There’s a lot to celebrate about Black Widow, Marvel’s first new movie release since Spider-Man Far From Home. Although this movie arguably should have come out before Captain Marvel, Black Widow works well as a reintroduction to feature-length Marvel flicks via an insulated character story, and it even does better to help set up a new age of heroes. This movie aims to give its more conventional stories a swan song before leaning into the weirder future of created realities, multi-verses, Eternals, Raimi comebacks, and #alligatorloki.
Florence Pugh as Yelena is a perfect choice to fill Scarlet Johannson’s shoes as the more grounded, non-powered hero, especially as Marvel expands its universe further into the skies. She’s a lot more charismatic, too. David Harbour’s Red Guardian is a treat as well, giving Marvel a new option for an anti-hero to follow, and it better, considering how long it’s been since the last season of Stranger Things hit the small screens.
Warning: spoilers for Black Widow.
Black Widow also makes the smart decision of leaving the rest of the Avengers out of the story, sparing a comedic mention here or there (and a final, suspenseful one). It does its duty by honing in on Natasha and her past, even if we still don’t know what really happened in Budapest. Black Widow for the most part creates an environment for a restrengthened found-family of sorts, one that can continue the legacy of Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This movie had a lot to live up to: a long-awaited character study (at the same time as an origin story for another character), a hyped-up antagonist, and a reflective look at women in subjugation and as victims of psychological manipulation. In the face of all of this, Black Widow makes the bold decision to extend the trauma of Natasha Romanov’s past with the Red Room into a metaphor for chemical mind control, and the movie suffers for it.
Black Widow attempts to tell a story about women regaining their agency, but by mystifying their trauma, this movie’s storytelling steals it even further.
And like a few other narrative hiccups, this escalation by the Red Room feels extraneous and thrown in for drama’s sake. Which can be fine in some cases, but not in a movie like this.
Black Widow is at its best in the first act when Natasha is gritty and the environment is grounded. The first glimpses of her life under the radar and then her altercation with Taskmaster are some of the best moments in the movie. This tune could have been followed — the survival of Dreykov and the expansion of the Widows would be enough to drive Natasha into action — especially if Yelena had still been caught in the program’s web.
But Natasha has no choice in it all from here on out. A mysterious box of vials is thrust upon her. Vials not even for her because her importance is once again diluted to the men around her, as Yelena explained it was meant to be sent to one of the other Avengers, ultimately.
The movie appears to claim to be about Natasha’s past, but backstory tends to get swept up and forgotten in the midst of the mind control technology. In fact, her experiences at the Red Room are almost obsolete compared with the rest of the girls’ experiences being wildly unlike Natasha’s. Their programming flips like a switch in this new generation of Widows while Natasha’s still feels embedded in her throughout her Marvel appearances. Natasha likely finished her training before the technology was ready, but it still complicates things more than necessary.
Further, Natasha hardly gets a chance to process her own history and only spends a moment reflecting on the choices she made that drove Dreykov to obtain his great achievement. Black Widow attempts to make statements and address these parts of Natasha.
In the end, this film avoids doing the heavy lifting and opts for fantasy science to avoid addressing morally grey areas.
After all, the entire concept of this version of Taskmaster hinges on a line Loki delivered in the first Avengers movie. But when she pulls the same move she used after manipulating the God of Mischief in that movie, we learn no more about Natasha Romanov. She is still a woman who uses the dark parts of her when necessary, but she doesn’t get an antidote for what seems to be morally right.
The Black Widow herself isn’t the only one who suffers from the tech in this movie. Most of the women do, too. Melina’s relationship with this research (protect the pigs at all costs) drives her when she first encounters Natasha in the film’s present day, but this meeting also calls into question her true loyalties. Her switch from scientist to liberator is awfully fast, which could be an issue of the movie’s pacing or perhaps the authenticity of her as a mother figure in Yelena and Natasha’s lives. Sliced whichever way, it doesn’t fully work.
The mind-control plot device doesn’t do any favors for Natasha, Melina, or Yelena. But the woman it by far hurts the most is Taskmaster.
As one of the main pulls for comic fans, Taskmaster (aka Antonia Dreykov in this movie) had a lot of expectations to live up to. And nothing about her was bad per se. She was more…lukewarm. Her reveal, while not unexpected, was fun, and the inclusion of her suit in the fight choreography led to some great stunts. But when it comes down to it, she could have been so much more.
Actually, it seems like the choreography has to be the reason Antonia is also a victim of mind control (under her father. Ew.) Even if the Widows were to remain controlled, seeing Taskmaster train and hunt down Black Widow of her own volition would have made for a much more powerful scene with the ability to reach deeper into Natasha’s guilt for what happened to Antonia. Hell, Natasha could even think she was also under the influence when she wasn’t.
It feels like Antonia served as a means to an end. Black Widow attempts to make a statement regarding freedom, but when given a clear option, Marvel doesn’t go the extra mile to dig into these thematic elements as boldly as it could. After all, this is the cinematic universe that tried to check off the LGBTQ+ rep box by a director cameo in an inconsequential exposition scene just two movies ago.
The MCU made the conscious decision to switch the sex of this villain. With that decision comes the duty to analyze how that change would affect this story, and if they wanted to introduce more of the same — women who have lost their agency or are a means to an end — at least innovate while completing Natasha’s story as she finally comes out of the other side with her own solo feature. Not to mention, after several appearances focused on furthering the stories of men in this universe.
Not every story, even supernatural or science fiction ones such as Marvel’s, needs to be translated or amplified to fit into the canon. Black Widow makes that mistake.
Natasha Romanov has a rich history with the conditioning and subjugation she endured and continues to endure in this movie. While trying to find a chemical solution that definitely feels Marvel, it perhaps creates the wrong image of the impacts of abuse. Psychological chemistry isn’t as simple as a rapid cure or inoculation. The struggle to break free from something so powerful isn’t quick or easy. Not every plot device should be simplified down to a snap or push of a button.
That being said, Black Widow had enough on its plate. Not only did this film have to resolve Natasha Romanov’s possibly last appearance in the MCU (and does so with a lot of gaps still left open), but it also needed to set up Yelena Belova as a successor and Natasha’s chosen family for possible future features or series. Even so, it’s still disappointing to see an otherwise great film fall back on an easy plot device that ended up hurting the character arcs of both its protagonists and antagonists.
Perhaps it will always be too late for Natasha.
Natasha Romanov has been in the MCU since 2010. Even if we skip 2020 for COVID, that’s over a decade of appearances on the big screen. Considering the amount of Marvel movies made in all that time, 11 years is shockingly late for a solo film for one of the original Avengers (and that is not me asking for a Hawkeye movie). This character deserves a better send-off than she was bestowed, rescheduled release after rescheduled release.
However, Marvel is embarking on a new transition to more dynamic and diverse storytelling, as evidenced by their 28 Emmy nominations. WandaVision has been applauded for its storytelling and themes surrounding coping with trauma, so moving forward, can Marvel give their female characters the agency they deserve?
Will these stories set aside the “cool plot device” in lieu of following through with themes based on a character-deep level? Marvel could be on the precipice of doing more, or they could just keep teasing a character’s sexuality for 20 seconds a season and keep it at that.