan to take over the world using Red Room agents fed mind-control drugs. He even has a crazy floating base. Moreover, Natasha herself has been given a handy Q-style gadget man in the shape of OT Fagbenle as Rick Mason (though he tends to be more useful at procuring heavy military weaponry than wrist-worn dart-guns). Some of Black Widow’s spectacular set pieces were more than worthy of the Bond saga, but did you buy Marvel’s segue into spy territory?
Controversy! The gender-swapping and the accents
Can anyone give us an expert verdict on all those Russian accents? Pugh, Harbour and Weisz sounded pretty good, but Winstone’s seemed to drift dangerously towards east London at times, as if Dreykov had an ill-spent youth on the streets of Homerton. Perhaps more controversial, if this sort of thing bothers you, was the revelation that the villain’s scarred daughter is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of the classic Taskmaster baddie. In the comics, the character is male, Anthony “Tony” Masters, and has been around since 1980.
Given that we’re about to get a female Thor and that Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is the current king of Asgard, we should probably be used to Marvel gender-swapping. I was more disappointed by the film’s underuse of Olga Kurylenko, who barely got to breathe a word. What did you think?
The surprising absence of Iron Man
Were you a little upset that we didn’t get the chance to see Robert Downey Jr one last time in the Iron Man suit, despite reports to the contrary? I kept expecting Tony Stark to swoop down and wipe out all the bad guy bogeys at the optimum moment, before adopting an avuncular sidekick role similar to the one he plays in the Spider-Man movies. But the reports of Stark’s return (it’s a prequel, remember) were greatly exaggerated. We can only assume that there were plans at one stage to bring Downey Jr back, as reported by Deadline and others in 2019, but that Marvel ultimately went another way. Or perhaps the studio decided to keep the two superheroes apart to avoid what Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts once described as “potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit”? Stark does seem to be incapable of interacting with any female characters without engaging in some form of flirtation, after all, and perhaps this wouldn’t have been the right look for a movie that’s so female-focused? Fortunately, Black Widow is such a smashing picture that Downey Jr was barely missed, wouldn’t you agree?
The continuing adventures of Black Widow and that cryptic end-credit scene
One issue with the absence of Romanoff’s fellow defenders of the Earth from Shortland’s movie is that there are no clues hinting at future outings for Johansson’s assassin-turned-Avenger. If Marvel does choose to make a sequel, the studio will be working from scratch, as there are few obvious jumping-off points for a second outing.
Instead, Shortland offers up an end credit sequence in which Pugh’s Yelena meets up with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Valentina Allegra de Fontaine at her sister’s grave a few years later. We’ve already seen Valentina engaging in funny business with Wyatt Russell’s US Agent in Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Now it appears she’s recruited Yelena to take out Hawkeye in Jeremy Renner’s own upcoming turn in the Disney+ spotlight. Does the studio’s decision to focus on a new Black Widow, albeit one who seems to have mislaid her moral compass, suggest this is the last time we’ll see Johansson in a Marvel movie? The actor herself seems to think so.