“Black Widow” is the first Marvel movie to have a solo female director — and the difference is clear.
Given Marvel’s problematic portrayals of female characters, I was nervous before the start of “Black Widow.” Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson, made her debut in “Iron Man 2” as a typical seductive spy — a sexy badass without much personality.
Tony Stark even says he “wants one” when meets her, implying that she is an object, and Pepper Potts refers to her as a potential “expensive sexual harassment lawsuit.” The franchise later came under fire for one of Natasha’s lines in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” in which she calls herself a monster for having undergone a forced hysterectomy in the Red Room.
I was also worried that the movie itself would be as patronizing and pandering as the poorly-executed fight scene in “Avengers: Endgame,” that threw together almost every female character in the franchise, despite many of them never interacting before and interrupting the flow of the scene just to make a shallow “girl power!” moment.
I was most nervous to see how the film would show Natasha’s time in the Red Room. Marvel has also been criticized for using women’s trauma as the basis of their strength, such as in “WandaVision,” where the development of Wanda Maximoff’s powers are exclusively explored through traumatic events in her life. I did not want to see a gross, drawn-out display of violence against women. However, just a few minutes into the movie, I breathed a sigh of relief.
The movie starts on a light note, with Natasha playing with her sister Yelena, played by Florence Pugh. However, we quickly see the girls flee with their “family” to Cuba, where they are tranquilized. We then see the opening credits over a montage that explains what happens in the Red Room, while a haunting cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” plays. We see clips of girls being loaded into trucks and trained in target practice and ballet, interspersed with news clips and fake home videos. While these scenes are chilling, they are extremely brief. There is a quick glimpse of a surgical table, but fortunately, no actual depictions of the hysterectomies widows must undergo. This allows us to understand Natasha’s upbringing in the Red Room without glorifying violence against young girls.
“Black Widow” also combats the “hot female spy” stereotype that Natasha formerly fit so well, through Yelena’s character. While Yelena is just as physically strong as Natasha, she has a sense of humor and likes to have fun. She makes fun of Natasha’s fighting poses, gushes about how many pockets her vest has and cracks jokes during near-death experiences. In a welcome shift from calling herself a monster, she even talks about her infertility flippantly when the Red Guardian, played by David Harbour, asks if it’s her time of the month. She reminds him that she doesn’t have a uterus, a word at which he cringes, so she lists off the anatomy that was removed to poke fun at his discomfort.
Additionally, Natasha’s compassion is portrayed as one of her strengths, as Russian scientist Melina Vostokoff, played by Rachel Weisz, remarks that she wonders how she managed to keep her heart. Although Marvel was criticized for giving Natasha the role of soothing the Hulk in “Age of Ultron,” “Black Widow” makes Natasha’s kindness seem brave when she risks her own life to save someone who is trying to kill her.
If there’s one thing deserving of criticism, it’s the mantra that Melina tells Natasha as a child, that “pain makes you stronger,” which Natasha remembers throughout her life. This phrase seems a bit too similar to female characters having a “phoenix moment,” or a traumatic incident that fuels them to become “strong female characters.” However, the movie generally navigates Natasha’s and Yelena’s traumas effectively, by giving them a backstory without romanticizing the terrible things that happened to them.
We get to see Yelena visiting Natasha’s grave in the final scene, which is nice, since Natasha didn’t get the emotional funeral scene in “Avengers: Endgame” that Stark did. This tribute to Natasha is touching, and opens the door for Yelena’s involvement in future movies, which I’m very hopeful for.
“Black Widow'' is currently in theaters and available on Disney+ Premier Access.