Natasha Romanoff does something unprecedented early in Black Widow. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s bombshell superspy, its cat-suited resident purveyor of flying-scissor takedowns, pops the top off a beer and then settles in, barefaced and in comfortable clothing, to watch a movie on her laptop. She is, admittedly, in hiding at the time — Black Widow takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, when Natasha is on the run from General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). Still, it’s a moment of unguarded enjoyment that feels like it’s meant to stand in for all the personal time gone unglimpsed during the decade-plus in which the character, who’s played by Scarlett Johansson, has been an ensemble player in the biggest franchise around — Natasha reciting lines alongside the actors in her flick of choice, Moonraker, as though she’s seen it a million times before. She’s one of the most life-size members of the Avengers (“I doubt that god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight,” someone dryly quips at her in the new movie), but the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t had much interest in her humanity outside of the context of the latest venture into saving the world. Black Widow has arrived to finally give a sense of what makes Natasha Romanoff tick, and all it took was her death.
And death, in the MCU, can be as much a financial concern as a mortal one, what with the younger, cheaper stars waiting in the wings with their freshly signed multi-picture contracts. Black Widow, which was directed by the Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland (Lore), is a barbed farewell to Natasha that also serves as a more enjoyable introduction to her replacement, Yelena (Florence Pugh). Yelena spent three years of her childhood living undercover in Ohio, The Americans-style, with Natasha and their “parents,” Melina (Rachel Weisz, criminally underused) and Alexei (a hammy David Harbour). A fellow survivor of the Red Room, the Soviet-born training and brainwashing program that made Natasha who she is, Yelena is in hiding herself after being freed from its control. She’s as formidable as her temporary older sibling while being earthier, funnier, and more naïve, and Pugh is such a bright, robust presence in the film that, as fun as she is, it’s also hard to think about how much of her next few years will be consumed by her obligations to this role. Natasha and Yelena begrudgingly join up to take down the Red Room, which has quietly kept operating under the control of Dreykov, whom Ray Winstone plays as a kind of evil, Russian-esque Béla Károlyi.
As they do, they fall into a rhythm of casual bickering, with witticisms — the script was written by Thor: Ragnarok’s Eric Pearson — in line with the standard Marvel banter. But they accrue to form a deflating critique of Natasha’s character. Yelena rags on her adoptive sister’s tendency to do a superhero landing: “They’re great poses, but it does look like you think everyone’s looking at you all the time.” She teases Natasha about being a minor member of her outsize team. She offers a retort to what’s been Natasha’s repeated refrain about her motivations over the years — that in striving to make up for her time as a trained killer, she’s just managed to become a killer “that little girls call their hero.” Most pointed of all is the detailed, darkly comic description of getting forcibly sterilized that Yelena offers up to make Alexei uncomfortable, their mission requiring them to reassemble their artificial family. It feels like a direct counterpoint to Natasha’s infamous confession about the same experience back in Avengers: Age of Ultron, one that ended with her telling Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), “You’re not the only monster on the team.”
Natasha Romanoff first appeared in Iron Man 2 in 2010 as a personal assistant to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark who was proficient at her job, comely in a pencil skirt, and, shock of shocks, actually an ass-kicking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent sent to assess her would-be boss. As the first and, for years, only woman superhero in the franchise, she embodied a mass of contradictory corporate strong-female-character impulses. She was sexualized, but with the caveat that it was by her own design, an outward-facing strategy to disarm or be underestimated, her appearance placed in implicit contrast to her capacity to fight. She didn’t actually have sex, because it doesn’t exist in the MCU, but also because the franchise had trouble contending with her as someone who might have desires of her own, not to mention (passing WarGames references aside) a capacity for pleasure — it’s why the scene of her watching a movie in Black Widow stands out. When she did embark on a romance, it was a tortured one with the canonically chaste Bruce who, as the Hulk, almost killed her, resulting in one of the rare scenes in which she showed terror. Even as the franchise added enough women around her to enable excruciating girl-power moments, she retained a hollowness, forever bent on atonement, dedicating her life to some vague idea of doing good as a counterbalance for actions she had no control over.
Natasha does more atoning in Black Widow, though it’s very specifically for choices she made on her own and that she’s given an opportunity to apologize for — choices involving collateral damage during her efforts to defect and clear-cutting her ties to the past. Black Widow is serviceable enough for an MCU installment, for whatever that means now, with its array of accents ranging from decent to Boris-and-Natasha, and action that’s more visually coherent than the chaotic norm, especially in smaller-scale setpieces like the Bourne-esque one in which Natasha and Yelena have it out in the kitchen of a safe house. It’s a narrative cul-de-sac, blessedly free of major cameos or having to do too much setup for the future aside from bringing in Yelena — the big mysteries it addresses are why Natasha went blonde and how she got a particular item of clothing. That it feels like it’s half at war with its title character, bringing her firmly to Earth (until she, like Bond in Moonraker, has to make her way to a high-altitude villain’s lair) and insisting on emotional coherence from her personal history, is its most interesting quality, though it’s maybe not as revolutionary as it first seems.
Marvel’s cinematic and now televisual universe has persisted for long enough for self-criticism to be its latest stage. Loki feels like a self-reflexive exercise in trying to make sense of its character’s transformation from supervillain to anti-hero; The Falcon and the Winter Soldier fumbled its way through a racial reckoning regarding the patriotism innate to the role of Captain America; and now Black Widow has arrived to own up to shortcomings of the property’s first female superhero before sloughing her off. This development could be read as progress, but it feels more accurate to see it as a sign of a franchise that’s large and canny enough to just use critiques as a means of selling new properties and new characters. There’s no stopping the MCU, an observation that feels as much like an admission of defeat as a statement of fact — at least the latest slate of actors getting pulled into its inexorable orbit are a pleasure to watch.
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