"Black Widow" is a triumph for Marvel fans, yet that's what makes it so infuriating

I come to praise unsung heroine Natasha Romanoff, not bury her. Marvel already did that

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 10, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in "Black Widow" (Disney+/Marvel Studios)
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in "Black Widow" (Disney+/Marvel Studios)

Disney+ subscribers who used the service in the days leading up to the release of "Black Widow" were greeted with The Black Widow Collection. This hero banner slideshow featured Scarlett Johansson's super-duper spy Avenger in all her guises and from every Marvel Cinematic Universe film in which she appears prior to the character's first solo outing. The wigs alone tell individual style stories, not all of them great, dating all the way back to her first appearance in 2010's "Iron Man 2."

From there Black Widow leapt into "The Avengers" before co-starring in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which came before "Avengers: The Age of Ultron" and "Captain America: Civil War" and, of course, "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Endgame."

Hopefully by this point you've noticed the problem with grouping these films under a collection named for the superhero team's top-ranking woman – her name isn't in any of these titles. (She's an Avenger, but so are a lot of other folks.) Three place her in at least a secondary position to two of the franchise's top male superheroes. In "Iron Man 2" she's more accurately described as tertiary, not to mention some version of a honey trap.

Disparaging Natasha Romanoff is not my intent, by the way. I come to praise this unsung heroine, not bury her. Marvel already did that.

It took 24 MCU films for Black Widow to get a standalone feature while the lives of nearly all of the other core Avengers, save Hawkeye, are explored through multiple titles. That number doesn't include the pre-Phase One Hulk flicks but for the sake of this argument I'm counting them. Bicker about that all you want, but my larger point stands: Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk received title placement in multiple films and starred in a classic TV show. Natasha Romanoff hasn't gotten any kind of unaccompanied spotlight until this weekend.

Taking all of this into consideration, perhaps you get why some may emerge from watching "Black Widow" enveloped in a thunderstorm of mixed emotions.

In all the ways that matter to an MCU fan, "Black Widow" the film meets or exceeds all expectations. It is a killer action flick, and a unique viewing experience . . . in that I loved it, and the fact that I loved it also makes me livid.

Neither the movie nor the director and writer are to blame for this. "Black Widow" satisfies in every way that matters. Astounding action sequences and gripping character development confidently carry the plot. Smart humor, much of it courtesy of Florence Pugh's resolute delivery and playful sangfroid, combines with the rest to elevate Johansson's hero to the place of honor she deserves in this universe.

Indeed, "Black Widow" showcases Pugh's incredible range and muscular charisma over ScarJo's magnetic appeal. Perhaps that's unintentional, and Johansson's fine, but if Marvel planned for Pugh to clear a runway for Yelena, she fulfills that mission with a performance that sucker punches the heavens.

Similarly director Cate Shortland expands "Black Widow" beyond its expected role as a narrative patch. She and screenwriter Eric Pearson take swipes at the action genre's silly indulgences while telling an admirably spun story about women taking a fist to the face of patriarchy. Take Yelena's shade throwing at Natasha's superhero landing addiction, one of those comic book movie tropes that, as another masked vigilante points out in a different film, is totally impractical. 

Nothing about Natasha or Yelena caters to the stereotypical horny male comic book reader – they are capable, confident women who address and treat one another like capable, confident women who somehow survive multiple assassination attempts by men who resent their agency. What's not to love?

This story's sinister overlord isn't members of the American government, Hydra agents masquerading as such, but a patronizing despot in post-Soviet Russia, where Natasha Romanoff and her adoptive sister Yelena Belova (Pugh) were trained to be assassins.

"Avengers" lore has it that Natasha escaped with the help of American operative Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Yelena did not, resulting in a contentious reunion between the two and the "parents" who raised them: Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), Russia's gone-to-seed imitation of Captain America, and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a former Black Widow reassigned to other duties.

Pearson strikes a balance between treating Natasha's backstory with the same solemnity given to every other key Avenger and with comedic gusto, all while drawing inspiration and connections to other TV shows and action movies. There's a vibe reminiscent of "The Americans" as it begins, before it segues into a storyline that moves, leaps and sharp-shoots a lot like a Jason Bourne yarn.

Comparisons between "Black Widow" and Matt Damon's multi-film action epic work in Marvel's favor, actually. They underscore the ways that both are patriarchal domination parables. Each is a saga about controlling ordinary people forced into a system that molds them into extraordinary specimens to be deployed by powerful men who decide how they live, who they kill and whether and when they'll die.

Natasha and Yelena's bloody quest to take down Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the general who ruined their lives, serves that purpose in a more obvious respect because they and their Widow sisters are women.

Be that as it may, Johansson, Pugh and their sister Widows have nothing to prove to the audience that knows Natasha Romanoff. To stubborn industry executives still doubting that a big budget action flicks starring a woman and about women can draw an audience, though, setting this example – again – still  matters.

It bears repeating that it took two dozen movies before "Black Widow" hatched, four years after the original "Wonder Woman" became the most successful movie in DC's "Justice League" series, and a year and a half after "Birds of Prey," 2020's 10th-highest grossing film worldwide, attracted an audience evenly split between men and women.

"Black Widow" is leagues better than that movie. That doesn't lessen my anger at Marvel, because the triumph of "Black Widow" is blunted by the immutable fact of the title character's permanent death in "Avengers: Endgame." The sorrow of that isn't the thorny point, it's the insult.

Natasha Romanoff is one of two major, central women in the MCU, the other being Gamora from "Guardians of the Galaxy," whose backstories are established over multiple films.

Each is formidable, resourceful and capable in her own right; Black Widow is even more impressive because she's expertly trained as opposed to technologically augmented.  

And each gets tossed over the same cliff to their deaths, sacrificed to serve missions carried out by men.

In the same ways Leia is a fictional role model for girls and women who love "Star Wars," Natasha Romanoff and Gamora surely served that purpose for "Avengers" fans. Framed thusly, you might then understand why watching those women reduced to a spot on the cosmos' pavement creates a sore spot that hasn't entirely healed.

It's helpful to know that we'll learn more about Okoye and Shuri from "Black Panther." Wanda Maximoff's psyche was the focus of an entire series, "WandaVision," which is nice. Marvel's also bringing us the further exploits of Captain Marvel (another super-woman introduced late in the game) and Ms. Marvel in an upcoming series.

Gamora, at least, receives a second chance through a version from an alternate timeline – but it's not the one with whom fans were encouraged to make a substantial connection. None of that changes the fact in the same movie that gives a loving goodbye to Tony Stark and Iron Man, Black Widow doesn't even get a funeral that we see on screen. Can we be surprised that the brazenly pandering all-female battle scene in "Endgame" came off as silly and hollow?

After all that, and in the wake of it, the continuing adventures of Black Widow are therefore impossible, which makes the satisfaction and emotional victory that is "Black Widow" still feel like a loss.

Nevertheless, there's a good chance we'll see more of the character's backstory. Early reports indicate opening day box office returns for "Black Widow" are healthy. It might even set a few box office records. If the longer term result is that we get more of Yelena in Phase Four, fantastic (assuming you've seen the mid-credits sequence). What would be even more gratifying is the MCU treats her and other next generation heroines as well as their male counterparts, and better than the sister who fought and flew ahead of them.

"Black Widow" is now playing in theaters and available via Premier Access to Disney+ subscribers. 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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