After a great deal of delay, the expected final theatrical outing for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, Black Widow, hit theaters and Disney+’s Premium Access tier July of 2021. Some found it arriving too late to be impactful, some found it to be less thrilling than prior MCU films, while others were just delighted to not only see the return of Natasha but were ecstatic to be able to do so in the comfort of their homes. As I’m not an entertainment lawyer, I will not wade into the complicated mess that is the lawsuit between the actor and the Mouse House. I will comment on the timing of the release and the reaction to it. Personally, I feel we should’ve gotten a Natasha-centric film sooner and, upon a second viewing, the best parts of Black Widow are the ones driven by character and not spectacle. Moments like these strengthen the resilience of the MCU, reminding audiences that it’s not the action or mayhem that we crave, but the interpersonal exploration of superheroes that keeps us coming back. Beginning on September 14th you can enjoy this final tale anytime you like in the format of your choice: 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, or digital.
In the wake of Team Captain America (Chris Evans) and Team Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.) airport battle in Germany, those who were not arrested for breaching the Sokovia Accords found themselves on the run from General Ross (William Ross) and the rest of the remaining World Security Council. Being on the run, though, is something a super spy like Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) can handle, able to move several steps ahead of Ross’s retrieval team and set-up shop in Norway where she can lay low for a while. That plan seems to be working fine until someone from her past comes looking for a package that was mailed to her, a package sent by her former “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh) which forces Natasha to take another look at her past and all the red which remains in her ledger.
If you’d like a spoiler-free review of the film, I recommend heading over to the initial release review. Moving forward, there will be detailed discussion of the film.
First off, in case folks are more interested in the bonus features, there are a few but minimal materials included in the release. Both on physical and digital releases is an option to start the film with an introduction from director Cate Shortland. In it she offers her thoughts on the film and what she hoped to achieve with it. It’s not so long as to impede the momentum going into the film, but it’s also not long enough to make it seem like you learn anything from it or take away anything emotional to heighten the experience of watching. Perhaps if it had been an introduction from Johansson, it might feel differently, but it make sense to have Shortland offer thoughts as the captain of this particular ship. In addition, there are two featurettes, a gag reel, and nine deleted scenes. The “Go Big if You’re Going Home” featurette takes the wide approach, offering insight from the cast and crew on the making of the film as a whole; while “Sisters Gonna Work it Out” is centered on Johansson and Pugh and their work together. The first is particularly interesting as we learn, for instance, how many practical effects were used in the making of the film and how sets were digitally integrated to create the final look in the film. For instance, the gulag scene is a mixture of on location and set work, which was digitally combined. So if you’re more interested in behind the scenes details, that’s the place to start. The other, “Sisters,” focuses more on the working relationship between Johansson and Pugh, as well as their characters. If you felt any sense that Black Widow was more a story about Yelena than Natasha, this featurette won’t change your mind, especially as it focuses on, for example, how Pugh trained to catch up with Johansson’s experience with stunts. The remaining materials are deleted/alternate scenes which you should either watch just before rewatching the film proper in order to identify the differences or jump to right after a first watch, when things will be most fresh. While there are some interesting switch-ups in rhythm or tone, the majority make sense for not making the final cut. The only one which there’s merit for inserting back is “Ohio,” which sees Natasha go back to her brief childhood home and observes children playing (like she sees at the start of the film), but this time they are playing as Avengers. It’s a wholesome and nurturing scene, one which conveys just how great an impact Natasha has had and how her legacy will continue long past her journey to Vormir, whereas the current final scene mostly just works to connect this film to the prison break scene at the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016) and tee-up her appearance in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It’s frustrating when these films fall back on their formula as their individualism is what makes them strong. Trust the audience to make the connection without having to remind us of what comes next is all I’m suggesting.
As for the film itself, it struggles most with the stuntwork and that’s more apparent on a rewatch. It was bothersome initially but easy to ignore with so many awesome things happening around the fights, but, with a rewatch, it’s easier to see where the cuts are to cover for the stunt doubles. The takes are longer and more fluid in their edits in other MCU films, so the suspension of disbelief holds; yet, with so many cuts around the action, not only does it become harder to follow but it is more clear that Shortland is trying to edit around the actors and their doubles. At least the interactions between the characters is so rich, layered, and delightful that the action issues are mostly forgivable as we at least have something else to look forward to. Johansson is comfortable in her role, remaining commanding and assertive, even when faced with a past she’d rather not examine. Pugh steals about every scene she’s in, a by-product of her versatility as an actor, while also laying groundwork for her return as the next Black Widow (reportedly in the upcoming Hawkeye Disney+ series). David Harbour as “father” and Rachel Weisz as “mother” is just the icing on the cake for this film as both make a meal of every scene they are in without reducing the seriousness or intensity of the moment. Their chemistry is perfect, instantly making us believe that they spent three years in deep cover together the same way old friends just fall back into old patterns after an estrangement. Credit, too, goes to screenwriter Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarock) for taking the story from Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them) and making it more than just the usual superhero fare.
