Cate Shortland: Black Widow (2021) | poster excerpt
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow (2021) | poster excerpt

Marvel Studios ‘Black Widow’ Mishandles the MCU’s Most Popular Female Character

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow was too little, too late for the MCU’s most popular female character due partially to misogynistic business practices at Disney.

Black Widow
Cate Shortland
Walt Disney Su

Finally, a Solo Film for Black Widow

The film finally moved forward in 2017 with the hiring of writer Jac Shaeffer, who worked closely with Johansson to shape the character arc. Setting the story after Civil War allowed the filmmakers to examine Natasha when she was not affiliated with any group and when she could make independent, active choices. While not exactly an origin story, the film would explore her origins and the lingering effects of her early life. As previously mentioned, Natasha is driven by loyalty to her allies and the “red in her ledger”. Black Widow reunites Natasha with her earliest allies, a manufactured family of Russian spies, and confronts her with the action for which she feels the most guilt, killing a young girl to defect to SHIELD. In that way, the film is perfectly conceived to highlight Natasha’s character journey and track a very personal story for her.

Also, Johansson viewed the abuse and manipulation of the Red Room as a traumatic experience that all Black Widow assassins shared and survived. In that way, she felt the film mirrored the #MeToo movement of the late-‘10s. Finally, Black Widow is the first MCU film directed solely by a woman (Captain Marvel was directed by a man and woman team). All of this looks good on paper. Black Widow would be a relatively grounded, female-focused espionage thriller that deepened the characterization of the most significant female superhero in the MCU, logically mirrored contemporary feminist movements, and it would be directed by a woman. That is all fantastic.

Indeed, there are fantastic elements in Black Widow. In particular, the elements of the film dealing with Natasha’s dysfunctional childhood family of Russian spies resonate emotionally and comedically, and it helps the middle section soar. Also, the allusions to real-world trafficking and shared female trauma, though a bit muddled and mostly relegated to the end of the film, are admirable. Overall, however, the film plays like an afterthought or an obligation. Nowhere is this more evident than when comparing it to its closest MCU counterpart, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Black Widow hews so closely to that earlier film that it seems like a loose remake rather than its own film. Also, the action and CGI-heavy third act are derivative and overblown. Despite that, the film is still highly entertaining, with well-staged action and a terrific cast. So, Black Widow ends up not being a total loss, but it’s certainly a disappointing tribute to an important, popular MCU character.

Black Widow opens in Ohio, United States, in 1995. Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour) are undercover Russian agents posing as a family with two girls, Natasha (Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw). They complete their objective, but their cover is blown. They narrowly escape SHIELD agents on a hidden airstrip and fly to Cuba to meet their commanding officer, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). The fake family is broken up, Melina and Alexei are reassigned while Natasha and Yelena are sent to the Red Room to be trained and conditioned by Dreykov to be Black Widows. Years later, Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is ordered to kill adult Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) by SHIELD. Instead, they join forces to help Natasha defect to America by assassinating Dreykov in Budapest, seemingly ending the Red Room. Dreykov’s young daughter was collateral damage in the assassination.

In 2016, SHIELD is defunct and Natasha is on the run from the American authorities for her actions in Captain America: Civil War. She receives a set of red vials from Yelena (Florence Pugh), thus becoming a target of Red Room assassins like Taskmaster. Yelena reveals that Dreykov survived the assassination and has been secretly continuing the Red Room. Now, however, he has perfected a chemical mind control technique and the red vials are the only antidote.

Natasha and Yelena resolve to take down the Red Room and free the mind-controlled Black Widows. First, they free Alexei from a Russian prison, then seek out Melina. The reunited makeshift family infiltrates the Red Room, which operates out of a flying fortress. Dreykov reveals that Taskmaster is his daughter, Antonia (Olga Kurylenko), who he has technologically modified and mind-controlled. Natasha and her team kill Dreykov, learn the location of hidden Black Widows around the world, crash the Red Room and start curing the Widows, including Antonia. Natasha leaves on her own, realizing that if her dysfunctional spy family can reconcile, then maybe so can her dysfunctional superhero family. Aww.

Putting aside the fact that Black Widow came years too late after Natasha had been killed in Endgame, the film is far too derivative even on its own terms. By derivative, I mean that the plot is shockingly similar to the other relatively grounded espionage thriller in the MCU: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Both films feature their hero going underground after their organizations turn against them (Natasha turned on the Avengers/Captain America turned on SHIELD). Both films feature evil organizations believed to be dismantled but revealed to be secretly thriving (The Red Room/Hydra). Both films feature mysterious, highly-trained, mind-controlled masked assassins (Taskmaster/The Winter Soldier). Both films reveal the masked assassin to be a person from the hero’s past who was thought to be dead and whose death weighed heavily on the hero (Antonia/Bucky).

The third act of both films centers around destroying the villainous organization (Red Room/Hydra) by crashing their enormous flying fortresses (The Red Room aerial facility/the SHIELD helicarriers). In both films, Natasha infiltrates the chief villain’s office disguised as one of his inner circle. In both films, the hero ends the climactic fight with the villainous assassin by breaking them of their mind control. I could go on, but that list is pretty damning. It took too long to make Black Widow, and the end result was a loose remake of an eight-year-old MCU film.

