Based on the Marvel Comics series by Stan Lee, Don Rico, and Don Heck, Black Widow is the story of a Russian-born assassin who becomes a fugitive as she returns to her home country to confront her past and reunite with those who were the family that raised her. Directed by Cate Shortland and screenplay by Eric Pearson from a story by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, the film takes place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War where Natasha Romanoff tries to settle personal business as well as reunite with a fellow assassin and two of her mentors as they go to war against the organization that broke them apart as Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Romanoff/Black Widow. Also starring Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Olga Kurylenko, Ray Winstone, and Rachel Weisz. Black Widow is an exhilarating and captivating film from Cate Shortland.
The film revolves around the Russian-born assassin who goes into hiding after violating the Sokovia Accords where she receives a mysterious package from her adopted younger sister as it relates to the Black Widow program and their training facility in the Red Room as the two reunite to destroy the Red Room with the help of the spies who were their adoptive parents. It’s a film that has Natasha Romanoff not just deal with demons from her past but also dealing with the mysterious figure known as the Taskmaster who is from the Red Room and can mimic the fighting moves of everyone including Romanoff and her fellow Avengers. Adding to the turmoil is a figure from her past whom she believed she had killed prior to joining the Avengers as he has an army of Black Widows under his control with a chemical that can free them from his control.
The film’s screenplay by Eric Pearson is largely straightforward yet it opens in Ohio 1995 where a young Romanoff (Ever Anderson) and her young sister Yelena Belova (Violet McGraw) are living with a seemingly-normal American couple when really they’re Russian spies in Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) as the former is a super-soldier figure known as the Red Guardian who was also the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America. When the family becomes separated with Romanoff and Belova trained to be Black Widows, Romanoff would eventually go on her own as it leads to her becoming a fugitive following events that lead her violating the Sokovia Accords as she has been hiding in Norway with an old S.H.I.E.L.D. ally in Mason (O-T Fagbenle) helping her out. Yet, it would be a package from Belova (Florence Pugh) that would get Romanoff out of hiding as she meets Belova in Budapest as they deal with other Black Widows.
The script isn’t just about this story of revenge and redemption but it’s really a film about a woman reuniting with the family who raised her when she was young. It’s also about the fact that these two women who were raised as sisters when they were young were both taken away, trained, and tortured to be assassins yet Romanoff begins to realize that she should’ve taken Belova with her. Yet, Belova’s time as an assassin showed a woman that was lost and under control by a mysterious substance until she attacked a former Black Widow carrying vials of another substance in Red Dust that got Belova out of the control of the Red Room but made her a target of its leader including its mysterious soldier known as the Taskmaster. A major revelation for Romanoff involves a past assignment that lead to her defection to S.H.I.E.L.D. involved killing the Red Room leader Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who is alive and continues to run the Red Room. This forces Belova and Romanoff to break Shostakov out of prison as well as find Vostokoff for a tense family reunion filled with more revelations about their false family life in Ohio.
Cate Shortland’s direction is grand as it play into the world that Romanoff has been in and trying to run away from yet realizes she has to go back and destroy it once and for all. Shot on various locations including Norway, Budapest, and Surrey, England with studio shots in Georgia including parts of Atlanta and Macon, Shortland creates a film where Romanoff is on the run from the U.S. Secretary of State in Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) who created the Sokovia Accords. The film’s opening sequence set in Ohio play into this world that has the young Romanoff and Belova playing as if they’re normal children yet it is followed by a chase from the authorities including a ride on a small plane as it showcase a world that Romanoff and Belova have to deal with as adults. Shortland’s usage of wide and medium shots to play into not just the locations but also these intense action set pieces such as Shostakov’s prison break that is full of action and humor with the character of Shostakov providing the latter as a man who has gained weight but also still sees himself as an iconic figure.
Shortland also maintains an intimacy and knows when to break from the action for character interaction where Romanoff and Belova both try to figure out what to do with Belova revealing that she didn’t have much of a life or anything under the control of the Red Room. The scene where Romanoff, Belova, and Shostakov reunite with Vostokoff who is a scientist for the Red Room is one filled with tension with its usage of close-ups but also humor as it plays into Shostakov trying to reconnect with his family where he sings a song that the young Belova loved. The film’s third act isn’t just about the unveiling of the identity of the Taskmaster but also revelations about Romanoff’s own past as it relates to her identity but also the events in Ohio that tore her family apart. While the film is focused largely on Romanoff, it does also focus on Belova who was robbed of having a normal life as well as a life that Romanoff had as its post-credit scene is about her and her future. Overall, Shortland crafts a thrilling and compelling film about an assassin who reunites with her adoptive family to take down the organization that tore them apart.
