Warning: Here there be spoilers for the entirety of the MCU and the Black Widow movie through the end credits scene. Proceed at your own risk.
I liked it. As always I'm getting that out of the way first because I don't think there's a need to play coy with the matter, particularly since I already told you this in the headline for this article which I'm pretty sure you read because 1) It has "boobs" in it (unlike the movie) and 2) I had far too much fun with the SEO score on this particular entry and we're all going to bask in it.
So to speak.
So yes! Good movie! Good movie not just as a superhero film, a Marvel film, and also a Black Widow film. It's the latter I'm going to talk about the most since, yanno, it ties nicely to the name of the movie and also the subject of it as well. In particular I'm going to talk about the themes of the film and Black Widow as a character because those are the two which I personally found the strongest aspects and also, paradoxically, the ones that most had me writing in my notes, and I quote: "HOW ARE PEOPLE NOT GETTING THIS???"
(Spoiler alert: It's because those people weren't watching this movie to watch this movie. I don't wanna make broad generalizations about what they WERE watching the movie for but, uh, you did catch the title of this article, right? Yeah.)
While I do all that I'll also touch on what made the movie work so well, such as the directing and fight choreography and, of course because it's me, the costumes.
You can probably guess one of the comments I'm going to be making about the costume design. Again not to give it away too early but I mention one aspect of it in the headline.
Let's get into it. The conversation, not the thing which I mention in the headline. Do that in your own time.
Natasha Romanoff's Characterization As Someone Without Character
Please note, I don't mean "character" in the sense of being a person of morals or values, but rather character as in who Natasha is as a person.
Look, I genuinely don't want this entire article to be about me dunking on other articles and reviews, but we've got to address the elephant in the room. Far, far too many reviewers who are exactly the gender you think they are have commented on this movie with words to the effect of how they loved Natasha, really they did. She was their favorite female MCU character for years, really! It's just... they're not interested in her in this movie? And they can't put their finger on why? And also they don't understand why she doesn't seem to be standing out to them? Mysteriously?
So yeah, let me be the one to break the news to you: SCARJO'S NOT FORCED TO SHOW OFF HER TITS IN THIS ONE. I'M SO SORRY, FANBOIS. YOU ACTUALLY HAVE TO ENGAGE WITH NATASHA AS A HUMAN BEING WITH THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS. WE ALL KNOW YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO DO THAT, YOU DON'T HAVE TO KEEP SAYING IT OUT LOUD.
Now granted if you're like me and, blessedly, all my friends, the fact that Natasha is being given two hours and fifteen minutes devoted to her history, her connections, and her motivations is a feature and not a bug. And to that end the movie does wonderfully.
Much of this goes to the acting and directing and frankly casting. Ever Anderson particularly kills it, no pun intended, as young Natasha who wants so much to live the fantasy world of their undercover life while still making it clear that when Alexei says "You're going to be all right" she 100% knows he is full of shit.
As for adult Natasha, though I am by no means a fan of Scarlett Johansson you can't deny she's got acting chops. Natasha is a difficult role. She's a character who is defined by being someone who can be anybody - anybody you want, anybody the job needs. Natasha has survived as long as she has because she can shed her skin and adapt in a second. She can only do that by holding on to a sense of self which is defined as someone who is constantly changing.
So how do you play a person who is all people? How do you show Nat's flexibility as a person while still showing that she is Nat at her core?
And that's frankly it: You keep her core. Nat may not form attachments to things like a hairstyle or favorite TV show but she's developed values. She's got a way of viewing the world and what she hopes to do in it. Whether she does it as an Avenger or a reformed killer or Yelena's big sister or all of the above at once is the extra detail. Her emotions and values are what make her who she is.
Which you see in ScarJo's acting. When she sees adult Yelena for the first time she can barely contain the smile peeking out of the corners of her lips even though they are fighting. When she's making the call to take out Dreykov and his daughter you can tell Natasha is scared shitless. The emotions are always there even if the expression of them is subtle.
(Also props to Ever Anderson for pulling that off as well. I particularly liked the moment where young Nat gasps in fear when the plane takes off but then she quickly hides the emotion on her face because she knows she shouldn't be showing it.)
Taskmaster, Mirrors, Enemies, and Things Which Aren't Subtle
This brings us to the topic of Taskmaster and whether they were a good choice for an antagonist for the film.
I know there's controversy here because the movie didn't go with Tony Masters for the character and oh my god this is ruining the lives of people with twitter handles like "TheSnyderCutIsMyGod" or whatever but as you might suspect I do not agree with this point of view.
First of all, the MCU has been tweaking characters and origin stories since the very beginning. If you doubt this I point you to exhibit The Most Famous Thing About Iron Man After The Suit Is That He's A Recovering Alcoholic So Calm Down About Anything in the MCU Not Religiously Adhering to Comics Canon Already. If we Tony Stark fans can cope with the closest we ever had to Demon in a Bottle being Tony peeing himself at a party y'all can learn to breathe about Tony Masters not appearing in this film.
