After eleven years of waiting, my favorite superhero finally got her own film, and you know what? I kinda think it was worth the wait. Black Widow is a non-stop action spy thriller that puts my favorite Marvel gal front and center and brings in the most important theme from her comic book arcs: restorative justice.
Before we get started, as with all my MCU reviews, I do my best to make my review spoiler-free, but I will mark any potential spoilers with **. Ye be warned.
Set between 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, the film depicts the aftermath of the breakup of the Avengers, and the life of a superspy on the run. While in hiding, Natasha’s past comes to visit—quite literally—and leads her to tracking down her former Russian spy family in an effort to (finally) bring down the Red Room for good. (That’s as about as spoiler-free of a summary as I can do!)
Though the film deviates from Natasha’s comic book origins, it still emphasizes some themes that are prevalent throughout most of her stories: restorative justice and redemption. Way back in 2012’s Avengers, we heard Natasha say to Loki, “I’ve got red in my ledger; I’d like to wipe it out.” Loki questions whether or not Natasha will ever be able to achieve this, and since Black Widow gives us more of the superspy Avenger’s backstory, it’s a fair question for Loki, and the audience, to ask. ** We finally learn what happened in Budapest when Natasha defected to SHIELD, and it involves the death of a child which Natasha, somewhat callously, refers to as “collateral damage.” ** This is a common theme in superhero films after Captain America: Civil War, which centers on the internal struggle over the “collateral damage” of what happened after the Battle of New York, the destruction of Sokovia, etc. Natasha’s desire for redemption from her past requires restorative justice, or, to put it simply, righting her wrongs, which in this case means finally eliminating the Red Room for good, and to free the other Black Widows from the control of Dreykov.
As much as we want Natasha’s desire to erase the red from her past to be the main catalyst in her redemption mission, it isn’t. It’s Nat’s younger “sister” (if one can call family that was assigned to them familial…), Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh, who steals every scene she’s in). It might be easy to think of the ‘little’ sister as the sidekick or a smaller plot point in this story, but there really are no sidekick women in Black Widow; and as it turns out, Yelena’s role in the story is the most important. ** It is Yelena who tells Natasha that the Red Room still exists even after she left that life behind, and that Dreykov has been mind-controlling the younger generation of Widows, which at one point included Yelena. Ultimately, it is Yelena who pushes Natasha to confront the mistakes of her past. Natasha may have become an Avenger out of a desire to do good and to find redemption, but redemption cannot be had without using her privilege to seek to repair the harm she caused by defecting to SHIELD. No spoilers here, but the crux of the film’s conflict—and Natasha’s eternal internal struggle—is when Natasha literally comes face to face with the sins of her past. Is there a way to give back lives that were taken? No, and Natasha knows that, but she can take responsibility for her actions, and for the hurt she caused.
Hand in hand with restorative justice is the theme of free will—a woman’s right to choose, female agency, whatever term you prefer, is what allows Natasha the opportunity to confront her past. In the film, we see women stripped of all of their agency, and to be honest, just the thought of it makes me sick to my stomach. Natasha is a woman who, even though she is on the run from General Ross, arguably has some of the most power in the world because of her status as an Avenger, errrr ex-Avenger circa 2016, I guess. Sure, she’s a fugitive from every government in the world, but she still has the privilege of an Avenger (and the connections of a superspy), and she uses her privilege, talents, and strengths to help the women who’ve lost their voice, lost their power, and lost the control over their own bodies.
It’s a story about women helping women, and I am here for it.
Lastly, the redemption arc in Black Widow isn’t limited to Natasha herself. Her superspy/supersoldier Russian parents also needs to redeem themselves to Natasha and Yelena. Sure, they’re not her biological family, but neither are the Avengers, and yet it’s clear that the ties are strong between these Russian undercover agents. The reparation of familial bonds in Black Widow mirrors that of the Avengers in later films, and it’s clear that Natasha is the one who instigated the mending of bridges between the dysfunctional superhero family.
Could I talk endlessly about the kickass actions sequenes? Sure. The talents of the cinematographer and score composer? Of course. The chemistry between the main cast members? Absolutely. It’s technically a brilliant film, (thank you, Cate Shortland, for directing!) and one of Marvel’s best (I openly admit my bias here). Yet I walked out of the theater feeling really satisfied not only for those reasons, but also because it made Natasha’s sacrifice for the Soul Stone in Avengers: Endgame much more powerful, and much more poignant. Natasha was the soul of the original six Avengers, and for a hero focused on restoring the balance and righting the wrongs of her past, what better way to do that than by saving the universe?
Black Widow gives us a look at the woman behind that sacrifice, and shows us that a hero doesn’t need super powers: she only needs the desire to make the world a better place. She’s allowed to have bruises, messy hair, and to wear sweatpants, and still get up and kick ass, whether it be a Russian creeper like Dreykov or a Mad Titan like Thanos.
Black Widow is now playing in U.S. cinemas and streaming on Disney+.