Natasha Romanoff, illustrated onscreen for the past decade by Scarlett Johansson, is back on our screens one last time. This time in her very own Marvel film titled Black Widow, available to watch in theatres or with premiere access on Disney plus.
This is a moment fans have long-awaited as the movie was set to release in May of 2020; however, the film’s screening was delayed three times due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though, in addition to COVID setbacks, both fans and critics agree Black Widow is late in more ways than one. In truth, the former Russian spy should have gotten her own film years ago; and to go even further, I reckon she should have had a couple by now.
It’s no secret Marvel had a diversity issue in the first three to four phases of the MCU; namely, no Black, queer, or female superheroes existed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or within the Avengers for almost a decade. Except for Black Widow. (And technically Loki, but we wouldn’t know he was bisexual for another nine years. You can decide how you feel about that fact never being canon until now).
Natasha was the sole female superhero in the Avengers for years and despite being one of the most complex characters amongst the predominantly male group, Black Widow had very little character development or depth to show for it.
Not to mention, the not-so-subtle sexism regarding the way her character was often portrayed next to her male peers. I could go on about how Natasha’s initial depiction in Iron Man 2 was male gaze-y or how her “soft femininity” was conveniently the only way to ground Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner after he’d turn into The Hulk. (Get it? It’s like the tale of Beauty and the Beast). But we’d be here a little too long.
That being said, did her highly anticipated solo film deliver in the way fans hoped it would?
Chronologically, Black Widow is set directly after Captain America: Civil War. The Avengers have broken up (seemingly for good). Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and The Falcon are imprisoned, The Winter Soldier was sent off to Wakanda, and Captain America and Black Widow are rogue soldiers on the run from the American government for committing several illegal offenses.
Now, with nowhere to go and few people she can trust, Natasha must live a new life of anonymity and seclusion. That is until the Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), one of the movie’s antagonists, blows her cover. And she must find out why. Natasha’s search for answers reconnects her with the closest thing she’s had to a family: Her equally badass and capable “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh)—now all grown up; her brash “father” Alexi Shostakov (David Harbour) — also known as Red Guardian; and her “mother” Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz).
Together they set out to dismantle The Red Room—a Soviet organization led by a man named Dreykov —that cruelly and forcibly trains young girls with no friends or family into equally ruthless spies and assassins, otherwise known as widows, once and for all.
There’s no denying that the film’s cinematography, stunt sequences, special effects, and fight coordinations were epic. I would go so far as to say the fight actions and choreography are the best we’ve seen since Captain America: The Winter Soldier; in fact, they might be better.
However, “from a character perspective, all Black Widow really accomplishes is to define Natasha by a different set of relationships — from quasi-romantic to quasi-familial,” as rightly summed up in an NPR movie review.
As a grandiose spy film, Black Widow more than delivers. As the catalyst for the only proper backstory and character development Natasha’s ever going to get, the film disappoints by default of having waited too long.
In past years, there were debates on whether a woman could lead a superhero film. The success of Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman proved those theories wrong. Not to mention, according to Forbes, Black Widow has matched the success of those films and then some, with a weekend opening of $218M: a pandemic best.
Needless to say, a stand-alone Black Widow film could’ve been successful all along and when Natasha was alive. Anything after a character’s death is going to feel unfulfilled because that character is literally, canonically no longer in existence. So what good does it do?
Despite this, Black Widow tried. However, Natasha’s history is still largely ambiguous (maybe that’s intentional because she was a former spy, but I doubt it). And the payoff for Dreykov’s (Ray Winstone) death would’ve been more satisfactory had we directly seen the lengths of his cruelty and the way his leadership affected Natasha while she was carrying out violence on his behalf. Especially because Natasha’s been in constant conflict with her red ledger (i.e.: her death count while a widow) throughout the previous Marvel movies.
Additionally, it’s been noted by one film critic that some of the discussions in Black Widow feel like a cop-out. Namely, how the discussions of the forced sterilizations the widows endured were ‘okay’ to talk about, now that it’s more acceptable to examine the harm women face at the hands of powerful men in a post-MeToo society.
Honestly, I have to agree. It was a detail only mentioned in such a transparently gruesome way because the social progressions of time were on their side here.
Still, Marvel writers have mishandled discussions of Natasha’s brutalization at the hands of her oppressors in the past, like in Avengers: Age of Ultron. (Does anyone remember when she called herself a monster for not being able to have children? Apparently, she and The Hulk have more in common than we thought!)
“I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero,” Yelena tells Natasha at one point in the movie. The irony of this line is Marvel has failed to do Black Widow’s complex backstory and character conflicts and ambitions any justice. Even the nature of her death in Avengers: End Game was her feeling as though she must sacrifice herself in lieu of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) for having no “real” family unlike him. Therefore, he deserved to live and she didn’t. Not even in death, can her heroism be unclouded from misogyny and the shadow of her male counterparts.
But, it’s clear Marvel is attempting to rectify both their lack of diversity from the OG MCU and the lackluster representation from what was their few diverse characters.
In this next phase, there are both more complex women heroes, villains, and anti-heroes. From the introduction of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) in WandaVision to the hint of Sharon Carter’s (Emily VanCamp) turn to villainy in Falcon and The Winter Soldier.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t have taken this long for Marvel to trust their female characters to carry their own stories, free from the interference of men. But hopefully, the added diversity in phase 4 and beyond signifies the days wherein there was ever a question that marginalized MCU heroes could be film-leads are gone for good.
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