I appreciate that every MCU film does not have to be a colourful fantasy starring Thor, Doctor Strange, or the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some can be the more grounded, serious thrillers shot with handheld cameras and inspired by the Bourne films, which The Winter Soldier did exceedingly well. But playing in the same aesthetic does not necessitate such close copying. 

The more original aspect of Black Widow, which works so much better than recycled Winter Soldier plot points, is Natasha’s family of Russian spies. The opening takes a page out of the television show The Americans (2013-2018), which followed two married Soviet spies conducting espionage in Washington, DC, in the early-‘80s while posing as a normal, white, all-American family. The Americans is a fantastic show, and Black Widow is smart to invoke it for Natasha’s back story.

As an adult, Natasha has become cynical and lumps all of her experiences as a Russian spy together as a trauma to suppress. Yelena was younger when they lived in America, so she has fond memories, and feels as if Melina and Alexei are her real parents and Natasha is her real sister. She shows obvious hurt when Natasha coldly dismisses their time together as fiction and Alexei bemoans the time he wasted hiding in suburban Ohio. Despite protestations, once the four are reunited they fall into old patterns.

Natasha and Yelena bicker. Yelena calls out Natasha on her hypocrisy, playing the adored hero while also being a trained assassin, and minimizes her work as an Avenger, considering Thor or the Hulk to be more impressive. At the same time, Yelena strives for Natasha’s approval about clothes or tactics. Pugh and Johansson bounce off each other very naturally and come across as sisters.

Meanwhile, Alexei and Melina flirt with each other like long-lost lovers. Alexei praises his “daughters” for growing into such effective killers, letting his patriotic pride blind him to the obvious pain they feel about their pasts. He is the oafishly oblivious dad in a world of killers. Melina, meanwhile, tries to stuff the girls with her homemade food while keeping the peace and showing off her chemically mind-controlled pigs. The middle section of the film which melds the seemingly incongruous tropes of a family sitcom with a spy thriller is the high point by far.

The best part is how the screenplay constructs these new characters as reflections of Natasha’s character, thus keeping the focus squarely on her. In the lead-up to Black Widow, there was much discussion around Yelena being introduced to take over as the MCU’s Black Widow following Natasha’s death, and that may well be her function in future MCU projects. But in Black Widow, she simply represents Natasha’s possible life had she not defected from the Red Room to America. Yelena also represents the result of Natasha failing to ensure Dreykov had been killed and the Red Room destroyed when she defected.

Meanwhile, Alexei is a Russian super-soldier, similar to Captain America, with the nickname Red Guardian. Melina is a former Black Widow who continues to work for Dreykov as a scientist. So Natasha’s “parents” are a superhero and an assassin. These are the two sides that Natasha tries to reconcile: the dangerous Black Widow and the celebrated Avenger. These two halves raised her during her two calm years in suburban Ohio and set the tone for her adult life. Black Widow is about Natasha reconciling both sides of herself, and accepting that good came out of her time in Russia in the form of three people who love her like family. The “family” aspects of the film are so well-executed and resonant that they save it from completely missing the mark.

Unfortunately, Black Widow squanders some of the goodwill earned in the middle section as it devolves into a messy action climax. There is good stuff in the final act. Dreykov is an appropriately slimy serial abuser, bragging about his trafficking empire and dubbing little girls the “world’s greatest natural resource”. Natasha then manipulates him by laughing off his accomplishments, making him lose control out of ego and pride. Antonia/Taskmaster also works thematically, as the personification of Natasha’s greatest guilt and a chance at salvation. Natasha thought of Antonia as collateral damage in the attempt to kill Dreykov, but now she has the opportunity to save Antonia.

Some vocal fans online heavily criticized the film for changing Taskmaster from a male, highly-trained fighter and mimic in the comics to a scarred, mind-controlled female henchman in the film, but this amounted to hot air. Taskmaster is an effective but seldom-used comic book villain, and repurposing the character to serve Natasha’s character arc works quite well in Black Widow

The rest of the climax works less well. The action is less visceral than in earlier scenes in such an overblown sky fortress set-piece. The CGI effects are also not as seamless as one might expect from such a big-budget, high-profile film. Computer-generated objects do not seem to have the proper weight and green screen effects are not properly blended. They stick out in a distracting way.

Also, the climax never quite lands the #MeToo-inspired idea of the trauma and abuse shared by the current and former Black Widows, and the mission to save them. The idea that the freed Black Widows, who can never recover the childhoods Dreykov stole from them, can now set out to prevent other girls from suffering the same fate is poignant but too rushed to have the intended impact. #MeToo is a movement built around women sharing their stories of abuse or harassment to feel less isolated and call out perpetrators. Black Widow attempts to draw an analogy with the Widows, but the focus is on Natasha’s arc so the rest is half-hearted.

And so, Black Widow ends on a bit of a down-note. Natasha appears at the end of the film sporting blonde hair and Yelena’s vest, her look from Avengers: Infinity War. She has reconciled with her past and found strength in her dysfunctional family of Russian spies, giving her hope for her dysfunctional family of avenging superheroes. She walks toward a plane, prepared to rejoin her friends. The audience knows she will soon fail to defeat Thanos, then ultimately die to reverse that failure, making this image bittersweet. But the unevenness of the film that preceded it sadly robs this final of its triumph. Black Widow cannot is a too little, too late mishandling of the MCU’s most significant female character.