After a long delay, the highly anticipated “Black Widow” stand alone film from Marvel Studies is here, but is it too late to tell her story?
A week ago, Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow” hit theaters and Disney Plus after the film’s release was pushed back twice in 2020, with the film earning over 100 million at the domestic box office alone in its first week. While this huge rush to the box office is neither unexpected or uncommon for a new Marvel blockbuster, “Black Widow” has also had the highest grossing opening weekend of any film released during the pandemic, surpassing the box office earnings of other prominent franchise films including “A Quiet Place Part II” and “F9,” earning around 40 million dollars on opening day in the US.
The second female-led Marvel film has been a decade in the making on top of a year’s worth of release pushbacks due to the pandemic. Scarlett Johansson began playing the role of Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, in 2010 when the character was introduced to the MCU in “Iron Man 2.” Her character, a charming yet cold and calculated assassin, while important, was not overly nuanced, and was heavily sexualized in her first film as Johansson has said herself she regrets. Despite being a key player in the 2012 “Avengers” movie, a Black Widow stand-alone film was not produced during Marvel’s phase one. This is where her story would have fit most comfortably within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so why did Marvel wait so long to tell this story in particular?
The answer is, unfortunately, not all that surprising: executives at Disney (Marvel’s parent company) did not think that a female led superhero movie would be financially successful. The success of “Captain Marvel,” released in 2019, and of course the ever growing amount of cash flowing into box offices around the world currently, say otherwise. The success of “Black Widow” will hopefully open doors in the future for greater diversity in the protagonists we see emerge on the big screen. For now, however, “Black Widow” gives audiences a long overdue introduction to this character’s origins.
“Black Widow” finally introduces film audiences to The Red Room, a key part of Natasha Romanoff’s character that has been brushed over in ten years of Marvel movies. The Red Room and the Black Widow Program is essentially a metaphor for human trafficking. Ever Anderson gives a highly compelling and heartbreaking performance as a young Natasha, portraying a young girl taken from her home and family by force.
In the MCU, Natasha Romanoff has been a character that is distinctively marked by her lack of family, which is what binds her so closely to the Avengers. However, “Black Widow” takes a heartfelt look at what it means to have a found family, bound by experiences rather than blood, and how there really is no difference between the two. The best part of this movie is this focus on family, partly because avoiding an unnecessary romantic subplot gives the audience a chance to finally take a deeper look into Natasha’s character but even more so, the chemistry between the actors is phenomenal.
Newcomers to the MCU, Florence Pugh and David Harbour absolutely shine in this film. Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) is a charismatic addition to the MCU that will likely fill the void Johansson is leaving behind after her final installment. Pugh perfectly balances sarcasm and sentiment within her character, particularly in her scenes with Johansson. The Red Guardian (David Harbour) is also introduced, fulfilling the role of Natasha and Yelena’s ‘father.’ Harbour is perfectly cast as the socially unaware father figure who just so happens to also have a one-sided rivalry with Captain America. From deep-cover russian spies living in the midwest to super soldiers and mind control, this film contains an engaging mix of tones, at times feeling like a cross between “The Americans” and “Stranger Things” in between chunks of exposition from previous Marvel films.
By the end of the film, our hero finds herself alone again, however with brighter spirits than she started with. “It’s funny. My whole life, I didn’t think I had any family. Turns out I got two,” she says in the final scene of the film, completing her arc before her character sets off for her journey in Marvel’s huge two part blockbuster “Infinity War” and “Endgame.” As a character defined by independence in the past, Natasha Romanoff becomes infinitely more complex when her unsteady family relationships are poked at and examined, bringing her character to life more in two hours than in ten years over the course of six films. Despite being released after Johansson’s original departure from the MCU after her character’s death, making the movie feel outdated before it has had any time to prove itself, “Black Widow” is an excellent stand alone story for Marvel that explores free will, guilt and what it means to be a family.
“Black Widow” is now playing in theaters and is available to stream exclusively on Disney Plus.
By Emily Frantz