There are two things that are said the most about Black Widow. The fact that it’s about time Scarlet Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff gets her own solo outing, and that the film’s placement in the MCU is oddly placed, given her dead in Avengers: Endgame. Both of those statements are true, but everyone already knows that.
So having gotten all of that out of the way, let’s start out properly by saying this: Black Widow is a great addition to the MCU and a solid farewell to Scarlet Johnson’s Natasha Romanoff. What better way to do it than address the very thing that brought Black Widow into existence: The Red Room.
Set within the time between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow picks up with Natasha Romanoff on the run from General Ross––the character originally from The Incredible Hulk who is enforcing the Sokovia Accords. The very ones that Black Widow went against when she backed Steve Rogers at the last minute.
Of course, there has to be a reason for an adventure, despite her being on the run. That comes in the form of a mysterious package being sent to her, which calls her attention back to a former safe house––setting actions into motion which re-introduces her to her former undercover American childhood family, and her past in Russia.
The new cast of characters in this family is fantastic. Of course, said faux-American family consists of Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, David Harbour’s Red Guardian, and Rachel Weisz’s Melina. With the trauma that the group has experienced, comes some quality emotional tension.
The tension is weaved through the proceedings and interactions in a fantastic way. This provides the foundation for the emotional core of the film. A core that is impressively strong, and successfully wastes no time in connecting audiences to this new cast of characters.
One of the most stand-out elements of the film is Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova. It doesn’t take long for her character and performance to click—and boy does it click. It’s hard not to just simply fall in love with the character. Pugh’s performance is phenomenal, and watching the character’s dynamic with everyone is simply a blast.
The dynamic between Natasha and Yelena was fantastic, and one would be hard-pressed to have guessed they’ve never worked on screen together before. The sparks fly the moment they start smashing each other into walls, and that tense, but understanding sisterly bond immediately begins to work its magic.
With how amazing the two were together, it makes it all the sadder knowing that we won’t be getting any more of her sisterly bond with Natasha. The film didn’t even really leave much room for flashbacks in the future. Audiences don’t know where these characters were during The Blip—though it would be a little bit of an issue if Yelena was there all five years and Natasha both didn’t mention her once or bring her into the crew.
Who knows, only time will flesh all of that out. What is evident now is that Pugh simply feels like she is comfortable in the role, which is great seeing as it seems that her future in the MCU will be plentiful. Though again, coming off of Avengers: Endgame, it’s hard not to wish that she wasn’t introduced to the MCU sooner.
Of course, Yelena isn’t the only person from Natasha’s past undercover family that audiences get to meet. The ever so dumb and loud Alexei Shostakov is next in line, finally bringing the Red Guardian into the MCU.
David Harbour represents a different angle to the trauma going around. His perspective on everything is vastly different from Natasha and Yelena’s. He glazes over all of the bad stuff––focusing on the fact that his two undercover foster daughters are now successful spies! He simply doesn’t quite see, or comprehend, just how badly he screwed up—even if his fatherhood was born out of servitude to his country, and not true parental aspirations
The character is tragic on another level as well. He was once the mighty Red Guardian. Russia’s Captain America. He was the center of attention. The people everyone looked up to. Cheered for. But then that was all taken away, and the iconography that Alexei tied his entire self being into was now gone—leaving him lost.
It’s why that was all he talked about in prison, with all of those mighty stories. And why one of the first questions he posed to his daughters was if the Avengers talked about him. He cannot let go of the legacy, and even going out of the movie, it’s a legacy that he will likely step into once again.
Which, having escaped with everyone else, puts Alexei in a great spot to not only become Red Guardian again but either join or create The Winter Guard—setting the group up for a role in the future of the MCU. After all, one of the inmates that Alexei arm-wrestled with was named Urssa, a nod to the bipedal bear member of that very group.
Then there’s Melina Vostokoff. Out of the four of them, she gets the least amount of time to shine. Though, it’s not so little that it provides a problem. In fact, her late introduction still provides plenty of time to meet with her, and explore the new dynamic the group has, and the emotions they are all exploring.
Rachel Weisz’s performance likely played a big part in making up for her smaller amount of screen time compared to the other three. Her tired compliance with Russia and its Red Room operations are evident, even if it’s something as simple as how she carries herself for the first few scenes we see of her.
Having been in servitude for so long, Weisz was all but brain-washed, never seeing a way out—or having any reason to go for it. I initially questioned her quick allegiance with her old family, but after some thought, it made perfect sense. Seeing what her work, and the people she works for, did to those little girls she raised, even ever so briefly, was enough to snap an already tired assassin.
Generally speaking, the strongest elements of the film plot-wise are the first two acts. The pacing is solid, and the story keeps the engagement levels high. A good chunk of that goes to all of the emotional character work being done, sometimes very subtly, even while insane action sequences are going on.
