Sever the Nerve
The opening credits of Black Widow consists of probably the bleakest montage in the MCU yet. In it we see young girls traded, indoctrinated, and trained in the “Red Room” as secret assassins for the Russian government. Specifically, the imagery of girls being transported in shipping containers is a quick way to establish Natasha Romanoff’s (the Black Widow played by Scarlett Johansson) dire upbringing and connect the Red Room to real-world human trafficking. It sure made my mind wander to the horrors of illicit sex trade, but of course Marvel doesn’t directly tackle the sex-trafficking here. Still, Dreykov’s Widows program is a clear metaphor for the patriarchy’s subjection of women, and for Disney, it’s a bold move.
The film itself acts as a response to the treatment Black Widow has endured in the MCU. It arrived too late, but it’s nevertheless something nice to see. In her first appearance back in Iron Man 2, she went undercover as Natalie Rushman, an employee of Stark Industries. You might recall that the camera often framed Johansson as a sexpot. Tony Stark was on the look out for an assistant at the time. As he ogled Natalie he said to Pepper Potts, “I want one.” Yikes. Sure, Stark grows in later films and Natasha gets to retort his machismo, but through out the MCU Black Widow’s portrayal has been a lot of... have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too. In 2021’s Black Widow, Natasha's sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) mocks her for always posing in action scenes, a jab towards the male gaze, really. Back in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Natasha describes herself as a monster because she can’t have children due to her forced hysterectomy in the Red Room. The scene was rightly maligned by women who couldn’t have or didn’t want children themselves, since the act of bearing children does not define a woman and it certainly doesn’t make one a monster. Yelena, on the other hand, claps back at her surrogate father’s sexist period comment by describing the sterilization of the Widows with sarcastic miming, pointing the finger at the horrific Dreykovs of the world.
The less restrained Yelena is being positioned as Natasha’s successor, as a way to amend for Black Widow’s lackluster characterization and contemptuous death in Avengers: Endgame. Yelena might be the voice of the women who are now able to take the helm (director Cate Shortland and story writer Jac Shaeffer), but the movie ultimately feels like a peace offering with little consequence for Natasha herself.
We do get more insight on Natasha’s backstory and her demons. She feels guilty for killing Dreykov’s daughter to get to him, but it turns out neither died. The daughter, Antonia, survived, enslaved by her father, whom she rescued at end, too. It was a neat twist to have the Taskmaster turn out to be Antonia, if only to piss off the man-baby fanboys. But it all wraps up so neatly, with Natasha seemingly redeemed. Yet she still goes on to sacrifice herself in Endgame, because she still saw herself as a bad person. It does not feel coherent and keeps Black Widow as a side-note in Natasha’s story arc. That side-note does have her most badass moment though: when she breaks her nose to bypass Dreykov’s controlling pheromones. You never see a leading women break their face on screen. That’s was pretty cool... gruesomely cool?
The final action scene was a thrill to watch, even if the movie came to clumsy end. Natasha leaves her old family to confront SHIELD alone, but it cuts to black before we get any resolution or closure. Then we see her some time later with a blonde hair ready to rescue her super hero friends, picking up right from the ending of Captain America: Civil War. It's as if some essential scenes were cut for time. Oh but there's time for the after-credit scene teasing the upcoming Hawkeye series. Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) recruits Yelena to go after Hawkeye himself!
In isolation Black Widow was a decent action romp and not a bad meta-commentary on misogyny. It certainly had more teeth than Marvel’s first foray into a woman-led story. Captain Marvel was more about empowerment than oppression. From a movie about Russian spies, I was expecting more conversations comparing and contrastingn political ideologies. The father figure, Alexei, aka Red Guardian, made a couple quips, but I wanted some heated talks at the dinner table about class alienation, American individualism, etc. Alexei (David Harbour) had Karl Marx tattooed on his knuckles; but that could’ve just been for show. He was a doofus, anyway. Melina (Rachel Weisz), the mother, seemed to be more level-headed.... oh yeah... she was mean to that pig she mind-controlled. I could see her sympathizing with tankies.
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