by Paul Deeter
Marvel's succession of three solid Disney Plus series of Wandavision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki may have been the hat trick the company needed after its unexpected off year due to Covid-19. In an unprecedented and hugely unfinancial year for all movie companies, Black Widow was originally set to be released on May 1st, 2020 just under a year after what's considered the last "phase three" Marvel film: Spiderman: Far From Home. The Summer release of the second Tom Holland outing as Spiderman was a fitting end to the third phase, which saw a true memorial to those lost in the devastating events of Marvel's two-part Avenger films: Infinity Wars and Endgame. In Spiderman: Far From Home, the death of Tony Stark and events of the "blip" (society's nickname for the missing years lost to Thanos' snap in Infinity Wars) are fully present in the overall mood of the film and its characters. And Phase Three will iconically be remembered as the end to a lot of characters, due to movie deal endings and career moves for some of our decade running Avengers. In recent news, this contract trend for Marvel films will be ending according to Kevin Feige in interview with the Hollywood Reporter where ...."he hinted that the talent will stay on board and return for additional projects if they're enthusiastic about the universe they've become a part of, without needing an expansive contract." So Phase Four has quite a bit to prove, and the waters were testy for Black Widow even in 2020. Who asked for an origin story of an Avenger who (two year old spoiler-time) died in Endgame in 2019? And on top of that, how would a year long delay help an already questionable entry to the MCU?
Well part of the confusion that came from my end in understanding Black Widow in the MCU timeline was cleared up before I actually saw it. Before the release, it became viral where the film actually landed in that timeline.
"Black Widow is set after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Johansson did not want to do a true origin story for the character, and both her and Feige felt setting the film after Civil War was "the best place to start" because "it gave us a lot of grid and every possibility" to explore Romanoff being on her own for the first time and not tied to a larger organization."
This gives the purpose of the film a little more clarity. Natasha Romanoff or our Black Widow, to the fans, is alive and thriving in the messy "divorce" as she puts it of the Avengers, pre Thanos. Before Thanos comes and mucks things up, the Avengers were either on the lam, arrested or indifferent to one another, due to the Sokovia Accords that were implemented by the government for damage control on the Avengers. In Black Widow, Natasha is definitely on the run, and to the benefit of the viewer, we see her pull a black-leather James Bond and travels between landscapes of Norway, Budapest and Ohio! The introductory scenes of the film do catch us up with the "family" characters who are in hiding and playing roles (even young Natasha and Yelena as kids) to avoid defection from the government and continue work for mother Russia. What gets a bit confusing is where Natasha's life pre-Ohio as a government experiment and then her training as a "Black Widow" (one of many) falls into her own narrative. We know she's used by the Russian government, we know she was taken away the ability to bear children and was brainwashed for years. That being said, with Yelena's arc into heroism after freedom of her own brainwashed imprisonment, Natasha is an interesting character because we knew her for years as a devout Avenger and not a Russian soldier.
All that aside, the elements of family, including the first scene which sets them all up in different directions come together in stride throughout the film's runtime. Black Widow is (unironically?) a family movie, a movie about a family that was ripped apart due to circumstance but also maybe never came from a real thing at all. As Black Widow smoothly jets through its two hour and fifteen minute runtime, each family member comes together in a sort of "Avengers Assemble!" callback. The movie has lots of fun with the dynamic between Natasha (Scarlett Johannsson) and her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) who to the film's credit totally look like sisters. They bicker and mock each other's "superhero poses" and then kick ass like nothing else matters. Most of the first half of the film does away with humor. The opening credits have a dark cover of Nirvana's 'Nevermind' by a female vocalist to the images of children in cages. The film is also frequently violent, arms break and people shoot others and themselves. So when Red Guardian (David Harbour) comes into scene as a washed up Russian Captain America exhero, the laughs come tenfold in his inability to connect to his daughters or the fact that his super-suit is simply a few sizes too small at this point. Rachel Weisz plays Melina, the mother, and the four effectively squabble and support one another, as they ponder the question of what family means and if they ever were sincere about it.
The film sits at an uneven but positive 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is low for a Marvel release. Tonally the movie shifts quite a bit between the dark elements of abusers and victims along with unexpected humor and quite a few action setpieces. It's no surprise to me that A.A. Dowd who has his fair share of disdain for Marvel films gave Black Widow a B- favoring the first half and saying: "Black Widow goes full Marvel in its bloated final act, seemingly running down a checklist of Kevin Feige demands: A giant floating fortress! Unconvincing digital explosions! A mysterious masked adversary that’s basically The Winter Soldier redux! I mean, come on. It's a Marvel superhero action feature, and as odd duck as it can be, audiences would be disappointed if we didn't have our fair share of popcorn-munching action. It was the kind of movie that I felt comfortable to see with a big audience who clapped and gasped and laughed in fair share to the movie's many surprises. What's biggest is the surprise in the stinger, which made quite a few viewers actually scream and gasp in response (not spoiling.) And when I left the theater after what's probably our summer's biggest blockbuster and a true return to form for Marvel, I bumped into lots of coworkers and friends who all seemed to agree: this is top tier Marvel. I may be getting ahead of myself because of my giddiness in response to how much I loved this experience, but this original, dark sheep to the Marvel family may go down as one of my favorite Marvel films.