Of course, you can’t have a Black Widow film without action. This film has plenty of that, and they all live up to Marvel Studios standards. The standout sections generally belong to Yelena, which is a common theme of the film. When it comes to Taskmaster, who has action scenes in the character’s very DNA, all of their best stuff was shown off in the trailers.
Honestly, all of that action takes a second seat to everything that the main cast of characters is dealing with, and how they handle that through the other characters, and the dynamics established. So while one may assume the action scenes in a Black Widow movie would be the best part, they’d be wrong: emotions and character moments come out on top here.
Now, while the first two acts of the film were solid all the way around, the third act doesn’t quite live up to what came before. Something about it doesn’t click in the same way, even if there are good moments and elements to be had.
It’s fun getting to finally get to see the Red Room, but honestly, the design of the location is a little silly. It looked like a flying oil rig—with nothing about it, notably the exterior, being memorable in the slightest. Also, there is no way that it was never detected in the air, in the decades it’s been deployed. It didn’t even use cloaking technology.
Now it’s time to tackle the weakest part of the film: Taskmaster. What viewers see on screen is in no way, shape, or form Taskmaster—besides of course the costume and namesake. It was a waste of a perfectly good Marvel Comics character.
Now, hear me out. The narrative thread that the character was used for worked just fine. Antonia’s purpose and how she was utilized made sense. It just simply didn’t need to be given in the guise of Taskmaster, a useless move that in the end wasted a popular Marvel Comics character for no reason. They made a new character and stole the name of a notable Marvel villain to get some attention—and it wasn’t necessary.
To be clear, I personally take no issue with the idea of gender swapping Taskmaster. The disappointment is firmly rooted in the idea that the entire role didn’t need to be disguised as Taskmaster—but rather a character that fits the bill a little closer, or better yet, an entirely new character overall. Though it is worth noting that the big gender swap was likely only there as a cheap way to hide from the audience that Antonia was alive, and the one in Taskmaster’s outfit.
There’s a character that exists in the comics called The Red Widow. She is a member of The Winter Guard, that Russian Superhero group that Alexei’s Red Guardian is a key member of. Red Widow also happens to fit Antonia’s role in Black Widow very well. Almost as if they could have used her instead. You swap a character like that—or an original character— in Taskmaster’s place, someone whose origins lines up far better, and everything would be exactly the same—just without needlessly tossing a Marvel character in the trash.
As a note in regards to Red Widdow, the character first appeared towards the end of 2018 in Marvel Comics, so it’s possible that the character’s introduction was right on the cusp of the film’s initial writing—and simply not lining up to their timelines to have been properly considered. Though it still remains a prime example of a character who was better suited for the role, and I’d imagine there’s more where that came from.
As a side note, what does Marvel have against superpowers that aren’t light-based, magic (which is really just fancy lights most of the time), or super strength? Seeing Taskmaster’s toolset be technologically based was just another letdown, cascading over all the other Taskmaster-based disappointments. Marvel, you’ll be introducing both the Fantastic Four and Mutants soon. You best start getting used to a wider range of powers, ones that aren’t rooted in technology.
Here’s to hoping that since it was officially called the Taskmaster Protocols, the entire program was based on a different person, possibly even Tony Masters himself, AKA the character from the comics. Someone such as him, a former mercenary that has legitimate powers of mimicry, would have been a fun addition to the MCU.
What makes it hurt all the more is that now is the perfect time for someone like Tony Masters to exist in the MCU. Not only is he a perfect villain to reoccur throughout different projects, but he’s also an ideal candidate for Valentina’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) little team of questionable individuals. Something tells me that Antonia isn’t going to be up for any more Taskmaster-ing now that she’s done being her father’s puppet.
Speaking of, there is a villain in the film that does work, and really well at that: Draykov. Ray Winstone’s performance was great, and he plays the perfect unredeemable slime ball. Sure, the character doesn’t break any new ground. But he does what he’s meant to perfectly––a suitable embodiment of all the terribleness that the Red Room and its operations represent.
As for O-T Fagbenle’s role in the film, a source of many questions and theories, jokes on us—he was just Natasha’s glorified helper, or as the movie wanted to frame it, proof that she does in fact have friends. There wasn’t anything wrong with that, and it didn’t hurt the film.
But legitimate discussions could be had as to if he was necessary for the film at all—especially the intense level of secrecy he had. Something that was likely only in place to keep their Taskmaster ruse up.
Black Widow is in the rough spot of being a film that focuses on a dead character, right after one of the biggest films of all time, so for many, the general idea of the film could seem like a drag. Rest assured though, that Natasha’s big epilogue adventure is very much worth the time. Yes, even with the Taskmaster let down. Bonus points for the after-credits scene being unique in that it was one of the most emotional ones that Marvel has ever given fans.