It’s hard to be a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Widow. She sticks out like a sore thumb. On a team of super-powered guys (and Hawkeye), she fills the less cinematic “master manipulator” and “weird sexy martial art flippity flips” roles. Her story until Black Widow has been about as nuanced and impactful as that of Smurfette’s. When she has been given more to do than pose in front of explosions or take people down with her thighs, the storylines have been so heavily critiqued they’ve turned punchline in their own right.
In Age of Ultron she was crammed into a hamfisted romance with the Hulk that was immediately mocked in Thor: Ragnarok. Her big swan dive into oblivion in Endgame for the sake of her “boys,” the Avengers, is repeatedly mocked in her titular film, Black Widow. For the first heroine of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Natasha Romanoff often feels like a big joke. And this attempt to rehabilitate her posthumously feels like far too little far too late.
In Black Widow, director Cate Shortland and screenwriters Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson are clearly trying to recontextualize Natasha Romanoff and find a genuinely interesting character buried under a decade of oversexualized junk. The problem is that’s really hard to do. This character carries a lot of baggage — way more than Wanda Maximoff — who Schaeffer handily rehabilitated in WandaVision.
Wanda could have a bad rap in the films, but she is also still alive by the end of each chapter in her story. She can be transformed into a dynamic character with wants and desires beyond what a handful of male directors shunted onto her in a few films. Natasha Romanoff doesn’t have the same luxury. She can’t be dynamic because her story is already told. We’ve already witnessed her endgame. She tells Hawkeye she’s a not-great person and the least she can do is kill herself so some men, her “boys,” can live. Black Widow creaks under the weight of this future. The filmmakers build up a rich and nuanced life for her that doesn’t revolve around the Avengers. It’s meant to be a curtain pulled back; an exploration of what made her tick and what led to her decision to swan dive into oblivion. Instead it feels like desperate and sweaty justification for a widely maligned move.
It’s not the filmmakers’ fault that Natasha Romanoff has been the “sexy Avenger” all this time. It’s not their fault that Spider-Man got a movie before Natasha or that the character was missing from so much merchandise it inspired multiple hashtags. Black Widow has been short shrifted for years. One film with a handful of very good jokes was always going to struggle to make up for that.
But the filmmakers do try to fix what was broken before they came along. In one of the standout moments of the film, Natasha is eluding a worldwide manhunt while doing absolutely nothing to change her appearance. As she drops some cash for snacks at a gas station her adoptive sister Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh, pointedly begins mocking Natasha’s tendency to pose and flip her hair after doing something athletically impressive. It’s extremely funny, and a great character moment — a sister ragging on one of the most humorless heroes in the MCU. It’s the filmmakers speaking through Yelena, chastising a decade of fetishization by Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, and the Russo brothers while neatly establishing that Yelena will be different.
“See,” Marvel seems to say. “We get that we told women to wait their turn for a decade. We acknowledge our sins and would like you to overlook them because Pugh and Johansson have great chemistry.”
I spent a lot of the movie torn between being annoyed at the cookie Marvel was meting out and actually loving the taste of the thing. Then the movie embraces the gallows humor one would expect a bunch of lifetime assassins and spies to engage in, when Natasha and Yelena go into graphic details of their forced sterilization as a joke. The movie later descends into the rote beats of the MCU’s more militaristic fare, but this moment, which savagely addresses a key and controversial plot point from Age of Ultron, makes it all almost feel like it was worth it.
In Age of Ultron Natasha tearfully breaks up with Bruce Banner, who she has apparently hooked up with between movies. When he begs to know why they can’t be together and assumes it’s because he turns into an uncontrollable green monster on occasion, Natasha says no. It’s because she is the monster. She was forcibly sterilized in the Red Room and can never have children. The criticism of Black Widow’s arc was severe, particularly her infantilizing relationship with the Hulk. Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon reportedly even left Twitter to avoid it.
In Black Widow Yelena, and then Natasha, go on a black comedy riff over their barren wombs to the discomfort of the Red Guardian, who acted as their father in a spy-op 20 years earlier before turning them over to the Red Room to become Black Widows. Where once Natasha said it made her a monster, here it’s something to joke about with her younger, similarly affected, sister. It feels more genuine, and certainly less maudlin, than crowing about being a monster before finding a facsimile of motherhood in crooning lullabies to a giant green man. This was the Black Widow of the comics, and the promise of the character as seen in Winter Soldier (and to a lesser extent Civil War): an assassin with a pitch-black sense of humor, using it to make her pretend spy dad uncomfortable for his complicity in her child soldier past.
It’s a pity Natasha is still dead, and Scarlet Johansson is done with the franchise, because for a few minutes we got what we’d been promised 12 years ago when Emily Blunt was first rumored to be joining the nascent MCU as Black Widow. Like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth, she spent over a decade of her career on this franchise. They each got a trilogy of films interrogating their character’s purpose in the MCU. She got a prequel trying to soften the blow of her abrupt departure. The movie was fun, and there are moments in it that are even excellent, but it all feels like far too little, far too late.
Thanks to a post-credits sequence, we know Pugh is next headed to the Disney Plus show Hawkeye. Let’s hope her Black Widow is treated a little kinder by the MCU. But as she’s already being pitted against Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld’s Hawkeyes, I wouldn’t get too optimistic.