It would’ve been simple to just have Black Widow delve into Natasha’s past solo, but they took an aspect teased in the first Avengers film, and used that as the basis to not only look at where Natasha came from but how she never dealt with her past in a meaningful way. Moreso, where many of the stories gloss over what Natasha experienced as a child of the Red Room, this one faced it head-on, even in MCU fashion. Abduction, human trafficking, slavery, forced sterilization, and more were all part of Natasha’s daily life and this is the first time that we, the audience, really consider what that means. Natasha, Yelena, and Weisz’s Milena had all of their personhood ripped away and their characters deal with it in different ways. As we see, Yelena’s method is entirely direct, repeatedly making Harbour’s Alexei uncomfortable by explaining in detail what was done to them each time he makes a misogynistic comment. This is perhaps why so much of Black Widow seems like Yelena’s story because she was the one most abandoned out of any of them: Alexei not seeing anything wrong with what happened to the girls, Melina still working for Dreykov, and Natasha not ensuring that her “sister” was safe. That failure to protect one’s own, to stand idly by while more and more girls are subjugated to allow one to consolidate power, is a deep narrative theme, one which the film mostly succeeds in nailing. As someone who has no tether to the comics, it feels like this is addressed beautiful through the MCU’s version of Taskmaster, a major threat in the comics who is turned into more of a metaphor for the greater theme and a final piece of Natasha’s ledger to clear. We’d heard stories for years about Dreykov and his Widow program, but to see what he was willing to do to his own daughter, something he blamed on Natasha, perfectly encapsulates just what a hollow, heartless individual he is. It worked for me entirely and I hope we see the character again, even if on Val’s team.
It may be too late, but it’s still a great thing to have Black Widow finally come out. There’s been an audience for it for a long time and it’s a film that has enough going on under the hood that rewatches will be satisfying. The bonus features may not add much to that, but that’s going to be up to the individual to really determine. For me, and this is the last I’ll speak of it, what I think differentiates Black Widow from its fellow MCU films is that its general tone is serious, making it, on the whole, less fun. Especially after such a long delay, audiences were teed up for some MCU nonsense and Black Widow doesn’t entirely satisfy like that. It wants to challenge its audience just a bit more than normal, getting us to really consider why we find Natasha heroic at all. What I like, though, is how it answers that question for itself in the showdown between Natasha and Ray Winstone’s Dreykov. Using every piece of her training, she’s able to outwit and outmaneuver her most challenging foe in her timeline. Watching her take him down will never not delight.
Black Widow Special Features
- Filmmaker Introduction Featurette – Director Cate Shortland introduces the film and her vision for it.
- Bloopers – Take a look at some of the fun mishaps on set with the cast and crew of Black Widow.
- Sisters Gonna Work It Out Featurette – Watch Scarlett and Florence as they train, fight, and bond to become the sister duo in “Black Widow.” Listen as the cast and crew discuss the characters, rigorous training, and building the dynamic between the two fearsome siblings.
- Go Big If You’re Going Home Featurette – Step back to appreciate the size and scale of Black Widow’s solo film. Shot around the world, the film balances family and drama with mind-blowing action. The cast and crew reveal the intricacies of stunts that made the film so action-packed.
- Deleted Scenes
- Grocery Shopping – Natasha heads into a grocery store to prepare for her journey through Norway. After a long drive, she arrives at her destination: a mysterious trailer in the middle of nowhere.
- Bike Chase – Tailed by assailants, Natasha and Yelena speed through the city in order to escape their nemeses.
- Gulag Fight – Alexei squares up against several enemies and is quickly overpowered. When all hope seems lost, Natasha leaps in to lend a hand in the fight.
- Smile – The Taskmaster protocol is activated in a tense moment, and an iconic helmet is unveiled.
- Come After Me – Secretary Ross and Mason discover an important message Natasha left behind.
- Walk and Talk – Alexei and Melina have a playful exchange. The Taskmaster arrives and faces off with Alexei.
- Widows in Training – Yelena and Alexei awaken in captivity. Melina hands the Taskmaster vials while the Widows train.
- Kiss – Alexei and Melina reunite after the action. Natasha grieves over an untimely demise in the brutal aftermath.
- Ohio – Natasha witnesses the carefree nature of the Ohio suburbs through the neighborhood children.
Available on digital August 10th, 2021.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD September 14th, 2021.