Granted, I get that if a character is going to be used in a movie they should at least bear some resemblance to their comics counterpart. For me personally this is the Cassandra Cain principle of why did they use her in Birds of Prey when she had literally nothing in common with her comic version other than the name. (Don't get me wrong, I loved Birds of Prey, I just scratch my head at that particular narrative choice.)
But here's the thing about Taskmaster: the most famous thing about them isn't that they are Tony Masters, it's that they mirror their opponent. There are other Marvel characters who can copy powers but not with that instantly understood explanation that Taskmaster is a villain who reflects what the good guys can do and hurts the good guys with it.
Which is why you need Taskmaster as Natasha's antagonist in this movie.
Because here's the thing: villains to heroes are the dark version of who they are and what they stand for. This is why when we meet Captain America he's fighting Nazis. Why when we meet Iron Man he's fighting Iron Monger. And why when we meet Captain Marvel she's fighting a mediocre white man who thinks he knows how to do her job better than she does.
As we just discussed, Natasha is the person who can be anybody. She adopts and adapts to fit her situation. Of course her dark version is someone whose entire power set is not having an identity of their own or even a fighting style of their own: everything they are is a reflection of the world around them.
And when that's your setup you can't have it be Tony Masters. Even if you connected Tony Masters to the Red Room somehow that's not going to have the same impact as Natasha being forced to face another person who, like her, was a young girl victimized by the Red Room program and Natasha herself.
This is a movie not just about Natasha's side quest in between wars both Civil and Infinity. It's about Natasha having to face the impact of the choices she's made, both in terms of active decisions like considering Dreykov's daughter an acceptable sacrifice as well as possibly more passive decisions like not examining too closely if she succeeded in ending the Red Room like she thought.
It's a no brainer that her antagonist here is going to be be from the Red Room. It's a no brainer that their powerset is going to be taking abilities from those around them instead of adapting their identity to fit into situations.
Frankly if I had a complaint about the handling of Taskmaster it's that I feel they didn't do enough with the concept. Poor Antonia doesn't get to be a character so much as a prop for Natasha's newly discovered need to apologize to those she hurt in her escape. I understand that Antonia being a victim of Dreykov is another mirror of Natasha but at the same time I think I would've preferred Antonia had more agency of some kind. Like she doesn't have to have ended up the mastermind behind the Red Room, but maybe let her talk more? Have a reaction to things? Register what Natasha says even before the conditioning gets broken? As it was Taskmaster could've just as easily been a robot without a significant change to the story, which isn't that great.
Directing, Costuming, And Other Things
Props to Cate Shortland for a beautiful directing style combined with Gabriel Beristain's cinematography. Among the things which stood out to me where how often we watched characters from behind or askew angles when the characters themselves felt tension and were being watched, and then how characters like Natasha and Yelena were perfectly centered in the frame to show how equal and balanced they are. And of course the mirrors. You can easily lose count of how often Natasha has a mirror beside her or she only shows up as a reflection. Frankly I have a lot of notes which read "THIS ISN'T SUBTLE!" but by which I mean it confuses me how many reviewers did not get the mirror theme because, as I say, RIGHT THERE.
Lisa Lovaas gets credit for costume design and of course when it comes to the uniforms you can't ignore Andy Park's concept designs but UGH I LOVED IT SO. First up we have the way the Black Widow outfits were the exact opposite of the "Natasha's the one with the boobs! Look, here they are!" designs of the past. You have horizontal lines cutting off the very idea that the front of the outfit is going to peel open, then you have the curves framing their torsos in a very obvious "My eyes are up here, actually" way that was just - chef's kiss.
There were also nice smaller touches. I liked how Yelena brought grey and white into her outfit when we first see her after she's been freed from the mind control. Then in the post credits scene we see her in these very aggressive patterns which seem like they should match on paper but in reality do anything but. It was a nice way to show Yelena is still trying to find herself and learn how to pick clothes she likes.
I also liked the fight choreography, credit for which goes to James Young. One thing in particular I had my eye out for was the sadly signature "Fling her crotch into someone's face" move which Nat and MCU female fighters have had to do for far too long. Because on the one hand, it's a stupid move and never should have happened. But on the other hand continuity wise Nat was just doing it in Civil War, so arguably it would be weird if she suddenly stopped. I thought the movie did a great job of having that move be in there, both with Nat and the other Widows, but not choreographed or shot in such a way to emphasize the grossness of it. It was a quick twist to take an opponent down and then everyone moved on. Great compromise.
Another bit of fight choreography that I liked was Nat as a fighter who improvises. When she grabs Taskmaster's shield during their first encounter she doesn't hold it like Steve does, on her arm, but rather in front of her while grasping it with both hands. In other words, she does what needs to be done in the moment, she's adapting based on others but not fully mirroring.
