I loved BLACK WIDOW. And while I love superhero movies in general, I don’t love them blindly – some are very average, some good, some great.
One reason I like Black Widow though, is that it is Marvel doing Spy Blockbuster.
The film is steeped in “spy” tropes from film and TV, some subtle, others overtly presented.
You can find links to the TV show “The Americans“, to the “Bourne” movies, to John Wick (though that’s not really a spy franchise) and to Mission Impossible. This film revisits the face replacement tech, used in Captain America The Winter Solder and TVs The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. This is already very reminiscent of the face mask reveals in the Mission Impossible TV series and movies.
That’s not to say the film is wearily derivative, it’s good to spot these influences and call-backs.
By far though, Black Widow is indebted to the James Bond movie franchise. So here are my initial observations on Marvel’s “Bond” movie.
Warning, this article will contain SPOILERS for Black Widow and other films.
COLD WAR STYLE
The obvious comparisons can be made with the story itself, involving Russian agents in some Cold War era locations.
PRE-TITLES and TITLES
In the trailers for the film, Natasha has her own “gunbarrel” scene, which is similar to those in most Bond films.
The whole of the opening Ohio sequence is an action pre-titles sequence just like in a Bond movie, involving a seemingly ordinary suburban family which is actually a sleeper cell of Russian spies.
The song during the opening titles sequence has vocals (in Black Widow it is a haunting cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit, perhaps disillusioned young Natasha’s favourite contemporary song?). Sure, other movies have songs with vocals in them so you can call this a stretch if you must.
The montage editing of the opening credits recalls “The Americans” although it also condenses a lot of back story, more akin to the titles of Marvel’s “The Incredible Hulk” and Tony Scott’s paranoid titles from his conspiracy actioner “Enemy of the State“.
But title sequences which can tell the story or suggest future themes are a main part of any Bond movie.
AN early call back to Bond is when Yelena (Florence Pugh) “walks” down a wall in Morocco attached to a cable.
This is seen in Tomorrow Never Dies when Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) did the same thing in Carver’s Berlin headquarters.
The face replacement “mask” is a cool ‘gadget’ too.
CAR CHASE DESTRUCTION
The car chase in Budapest has Yelena opening the car door to have it ripped off deliberately as they pass a street light to collide with a pursuing biker Widow. The door of Bond’s Aston Martin is ripped off in the pre-titles scene in Quantum of Solace.
When Natasha and Yelena flee from Taskmaster in Budapest they enter the subway by sliding down the central divide between the escalators, a move also seen in Skyfall as Bond pursues Silva in London.
Coincidental casting links to Bond: both David Harbour and Olga Kurylenko were in Quantum of Solace.
Of course, in real life, Rachel Weisz is married to James Bond (Daniel Craig).
Coincidental character name link: Rachel Weisz plays “Melina” which is the same name as Carole Bouquet’s lead character in For Your Eyes Only.
Mind control/brain washing, has been a spy storyline for years. Paranoid thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate, The Parallax View, the 1960s British spy film The Ipcress File and even the original Bond novel “The Man with the Golden Gun” delve into that plot device.
The plot of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service involves 12 brainwashed women “Angels of Death” who are to be located across the world with dangerous bacteriological agents. Not identical to the brainwashed Widows across the globe, but close:
And of course an avalanche happens in both films too…
FUN FATHER FIGURE
David Harbour’s Alexei is a Russian spy (plenty of those in Bond), but he is also the experienced father figure (or “donor” or “helper” as identified by Vladimir Propp in his study of Russian folk tales). In this case Alexei similar to the older, often funny allies Bond has – from Kerim Bey in From Russia with Love to Draco in OHMSS and Colombo in For Your Eyes Only.
Of course, Alexei is also the super soldier RED GUARDIAN, where a villain working for the Russians in From Russia with Love is RED GRANT, so it must be deliberate (just joking).
O.T. Fagbenle plays Rick, a fixer who provides Natasha with weapons and transportation. Just like “Q” from the Bond films who provides Bond with technical assistance, sometimes beyond the boundaries of MI6.
