SPOILER Warning: If you have not yet seen the movie, and don’t wish to know any plot details, most of this Black Widow Blu-ray review is not for you. Skip to the grade at the end.
The reality of the world being what it has been for the last year and a half, Black Widow suffered multiple release date changes, only to land upon a dual theatrical/streaming strategy. But Disney thinks in terms of posterity for Blu-rays, so don’t expect any mention of that, or the surrounding pandemic, on the disc.
In fact, that could be one reason why Black Widow is one of the few recent Marvel Studios home releases not to include a director’s commentary. Even though such commentaries usually record before release, the changing dates might well have looked inevitable by the time a final cut could screen for Cate Shortland to discuss. And rather than tell her what not to say, Disney and/or Marvel could have figured saying nothing made the most sense.
Shortland does get to give an introduction, which reiterates the theme of doing a deep dive into Natasha’s personality and reality. Ironically, the featurette entitled “Go Big If You’re Going Home” refers to big emotions, which would normally be considered the small stuff. The other major featurette, “Sisters Gonna Work It Out,” focuses on introducing Yelena, and her relationship to her de facto big sister.
Both also give good glimpses of sets and locations, some of which may surprise. Obviously a real levitating fortress doesn’t exist, but a massive amount of that deck was practical. The bridge on which Black Widow first meets Taskmaster existed…but only in a studio, with all the night sky and surrounding scenery greenscreened in. And the motorcycle chase: sometimes real, sometimes towed, sometimes in studio. A lot of pieces fit together that might not look like they would on set.
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It’s probably just as well that the problems of the real world don’t get any mention, because the problems of Black Widow‘s world are truly some of the darkest in the MCU. Yes, it was distressing to see Peter Parker dissolve into dust, or hear Nebula talk about her mutilations. But both still stayed grounded in high space fantasy. Ray Winstone’s Dreykov is something else altogether. An entirely convincing mass-abuser, his grand plan involves gathering unwanted girls as children, chemically brainwashing them and physically mutilating their reproductive organs. All to turn them into terrorists who can enrich his bank account, and must commit suicide upon his say-so.
Because of a failsafe he has placed in all of them on a sense-memory level, it takes a near Cronenberg-esque act of self-mutilation on Natasha’s part to defeat him. And even after she does, the movie’s final scene is set beside her tombstone. The majority of viewers will know the context — she died in another movie that made a lot more money, and more people saw. But it’s still grim. Shuri may have had some magic to fix her up in Wakanda, but we’re talking about severing a nerve to disable one’s sense of smell. That’s something Saw‘s Jigsaw killer could only dream of implementing in a rusty trap.
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Magical gas and levitating super-planes and platforms offer some sense of sci-fi suspension of reality, as they do in James Bond movies. Indeed, it’s astonishing how closely many of the plot beats come directly from Moonraker, directly referenced early on. The Taskmaster is Jaws, down to a parachute battle scene and a final babyface turn. And Dreykov, like Drax, wants to perfect an army of super-perfected people, and tests his tech on animals. O-T Fagbenle’s Rick Mason is, of course, Q. It’s just a shame that in a movie which so heavily references Bond, and stars a stunningly beautiful lead, that any hints of sexuality are slim to none. Par for the Marvel Studios course, though.
It’s actually worth noting just how many of Marvel’s superheroines are abused, brainwashed, and turned into weapons by bad people as part of their origin story. Three of the four above-the-title female leads, Black Widow, Wanda Maximoff, and Captain Marvel, fit that description. Throw in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Gamora and Nebula do too. Expand Marvel to include TV shows that were once MCU-connected, and we can throw in Jessica Jones and Daisy Johnson.
Meanwhile, the major exceptions: Wasp, Rescue, and arguably Shuri, get empowered by the male heroes in their lives to become female versions of them. Could we maybe get at least one with the standard male arc of being a cocky genius who must learn selflessness?
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It’s not that this isn’t appropriate for Natasha, who does inhabit the darker spaces in comics. But it’s enough to long for the kind of R-rating adjacent content that the Marvel Netflix shows had. Director Shortland certainly pushes the PG-13 rating. But there’s something disturbing about a villain’s mass abuse scheme being quickly solved with brainwash-reversal drugs. Marvel took time in the past to show Tony Stark with PTSD. But will Yelena and the other surviving widows get the same courtesy? Maybe. And there are multiple extra levels of abuse to dig into with the Taskmaster.
Now, with Shang-Chi currently in theaters, we can see how Marvel Studios backtracked on a comic-inaccurate Mandarin. For those who object to this non-Tony Masters version, keep in mind that “Taskmaster” is the name of a protocol programmed into Antonia Dreykov. Her father didn’t necessarily create or name that protocol. There’s room to debut the “real” one later.
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But another thing Shang-Chi does is put Black Widow‘s fights to shame. The Widow team clearly wanted to do some of the best and most realistic combat to date. And they did, to their date. With expert martial arts choreographers, however, Shang-Chi‘s fights dazzle and entertain more. Here’s the defense, though: Shang-Chi is pure, empowering fun. However, Black Widow on some level wants to entertain. But it also wants its viewers to think about global misogyny and human trafficking. Kids will miss those aspects; world-weary adults may find this less escapist for re-viewings.
Other extras on the disc include a mostly disposable gag reel, and a montage of deleted scenes. Most of the latter simply seem like extra beats removed from action sequences to pick up the pace. However, there’s one of a much longer drive through the mountains by Natasha to get to her remote trailer getaway, that plays like a tribute to The Shining. With a “red room” a key location in the story, this could have been a colossal in-joke reference. Or just an overall homage to Stanley Kubrick, which usually works out well.
With its relative lack of extras and unusually dark subtext clashing with the superhero sensibilities, Black Widow remains a mixed bag, but a must-have for completists. In the end the disc gets the same grade as the movie…
Agree? Disagree? Let us hear your reviews in comments.
Black Widow is now available on 4K, Blu-ray, and digital.
Recommended Reading: Marvel Knights Black Widow by Grayson & Rucka: The Complete Collection
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