Budapest was made for the big screen. It’s a city divided, with the Danube River drawing a wide, snaking line between medieval Buda and modern Pest. Architectural landmarks buttress both sides, from Buda’s Baroque castle and fairytale Fisherman’s Bastion to Pest’s Gothic Revival parliament and stately Heroes’ Square. The palatial baths for which the city has long been famous sit on either side of the Danube while the tumbledown-chic ruin bars that today’s travelers frequent sit snugly in Pest. At night, the river runs gold in the ambient glow of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge that stitches the city together. It is, in a word, cinematic.
For Marvel fans, the city’s aesthetic thrust is not what earns it that descriptor. Ever since a throwaway line in The Avengers (2012) alluded to a mission Black Widow and Hawkeye shared in Budapest, the city has been a running gag in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, leaving fans to speculate what actually went down in the Hungarian capital. Now, with the long-awaited release of the standalone Black Widow film, it seems some of those details may finally be divulged.
In a press kit released last month, actress Scarlett Johansson, who portrays Natasha Romanoff, otherwise known as Black Widow, commented on the decision to use the city as a backdrop for her character’s solo film. “When we first started talking about locations — back when everything was possible — we agreed that we had to find out what happened in Budapest,” she said. “The film is not about what happened in Budapest … [but] it gave us a great jumping-off point for a lot that goes on in the film.”
It remains to be seen how much of Black Widow takes place in Budapest; however, promotional footage confirms that it will be a significant setting. The trailer opens with a wide shot of the city, featuring glimpses of landmarks like the Citadella crowning Gellért Hill, the green dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica, and the Budapest Eye Ferris wheel. Subsequent clips showcase more of the city. Eagle-eyed viewers might recognize the Hungarian Parliament Building, Eastern Railway Station, or Széchenyi and Alkotmány streets amid action-packed sequences like motorcycle chases and tank battles. Even one of Budapest’s signature yellow trams, which belong to a vital transit system that traces back more than 120 years, makes a cameo in the trailer.
These snapshots provide little clarity on what details of Black Widow and Hawkeye’s cryptic mission will actually be revealed on screen. They do, however, attest to what travelers who’ve had the privilege of visiting the Hungarian capital already know: As a character in its own right, Budapest has a lot to offer any film — or itinerary for that matter.
In fairness, Black Widow is not the first blockbuster to be shot in Budapest. Over the past decade, the city and surrounding countryside have appeared in movies such as Midsommar (2019), The Martian (2015), World War Z (2013), Atomic Blonde (2017), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Yet none of these films are actually set in Hungary. Instead, the capital city serves as a stand-in for destinations like Sweden, Beijing, and Moscow, as well as East and West Berlin circa 1989 and even post-apocalyptic LA.
Fewer movies and TV shows have acknowledged the city’s filming locations as their rightful setting. Both the 2018 spy thriller Red Sparrow and the 2019 Bourne spinoff series Treadstone were shot and set in Budapest, for example, though they also used the city as a double for other European capitals such as Moscow, Paris, London, and Bucharest in Romania.
Budapest’s high-quality, low-cost production studios and favorable tax breaks explain some of its appeal in the eyes of Hollywood directors. But it’s the city itself that keeps them coming back. Flaunting a mishmash of architectural styles influenced by Celtic, Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Soviet reigns, the grand, romantic, and multifaceted city is uniquely suited to represent various, primarily European, destinations.
No one can blame movie buffs for not recognizing Budapest post Hollywood magic. But it’s not just cinephiles who’ve been unwittingly overlooking the Hungarian capital. If London, Paris, and Amsterdam — Europe’s most visited cities — have the equivalent pull of the top-grossing Marvel movies — Endgame (2019), Infinity War (2018), and The Avengers — then Budapest falls somewhere in line with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Neither has been neglected by fans, attracting some 30 million tourists annually and grossing over $700 million worldwide, respectively. Yet, to some, either one could qualify as criminally underrated.
I, for one, am not a Marvel fan, if only because I’m at least a dozen films short of following the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I am a massive Budapest fan, however. And if watching Black Widow means getting to travel vicariously through one of Europe’s most dynamic, cinematic capitals once again, well, it’s one Marvel movie I might actually make a point to see.
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