Friday, July 9, 2021

MCU honors Scarlet Johansson one last time with "Black Widow." SPOILER FILLED REVIEW

                                          

It's wild to think that despite being a founding member of The Avengers and being in this franchise since 2010, we are just now getting around to a solo "Black Widow" movie. Especially with everything that happens in Black Widow's solo outing, I could have done with an entire trilogy of Natasha (Johansson) overseas with her "family" in Russia going on adventures. Alas, we could still get that but in a much different way.

I can't get into "Black Widow" and what makes the film tick without getting into spoilers. So this will be a spoiler filled review. There are things that happen in this movie that challenge the comic book lover in me while also giving a piece of me that just wanted to love an entertaining movie. When a comic book movie comes out, a movie based on some piece of nostalgic pop culture we love, we tip toe between being a fan of the source material and being a fan of movies. Sometimes those fandoms wrestle inside of us for supremacy when forming our opinions of these movies. The Twitter community has already been relentless on this movie. Reasons that I personally think are a tad unfair. So I will be getting into the thematic meat of the movie.

Anybody who has been a hardcore MCU fan knows who Black Widow is by now. She was a former Russian spy who eventually joined SHIELD, she had to earn her way into our country because of her past dealing with being a spy from another country. We got bits and pieces of how strict her former spy agency was, going as far to learn that she was sterilized before becoming a full fledged black widow. An ongoing story is some mission involving Black Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) but something we've never seen on screen. I regret to inform you that there is no Budapest scene in this movie. BUT we finally learn the information regarding the mission. Before SHIELD let Natasha into the United States and expunged her crimes, she had to kill a man named General Dreykov. We learn through dialogue that Natasha brought a building down the general in it, as well as the general's daughter. The supposed murder of the general's daughter has loomed large in Black Widow's memories, but killing Dreykov brought down the Red Room. The secret training facility that created Black Widows for Russia.

But the movie doesn't start there. The movie begins in 1995 in the Midwest. We see a young Natasha playing with her "sister" Yelena. Their "mother" is Melina (Rachel Weisz) and their "father" is Alexei (David Harbour). Alexei comes home and has a heated, cryptic discussion with Melina and then they take the girls and run. They are being hunted by SHIELD agents. During this chase scene, we see Melina in action and see that Alexei has some superpowers. They escape and rendezvous with Dreykov (played by Ray Winstone, one of the most underrated villain actors in the business right now). The girls have to go with Dreykov, and we see that young Natasha has already had some training of sorts. She's afraid of the Red Room, and most importantly, she doesn't want Yelena to go there. The girls are sadly put to sleep and put in a helicopter with Dreykov.

Anybody who still complains that Marvel movies are kids movies, and aren't dark and serious enough, will probably sing a different tune after seeing "Black Widow." The opening credit scene is pretty grim stuff, seeing young girls marched out of a metal crate, being taken to become super-spies. We still only get glimpses of how terrible the Red Room is, but it is enough to scare the average child. The film also features a pretty grim forced suicide and there is a very graphic explanation of a sterilization in the movie. The movie never gets as grim as a Zack Snyder DC movie, but its not something kids under the age of 11 should probably see. Unless you're fully prepared to have a discussion of what sterilization is.

"Black Widow" takes place after Natasha has left America after the Civil War. She goes back to Russia and finds sanctuary from an old contact named Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenle) and Natasha eventually comes into contact with a grown up Yelena (Florence Pugh) and she learns that Dreykov is indeed still alive and still training Black Widows. He has them all brainwashed and there is a certain red substance that can free the widows of Dreykov's brainwashing, and that Dreykov is searching for this substance. Just like how many of these movies boil down to, Natasha and Yelena will reconnect with Melina and Alexei, and plan to free the widows of being brainwashed and finish Dreykov off for good.

Dreykov is also training a different kind of assassin with Taskmaster. A killer who has the ability to copy the fighting techniques of any one they watch. We get glimpses of Taskmaster watching scenes from other movies, and she copies fighting styles of Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Panther and Bucky, even brandishing similar weapons to theirs. 

Natasha's reunion with Yelena, Melina and Alexei are rocky at first. In these quieter moments of the movie is where I think "Black Widow" really shines. The film deals very much in legacy, and what we leave behind depending on our choices. It's a movie about what family means, especially in the light of having families that disappoint us. How that trust and bond comes back together again, or maybe how it doesn't. It's also about how we change our past for the better with just a bit of effort. This hefty material for a mere "kids movie" and I appreciated the mature turn this film makes. Johansson benefits greatly by terrific cast with Pugh, Weisz and Harbour delivering knockout performances to aid Johansson. The film's themes become even greater once the big twist comes to light...

...and this is where comic book nerds are going to go a little bonkers. In fact, Twitter was a madhouse on this subject this morning. In the comic books, Taskmaster was a man named Tony Masters and he had the ability to copy the fighting styles of his opponents, which made him dangerous. In "Black Widow" we find out that Taskmaster is Dreykov's daughter Antonia. The beautiful and talented Olga Kurylenko shows up to play Antonia, but its pretty much an extended cameo performance, she doesn't speak once if I remember correctly. So Dreykov never died, and his daughter never died. He put a chip in her head which allows her to copy the fighting styles of her opponents. Something that comic fans have not liked at all.

Fans are comparing this twist to the Mandarin twist from "Iron Man 3" and I think that's a bit of an oversell. The twist from "Iron Man 3" changed the character to such a degree that they might as well invented a different character all together. Here, there is a gender swap and a tech piece that gives Taskmaster her powers. The MCU has been making their characters as believable as possible since the beginning. I'm not going to get into the "woke" debate, because frankly, I'm sick and tired of it. So if you can't handle that they gender swapped a D-list villain, then I guess you should skip this.

"Black Widow" may follow the same formula as passed MCU films, there may be some controversy following the adaptation choices of some of the characters. There is also this thing with Dreykov where he gives off a pheromone that makes sure the Black Widows can't consciously attack him, even if they want to. So Natasha has to break her nose so her brain can't react to the pheromone. It's a little ridiculous that the climax of this movie boils down to Black Widow breaking her nose. I thought that was a little funny. But I loved the storyline in this movie. The performances are great all the way around. The action scenes are top notch. A great way to send off Scarlet Johansson. I hope they stay true to the comics and have Yelena take over the Black Widow mantle. I also hope we get more Melina and Alexei. A Russian Guard movie needs happening!

Also the mid-credit scene will probably be weird for those who haven't watched "Falcon and The Winter Soldier" on Disney+. If you have, well, now you'll know why Yelena is appearing on the Hawkeye show later this year!

Overall, not the worst Marvel movie. A fun and entertaining watch for sure.

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