US (2021) Dir. Cate Shortland
I know, Black Widow was killed in Avengers Endgame but the great thing about films is you can set a story at any time, as is the case with this fleshing out of the history of the prominent female member of the Avengers.
Set in 2016, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) flees the US after violating the Sokovia Accords, and with the other Avengers in hiding, escapes to a hideout in Norway. Meanwhile in Morocco, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), also a Black Widow, kills a rogue member of her team but when exposed to an antidote for the mind control drug she was under the influence of, realises she can escape too.
Yelena hides out in Natasha’s safe house in Budapest, soon to be joined by her older sister after she is attacked by armoured assassin Taskmaster looking for the antidote Yelena sent her. To bring down their former master Dreykov (Ray Winstone), they need help so they break their father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) out of prison then track down their mother Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz).
Unless something changes, it looks at the moment that Marvel is going to continue to milk its franchise for all it is worth with more individual films in the wake of Avengers Endgame, although I’m sure there will still be some crossover appearances in the future. In the meantime, this strategy may help some the lesser-known characters get a chance to connect with audiences and explore their backstories.
Black Widow probably did not seem like an immediate choice but in many ways was an obvious one – in part due to having Scarlett Johansson in the role and because DC had usurped them by putting out two Wonder Woman films first. As the token female in The Avengers, Natasha wasn’t necessarily shunted into the background but often felt like her role was to be the emotional leveller of the group, despite being physically tough.
To follow up on hints in The Avengers films of Natasha being a trained assassin before joining S.H.E.I.L.D, Aussie director Cate Shortland and screenwriter Eric Pearson go back to Ohio in 1995 to begin the story. Unbeknownst to sisters Natasha (Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) their parents are undercover agents working for Dreykov’s Red Room, on a mission to steal classified intel from S.H.E.I.L.D.
With S.H.E.I.L.D agents closing in on them, the family manage to escape to Cuba where Dreykov splits them up; Melina was shot during the escape and later pronounced dead. At least that is what the girls were told – a lot of things they were told were untrue. For a start, they weren’t a real family, this was a ruse to fool the US – Melina was Dreykov’s top Widow whilst Alexei became Russia’s first Super Soldier the Red Guardian.
As for Natasha and Yelena, they weren’t sister’s either but both were too young know any different although Natasha recalls being abandoned by her real mother before Melina and Alexei took her in. Having been separated for training and Natasha eventually breaking free from Dreykov, resentment festered in the brainwashed Yelena’s mind, feeling Natasha had abandoned her.
Quite honestly, there is enough here story wise for this to be a film in its own right, and not just a conduit for the faux sisters to form a unit. It would have given us so much more to help understand about Yelena’s character, but luckily her charisma is sufficient in winning over the audience. Anyway, after an awkward – and physical – reunion, the sisters realise they have to free the other Widows and do away Dreykov for good.
Dreykov is sadly a flimsy villain despite is immense power; this is not news since most comic book villains are there just to give the heroes something to blow up. Aside from his exploitation of technology and science, Dreykov hides in the shadows and lets his global network of Widows do all the work, since he is believed dead. Natasha was behind the bomb blast assassination, but the real victim was Dreykov’s young daughter Antonia, which is why he is angry with Natasha.
From not having any real super powers and the absence of testosterone, you’d think a story featuring Black Widow would be more grounded, but it is a Marvel film so the emphasis is still on gravity defying battles and explosive set pieces. As ever, people fall from high buildings and still get up; cars explode and roll over a dozen times and the passenger is fine; and being shot or stabbed rarely does any damage.
Granted, most of the fights rely on brute strength and combat skills, but technology still plays a part in the climax, such as Taskmaster’s robotic suit, designed for mimicking anyone; so for Natasha it is like fighting a mirror of herself, whilst the suit also has Iron Man like flight capabilities. Beneath the themes of being your own person and defining what a family is, there is a stealth message regarding how much of life can be controlled by advanced tech, demonstrated by a pig!
Putting my neck on the chopping block here, I’ve always felt Scarlett Johansson was a charisma vacuum, and even in this established role she doesn’t change my mind. This might be because she is dwarfed by Florence Pugh, whose witty one-liners, convincing Russian accent and sheer energy and personality is show stealing. David Harbour, whom I’ve not heard of, is also good as the deluded Alexei but there is no getting over cockney geezer Ray Winstone as a Russian!
Like many comic book films, there are always things to quibble over and whilst Black Widow is no exception, it is surprisingly enjoyable and a lot fun to boot. It is bombastic nonsense but the story has two distinct plots worthy of deeper exploration that could have kept this rather endearing ersatz family unit together for a little longer. And the obligatory post-end credits segment looks promising too.