As a fan of Licence to Kill I can appreciate that Nat (Bond) is working outside her remit from General Ross [Head of MI6, M], assisted in the shadows by Rick [Q] on a mission about “family” – Nat’s Russian family [Bond’s revenge mission for the attack on buddy Leiter and his wife].
Near the end of the film Yelena falls from the destruction of The Red Room and plummets to the ground. Natasha grabs a parachute and free falls down to her, making sure Yelena has the parachute, and thus saving her. This move echoes the free fall sequence in Mission Impossible Fallout, and is similar to the scene in Quantum of Solace as Bond and Camille leap from the exploding plane with only one chute.
Also, it is worth noting that the opening pre-credits scene to Moonraker involves a parachute-less Bond free falling towards a goon and wrestling his chute off, then putting it on to save his own life.
In the Norway sequence, Nat sits in her trailer watching and quoting a scene from Moonraker. Which is a nice moment for a Bond fan, realising Black Widow is a Bond nut too.
DEBT TO MOONRAKER
However, the whole film broadly borrows from the story of MOONRAKER.
In that film, Bond is investigating an enigmatic billionaire Drax about stolen space technology. As Bond digs deeper, he is pursued across the globe by Jaws, a relentless, silent and seemingly invincible assassin. He then discovers that the villains are manufacturing a poisonous material transported in glass phials. Finally, Bond infiltrates then destroys Drax’s space station. Drax is expelled into space. The assassin turns good by the end (and finally speaks). Bond pursues the poison phials literally around the world in a space shuttle.
In Black Widow, the villain is Dreykov, who controls the silent, relentless seemingly invincible assassin Taskmaster, who switches sides at the end (and finally speaks). The pursuit is global. The phials are a “cure” for the widows’ conditioning. The finale is in a facility in the clouds “The Red Room”, which is destroyed. Dreykov is killed in an explosion in a plummeting helicopter outside the “ship”. By the end, the “cured” Widows are about to travel around the world with the phials to convert the other widows embedded across the globe.
The Main Villain
Talking of the villain, some have already complained that the main villain Dreykov, isn’t strong enough. That may be a fair observation, and many movies have a “villain problem” if the villain is too underused or understated. Yet in this movie, so soon after Thanos‘ intergalactic devastation, to me it makes sense that is NOT a world-threatening villain. For some viewers the best Bond villains are the over the top megalomaniacs from The Spy Who Loved Me, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld from You Only Live Twice or Spectre, but in recent years they’ve tried to make them “real”, as if ripped from the headlines.
And yet, the slimy businessman villain Mr Greene from Quantum of Solace (Mathieu Amalric) is often cited as the poorest villain Bond has had in many years. Maybe Dreykov (Ray Winstone) suffers from that feeling too. Both actor’s performances aren’t in question, it’s just that in some movies audiences expect the villain to be larger than life. Maybe shadowy villains who pull the strings quietly behind the scenes and avoid megalomaniac bragging just don’t satisfy?
In Black Widow, Dreykov is the Soviet-era mastermind behind a mind control project which trafficked young girls, brutally trained them, performed appalling surgeries on them, before brainwashing them psychologically and chemically to make them essentially remote controlled assassins. Dreykov is a pretty horrific and effective villain – a blunt gangster-type who experiments on his own daughter. He doesn’t get amusing quips through, which many movie villains are given. Greene in Quantum and Dreykov in Black Widow are not witty charming comic villains – maybe we as viewers have just been brainwashed into expecting big scenery chewing baddies?
I’ve avoided any discussion about expectation vs reality when it comes to Marvel comic book fans and their opinions on how the characters and stories translate to the big screen – simply because I don’t read comic books. I just like watching the movies and assess them on their own merits. Black Widow works for me.
I’ve only watched the film once, so maybe I’ll spot more references on future viewings. Am I possibly seeing connections where they’re wasn’t a deliberate homage? Possibly. But it makes this great action film even better to me.
BLACK WIDOW is available to buy and free to subscribers on Disney+ in October.