I want to begin by being absolutely honest: If I wasn’t being paid to write about Black Widow, I doubt I would have watched it. I had written the movie off as Marvel paying lip service to its longest-serving female Avenger years after killing off the character without a cinematic solo adventure. I definitely wasn’t looking forward to a more than two-hour-long makegood, and there is already so much Marvel shit. I can’t believe how wrong I was.
Black Widow takes place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War. The Avengers have disbanded, and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and her fellow superheroes are on the lam. This setting works for two major reasons. By having the movie take place post Civil War, we have an excuse for the absence of Romanoff’s fellow Avengers.
Also, we manage to pre-date the universe-altering events of Infinity War. This means Black Widow can function as a tidy, self-contained story within the intertwining and expansive MCU. Actually, you could probably walk into a viewing of Black Widow with only a cursory knowledge of Marvel films and follow along nicely.
This is fortunate because the most significant Marvel missteps — both in front of the camera and behind it — stem from these movies being forced to introduce new plot points and characters that connect to the next three films in the franchise.
At the heart of Black Widow is the theme of family, which may seem saccharine at first. That’s until you realize that Romanoff grew up in an embedded family of Russian sleeper agents in the U.S. Yep, Black Widow grew up in The Americans.
This all falls apart when the family is separated at the completion of the mission. Romanoff and her younger sister (Florence Pugh) are forced into the Red Room program that brainwashes and trains young women to be super assassins (a Soviet trope that refuses to go away, I guess). From here, Romanoff’s backstory is fleshed out in the other Marvel movies she’s appeared in since debuting in Iron Man 2 (11 years ago, oh no, what have I done with my life?).
Without giving too much away, Romanoff and her “family” are reunited to finally take down the Red Room and prevent the creation of any more brainwashed assassins. Simple enough.
As previously mentioned, the theme of family is a big part of Black Widow. Namely, how do you define a family, and how do you reconcile your love for your family with the emotional damage they inevitably caused you? This is in a movie with an action set piece that I recorded in my notes as “avalanche prison break.”
Another aspect of Black Widow that led me to prematurely misjudge the movie is the gender politics that seem to surround modern superhero movies. You may remember all the garbage opinions that plagued Captain Marvel, the MCU’s first female-led installment.
I’d like to point out one thing about the sort of men who feel threatened by female superheroes: When prepubescent boys answered the house phone with their high-pitched voices, the caller would often confuse us with our mothers. These guys really let that mess with their egos.
Anyway, then there was the cringey moment in Avengers: Endgame when all the female superheroes posed together, looked directly into the camera, and said “girl boss” or whatever. This scene isn’t awful or anything, but it was a pretty clumsy way to pander to female viewers.
What I’m working to here is that Black Widow does a better job of getting at what people mean when they talk about representation. Not every comic book movie needs to uplift and celebrate the beauty of womanhood. Sometimes representation is just knowing that you can see someone like you in a big, loud action movie.
And I say this as a sad, cis, white man who works as a writer. Literally 85 percent of movies are about me, and that’s mainly just Stephen King adaptations.
So how does Black Widow lean into its female audience? There are subtle moments.
Romanoff and her sister share a conversation where they mention the abundance of pockets on one’s uniform. I don’t know how much clothing you’ve worn that was made for women, but even if it happens to have pockets, those pockets are small as hell. Also the size numbers are arbitrary and based on no human standard of measurement, but that’s another story.
Then we have the deeper moments. A man comments on Romanoff’s hostile nature by asking if it is her “time of the month.” She and her sister reply that the Red Room program subjected them to involuntary hysterectomies at a young age. This was hinted at in an earlier MCU film, but here it is described in intimate detail.
This open discussion of female reproductive organs causes the man who initially broached the subject to dismiss the conversation for being too crude. On the surface, this is commentary on how men are often unwilling to seriously consider “women’s problems,” but on a deeper level you could view this as a critique of how women often lack reproductive autonomy. This is in a superhero movie that includes a sad, slow cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” during the opening credits.
To wrap things up, I judged a movie before I even saw it because of all the tiresome politicking that surrounds everything these days. I allowed myself to become jaded and pessimistic because seemingly everything spurs endless, vile rhetoric. I let the bad guys win.
I forgot that sometimes when you go into a movie theater you can just not hate everything for a couple of hours and be entertained. Of course, it’s probably not healthy to care more about fictional characters than the actual human beings you may interact with in the world and online. But who’s to say who you need to care about? Be they real, fictional, or your fake undercover American family of secret agents.