Marvel’s Black Widow was originally scheduled for release in May 2020. After three delays, (435 days’ worth!), it hit the big screen last weekend. And all I can say is: it was worth the wait.
Black Widow’s Thursday “preview” ticket sales came in at $13.2 million, the highest earnings of any film released during the pandemic. Its weekend box office got $80 million, and another $60 million for online access through Disney+ (where it’s available for $30). The final opening box office netted about $218 million.
Personally, I saw it in theaters, and I encourage you to do the same (if it’s safe, of course).
There are a lot of elements that come together to make this movie good, but a couple I’d like to focus on specifically.
WARNING: SOME MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
At its core, Black Widow is an action/spy movie with a tone similar to Captain America: Winter Soldier, with Natasha’s complex characterization mirroring her depiction in that movie as someone who is both ruthlessly efficient and practical, but conflicted due to a strong sense of empathy.
As an action movie, it sticks the landing. The pacing is perfect; fight scenes take exactly the amount of time they should, without feeling repetitive or stretched, and each act takes place in a distinctive setting that transitions smoothly. We get to see the natural beauty of Norway, the urban streets of Budapest, the snowy isolation of Siberia, a rural setting in St. Petersburg, and, finally, a finale in the Red Room that takes place indoors (and then, later, outdoors). Splitting five acts into five settings with semi-contained sequences makes the movie easy to follow and its story arc intuitive.
The action itself is variable and appealing. The chase and combat scenes are choreographed with an eye for detail.
Speaking of details, there were so many that make Natasha’s world fully fleshed out. Although we never see him during the movie proper, Clint Barton’s influence on Natasha is always felt, from the arrow holes in the wall of the Budapest safehouse to the tiny, understated necklace that sits over Natasha’s throat for the vast majority of the film. Other tiny details, like Red Guardian’s “KARL MARX” knuckles tattoos or Natasha’s brief viewing of the James Bond film Moonraker, reveal a production crew that went out of their way to ensure that even the background “gags” were fully integrated to strengthen the movie as a whole.
Set just after Captain America: Civil War, the movie gives Natasha a hard-won redemptive arc that delves into her backstory, making it an origin story that stops short of being a prequel. It fits seamlessly into the Marvel Cinematic Universe without retconning any of Natasha’s backstory, which was my second biggest fear for this movie. (I’ll get to my first later.)
The acting and chemistry of the cast was absolutely brilliant. The “family dinner” scene in which Alexi, Melinda, Natasha, and Yelena finally reunite in Melinda’s home had the theater in throes. Marvel films have a tendency not to take themselves too seriously, but sometimes, those quips can feel canned or forced. In the family dinner scene, the quips were delivered with a deadpan gallows humor that highlighted the damage done to Natasha and Yelena by Hydra. Lines such as, “We were good parents who played our parts to perfection” and “You’re just as beautiful as the day I was assigned to be married to you” are both instantly hilarious but also revealing about the depth to which Hydra has warped the perceptions of its members. Yelena’s reference to the “Crimson Dynamo” got a chuckle from me, and nearly everything said by Alexi was golden.
In fact, the only piece of dialogue that didn’t quite sit well with me was the stereotypical “In English, please!” (a line that would have been funnier if it was, “In Russian, please!” to subvert that over-used phrase). The simplified explanation that follows (“It’s an antidote for mind-control!”) is a bit silly, but a necessary plot device to allow the Widows at the end to be given the liberation the audience is so desperately rooting for.
The humorous dialogue during the family dinner scene wasn’t simply there for the sake of it, though. It helped temper some of the more gut-wrenching emotional elements of the reunion. Although no one would call this a “family film,” the concept of chosen family is still a major theme, and like family itself, this theme is handled with a slew of different and at times contradictory emotions. Alexi’s story about his father peeing on his hands was equal parts funny and bizarrely touching; his insistence that he is proud of Yelena as “the most deadly child assassin” is likewise a perfect blend of hilarious, tragic, and touching.
Speaking of touching, while there were moments of levity like the family dinner scene, the opening montage (set to a haunting cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) does a great job of setting up one of the film’s darker themes: human trafficking. To that end, there’s immense satisfaction to be had at the end when Dreykov, the head of the Black Widow program, is finally confronted. He’s a perfectly vile villain and his blasé attitude toward human suffering is hair-raising.
The other main antagonist, Task Master, is designed with perfect parallels to the other Avengers, with tips of the hat to Iron Man’s helmet, Hawkeye’s bow, Black Panther’s claws, Captain America’s shield, and, of course, the Black Widow fighting style. (Eagle-eyed Marvel buffs might also observe that both Task Master and Yelena perform the Winter Soldier’s famous knife-flip trick during fights, a subtle reminder of Hydra’s connection to both the Black Widow and the Winter Soldier programs.) The reveal of the Task Master’s main identity was perhaps not entirely shocking or unexpected, but still managed to carry emotional weight thanks to Natasha’s reaction to it.
The final scene, post-Endgame, of Yelena at Natasha’s grave, was heart-breaking, not in the least because we see that Yelena gets her dog. (And while I won’t spoil the after-credits scene twist, I will say that it prompted some applause at my theater.)
If you haven’t yet seen this movie, be advised there’s some mild bodily discomfort (we seen two bones being broken at unnatural angles), as well as pig torture. This movie does not shy away from the brutality of Hydra or its agents, nor should it. There are two dialogue call-backs to the line in Avengers in which Natasha refers to having “red” in her “ledger,” one by Alexi and one by Dreykov, and both highlight Natasha’s desire to redeem herself and rewrite her story.
But probably my personal favorite part of the movie was the bit of dialogue in which Yelena crows over her vest, which has “many useful pockets.” (Note that we later see Natasha wearing the very same vest in Infinity War.) This conversation really conveys just how foreign the concept of “choice” is to Yelena as a former Black Widow, and helps draw together the movie’s anti-trafficking / freedom of choice / self-expression theme, while also offering a clever punchline to a joke about women’s clothing and pockets. Yelena’s character is so incredibly relatable and complex, with her spunky humor, bitter resentment, teasing admiration, and tough “little sister” energy coming together into an instantly knowable protagonist.
In many ways, I felt like Black Widow was a mature version of Frozen: an instant hit about sororal love with the interpersonal relationship between two women creating the foundation for much of the characters’ motivation. It was organic and felt true to life, and that was the best thing about it.
My single biggest fear for this movie was that it would be too heavy-handed and pandering toward its audience. Black Widow was the token female Avenger in the first phase of the MCU and in the past, Marvel has occasionally inserted heavy-handed “girl power” scenes into its movies, in an unnaturally awkward manner that jolted the audience out of the story. (Looking at you, Endgame.)
But Black Widow elegantly navigated its plot without ever resorting to clumsy, sycophantic symbolism. The women of this film were relatable characters with depth and personality. This film was a female-focused Marvel movie, a chick flick in the most literal sense, but it was never cheesy, obsequious, or ham-fisted. It gave Natasha Romanoff what it gave Captain America, what she so rightly deserved: an expanded backstory, personality, and emotional depth that was always hinted at but never explored, until now. Often underappreciated, Black Widow shines in this movie as more than a token character; fully realized and beautifully portrayed, she explores, with finesse, what it means to be human, and kicks ass while doing so.
Black Widow was a fully-formed puzzle in which every piece fit together perfectly, and as a whole, the work came together into an A+ Marvel film that was well worth waiting for.