Cinematographer Gabriel Bernstein does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its emphasis on natural low-key lighting for a few exterior scenes at night along with some stylish lighting for scenes in the Red Room building. Editors Matthew Schmidt and Leigh Folsom Boyd do excellent work with the editing as it does some stylish fast-cuts to play into the rhythm of some of the fighting along with some inventive montage work for the prison break scene. Production designers Clint Wallace and Charles Wood, with set decorators John Bush and Jess Royal plus supervising art director Thomas Brown, do amazing work with the look of the Red Room building along with Vostokoff’s secret home and the trailer that Romanoff was living in Norway. Costume designers Lisa Lovaas and Jany Temime do fantastic work with the look of the suits that the Black Widows wear including a vest that Belova likes to wear as well as Shostakov’s costume as the Red Guardian.
Hair/makeup designer Paul Gooch does nice work with the look of Romanoff’s hair but also the look of Shostakov from his prime in the mid-90s to the many tattoos he would have during his time in prison. Special effects supervisor Paul Corbould, along with visual effects supervisors Geoffrey Bauman, Varuna Darensbourg, Gerard Diefenthal, and Sean Noel Walker, does incredible work with the visual effects from the design of the Red Room’s exteriors as well as the special effects in some of the action scenes that has an air of realism through the usage of practical effects in some scenes. Sound designer Nia Hansen and sound editor Daniel Laurie do superb work with the sound in the sound effects in some of the weapons used as well as its emphasis on natural sounds for some scenes on location. The film’s music by Lorne Balfe is wonderful for its bombastic orchestral score that help play into the suspense and action along with somber pieces for the dramatic moments while music supervisor Dave Jordan provides a soundtrack that includes pieces from SIA, Don McLean, and a cover of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit by Thing Up Anger with Malia J.
The casting by Badr Balafrej, Victoria Beattie, Fouad Chaairi, Leo Davis, Sarah Finn, and Redouane Meftah is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles from Olivier Richters as an inmate of Shostakov, the trio of Liani Samuel, Michelle Lee, and Nanna Blondell as Black Widow assassins, Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw in their respective roles as the young Romanoff and Belova who both deal with the chaos of their true identities, and Olga Kurylenko as a Red Room official. O-T Fagbenle is terrific as Mason as a former S.H.I.E.L.D. official who helps Romanoff in getting supplies as well as being a comic relief of sorts since he and Romanoff used to be an item. William Hurt is superb in his small role as Thaddeus Ross as the U.S. Secretary of State trying to find Romanoff and bring her to justice for violating the Sokovia Accords.
Ray Winstone is fantastic as Dreykov as the head of the Red Room who controls everything as he hopes to maintain control in secrecy while also wanting to get Romanoff back in the fold so that he can have an Avenger on his side. Rachel Weisz is excellent as Melina Vostokoff as a maternal figure for Romanoff and Belova as well as a scientist for the Red Room who is reluctant to help out her family due to her work while also lamenting over the past and how it affected her as Weisz provides a sense of grace into the role. David Harbour is incredible as Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian as a former Soviet super hero who breaks out of prison following a betrayal from Dreykov as he is eager to reconnect with his adoptive daughters where he provides a lot of humor in his attempts to reclaim his glory days but also some warmth as a man in conflict of his fraternal role as well as the role of an icon.
Finally, there’s the duo of Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in tremendous performances in their respective roles as Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova. Johansson’s performance as Romanoff is grounded in a woman trying to evade the authorities but also trying to deal with her demons as there’s a bit of humor in the performance but it is largely straightforward as a woman filled with regrets as well as trying to do things right. Pugh’s performance as Belova is a major scene-stealer as someone who has awoken from the Red Room’s control as she deals with being abandoned as well as trying to find some meaning where Pugh not only has some funny one-liners but also proves to be tough and powerful. Johansson and Pugh together are a delight to watch in the way they play as sisters where they get to banter a bit but also display a bond that keeps them both sane and full of heart as they’re a massive highlight of the film.
Black Widow is a remarkable film from Cate Shortland that features great performances from Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh. Along with its supporting cast, study of family and identity, dazzling visuals, intense action set pieces, and a gripping music score. The film isn’t just this sprawling and grand super-hero action/adventure film but also a film about redemption and family where a woman tries to mend the broken pieces of her family by going after the forces that tore them apart. In the end, Black Widow is a marvelous film from Cate Shortland.
Cate Shortland Films: Somersault - (The Silence 2006 TV film) – Lore - (Berlin Syndrome)
Marvel Cinematic Universe: Infinity Saga: Phase One: Iron Man - The Incredible Hulk - Iron Man 2 - Thor - Captain America: The First Avenger - The Avengers
Phase Two: Iron Man 3 - Thor: The Dark World - Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Guardians of the Galaxy - The Avengers: Age of Ultron - Ant-Man
Phase Three: Captain America: Civil War - Doctor Strange - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - Spider-Man: Homecoming - Thor: Ragnarok - Black Panther - Avengers: Infinity War - Ant-Man and the Wasp - Captain Marvel - Avengers: Endgame
Phase Four: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Eternals – Spider-Man: No Way Home – (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) – (Thor: Love and Thunder) – (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) - (The Marvels) – (Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania) – (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) – (Fantastic Four)
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