And let's pour one out for the entire set design department who clearly put a shit ton of work into all the details of the Budapest safe house, almost none of which can be fully appreciated by the audience even with the benefit of hitting pause on a Disney+ viewing.
As always, things which don't fit anywhere else.
- Much like with In the Heights I have to express my deep appreciation that this movie was available for me to watch on Disney+ at the same time it came out in theaters. I can't go into movie theaters and it is breaking my heart that nothing else in the upcoming MCU lineup is going to have that option. I know they'll be available for me to watch 45 days later but that's not the same thing as being able to see it when everyone else does and join in the conversations. Here's hoping Disney changes their mind about this so folks like me don't get left behind.
- There was no Sam as Captain America in the Marvel Studios logo but this was supposed to come out before The Falcon and the Winter Soldier so I'll allow it.
- Me being me, when Alexei mentioned that Yelena was the greatest child assassin I immediately wondered if there was a competition to determine this. Like did they have prisoners tied up in the middle of a gymnastics mat as tiny girls flipped around lasers to get to them?
- I know this isn't a strict gender breakdown but it strikes me how the Winter Soldier program, which started with Bucky, is primarily about creating assets who can get in and get the job done as efficiently as possible while the Black Widow program, which is entirely made of women, still requires learning how to flatter and appease and be pretty. In other words, even in brainwashed assassin programs women are forced to do emotional labor.
- Boy it's lucky that their escape route in 1995 went along Signs Of Americana Highway.
- There was an interesting leitmotif in the use of braids during the movie. Nat, Yelena, and Melina all wore them or had their hair loose and even a bit unkempt depending on how much in control they felt they were in the situation. Yelena's style also mirrored (heh) Melina's at the farmhouse, showing how she was more closely connected to her fake mother than Nat was.
- "There was no body left to check" - shame Nat's never going to meet Deadpool to learn genre awareness, huh?
- I'm a little uncomfortable with the racial composition of the other Widows. On the one hand I get that they are positioned all over the world and that there's even layers of meaning there when referring to how those in the program are the people the world easily overlooks. But on the other hand ScarJo being surrounded and beat up by a bunch of women who aren't white is... well I mean insert your own joke here about some of ScarJo's questionable movie choices and the karma she perhaps deserves for them but still. As a visual a white woman being mindlessly beat up by women of color is something you should really be thinking about the implications of and if that's actually what you want that scene to be saying.
- "I'm not the one that's on the cover of a magazine" - Um, can we see copies of those? Asking for a friend. No, really.
- I don't know what it's like in Budapest but in other places they usually have things to prevent people from sliding down the long space between escalators so all I could picture is Nat going "ow ow ow ow ow ow ow" as she hit each bump on the way.
- Even if the timing had worked, Alexei saying he pushed Cap out the window isn't so impressive when you remember that Steve pretty much does that on his own with little to no provocation.
- I wonder how many people are going to classify Yelena as stupid based on things like her seemingly being unaware of how dangerous the avalanche is compared to understanding that she is figuring out for the first time how to have her own thoughts, feelings, and reactions to things.
- I love Yelena 1) smacking Alexei and 2) going into intimate detail on having the forced hysterectomy. My only regret is that they didn't make Yelena smacking Alexei a running gag.
- There's a lot of subtle work going on with Yelena in terms of establishing the world of the Red Room. For example one detail which stood out to me is that in the plane escape scene absolutely no one, even Natasha, told Yelena to cover her eyes. It wasn't noteworthy to them that a six year old was seeing this level of violence.
- Another detail I liked: When Nat and Yelena are dumped in with the other girls, some of them have stuffed animals. Alexei was such a douchebag he didn't even let Yelena keep her little horse for comfort.
- I'm not sure how subtle I'm being here so let's be clear: I didn't like Alexei and feel he needs to be kicked in the crotch far more than he actually was. Melina wasn't impressing me much either. I'll grant that them helping Nat and Yelena at the end was a step towards redemption but that doesn't mean I want to have tea with either of them.
- If we're doing more prequel movies I'd love one on Nat's mom trying to find her.
- Nat once again using her signature move of letting a bad guy think he's got the better of her in order to get information from him. We love to see it.
- I get that there were only a few minutes of movie left but Nat, maybe immediately after everyone just survived crashing from the sky is not the moment to insist on having your own personal "please forgive me" therapy session? They've got other things on their mind. Like bleeding.
- I teared up seeing how much stuff was on Nat's grave, I'm not made of stone.
- If I'm supposed to root against Yelena killing MCU Clint let me assure Kevin Feige that that's a miscalculation.
- I also loved that Val used the most punk ass "I manage a paintball emporium" picture of Clint because frankly that's what his racist killing spree self deserves.
- YEAH I SAID IT.
And that covers it for now. I mean I can go on and probably will over on Twitter once spoilers aren't so much a thing but there we are. Hope you enjoyed and see you in a bit for the final episode of Loki!