A month or so ago Jeff alerted me to the exciting reality that Barnes & Noble (at least the one by him) had the hardcover editions of BOTH Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow novels – Black Widow: Forever Red and Black Widow: Red Vengeance – in their bargain section. A hurried trip to and quick investigation of my local Barnes & Noble yielded the same prize! I love Margaret Stohl’s work on the Captain Marvel series. I love Black Widow as a character. So, naturally, they both came home with me. Given all the grading that comes with the end of the school year, I didn’t have the chance to read either until now. I finished the first novel, Black Widow: Forever Red, the other day and I enjoyed a great deal of it…but it also highlighted one of the problems I find at times with YA novels in general. And this, I felt, warranted a little reflection.
First, let’s talk about the good. There’s a lot of it too! It’s mostly good! I adore the fact that Margaret Stohl has given us Black Widow novels! For some unknown reason, Marvel Studios refuses to let Scarlett Johansson have her own Black Widow solo film (I’m kidding…we know the reason, the MCU has MAJOR problems with believing in the strength of their female characters – from headlining films to merchandizing to balancing the genders in any team film…it’s as sad as it is embarrassing). However she gets some much-needed standalone time in Black Widow: Forever Red and (presumably) Black Widow: Red Vengeance (I say “presumably” because I haven’t read that one yet and I don’t want to be misleading…however, it seems like a safe bet to think she’s in there as her name is in the title, you know?). While the novels are not set directly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity, they still feel very MCU-adjacent. I can hear Scarlett Johansson reciting Natasha Romanoff’s lines in this novel. Margaret Stohl does an excellent job of capturing her character. The same can be said for Phil Coulson and Tony Stark. They feel authentic in everything from their voices to their actions to their motivations. As we see with her run on Captain Marvel, Margaret Stohl knows the Marvel Universe.
The basic setup of the novel is as follows: Shortly after defecting to the U.S. and joining S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha ends up on a mission that takes her back to Odessa, Ukraine where she comes face-to-face with Ivan Somodorov, one of her former Red Room instructors. He’s performing bizarre experiments on children, including a young girl named Ava Orlova. The Black Widow brings the whole facility down and rescues Ava, whom she takes back to the states with her. Ava spends the next several years growing up in S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities (and resenting Natasha for not being a part of her life) until teenage angst gets the best of her and she runs away to live on her own in shelters across New York City. Eight years after that fateful night, Black Widow and her fellow Avengers have become celebrities and heroes the world over. Ava’s having weird dreams while living on her own. And Somodorov returns, not dead after all. This leads Natasha to seek out/protect Ava and they, along with her YA-prerequisite insta-love boyfriend Alex, have to do what they can to stop Somodorov and his quantum genetic experiments.
Everything about the tone of the novel makes it feel like it happens between The Avengers and Avengers: Age Of Ultron. It just fits. However, it isn’t in the film continuity as Coulson is alive, Natasha (and everyone else) knows he’s alive, and he’s just a regular part of regular S.H.I.E.L.D. Also, at one point Alex starts to fanboy over Spider-Man and we know Spidey doesn’t show up in the MCU timeline until a little before Captain America: Civil War. None of this really matters though. In fact, the story is more fun (and Margaret Stohl is allowed more freedom) given that it’s carrying the feel of the MCU without having to tie into it. This alleviates the problem the Disney Canon of Star Wars has been dealing with since day one – trying to align the plots of every single film, novel, cartoon, comic, and game when they are producing all the content simultaneously.
One of the real strengths that come from this being a YA novel (since, as with all YA novels, the focus of the narrative falls primarily to the teenagers (with chapters alternating between Ava and Alex’s perspective (Natasha does have chapters from her point of view (and she appears in some of the chapters where we’re looking through Ava or Alex’s eyes) but it’s mostly the kids))) is that it lets us see how people may react to superheroes living in their world. This isn’t something we often see. In comics, we always seen things from the perspective of our heroes and the same can be said of the movies or cartoons. Civilians come in only so far as they are related to the hero(es) in the story. When Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. first premiered, they said it was going to be about how the world would react to all these new types of beings showing up in it. I was really excited! However, I never got that show. It became a sci-fi spy show almost immediately and the S.H.I.E.L.D. vantage point certainly isn’t the vantage point of the ordinary person.
They’ve addressed it a little bit in the second season of Jessica Jones (at least with the six episodes I’ve seen so far) but, again, we see this only in regard to how it relates to Jess (and, as I’ve said many, many times – Jessica Jones and all the Netflix shows aren’t in the same universe as the MCU anyway). But we see a real attempt at exploring this issue with some depth in this novel! In Black Widow: Forever Red, Margaret Stohl gives us Ava (who resents these “heroes” because Natasha was never there for her when Ava needed her after that first, fateful night) and Alex (who worships these heroes and reacts like a starstruck fanboy when he first meets Natasha and Tony Stark). This added a fantastic dimension to the story, playing with how “normal” people see superheroes and how they fit into each other’s world.
I also like how Margaret Stohl gets around the Thor: The Dark World problem. Now, this isn’t an official name or anything but it’s how I refer to it. When the MCU started, all these heroes have their own movies, right? Then, with The Avengers, they all team-up. We see they are all sharing the same world and they all know each other. This puts a major stressor on any “solo film” because the threat crafted has to be something that’s credible but we, as viewers, have to also believe no other heroes would come to help/check it out. This was first clear to me as I watched Thor: The Dark World. Now, I’m not one who hates this film. It’s not my favorite, but I still enjoy it quite a bit and think it’s head and shoulders above most non-MCU superhero movies. BUT I just can’t understand how a portal to the Dark Dimension can open up over London and an army of Dark Elves can start falling out without Tony Stark zipping over in one of his super fast suits or Cap flying a S.H.I.E.L.D. jet over to see what’s going on. It just doesn’t fit.
But that doesn’t happen here! As soon as Natasha starts to learn the depth of the “quantum entanglement” experiments Somodorov has been running (not to mention how it has affected her) she seeks out Tony. Why wouldn’t you seek out one of the smartest people on the planet in a situation like this?? And then, when the action takes off, it’s believable that Tony stays behind because he’s trying to sort this quantum problem while Natasha takes the fight to Somodorov. It all works and I love that Margaret Stohl a) understood how awkward it would’ve been to not have Tony here and b) figured out how to make it believable that he would stay behind as Black Widow did her solo fighting for the bulk of the book.
Also, perhaps one of the things that impressed me most about this novel was how much Russian was spoken! If Natasha and Ava (not to mention Ava’s friend Oksana) are from Russia, it is natural for them to speak their native language. I read far more Russian than I’ve ever found in any other novel (or comic) with a similar setup. It made everything feel very authentic.
But I still had trouble with one of the things all YA novels have to do. For it to be YA, the star can’t be Natasha Romanoff, no matter how awesome she is or how often she shows up. The stars of the novel have to be Ava and Alex. And there HAS TO BE a set of circumstances where these kids end up off on their own. That’s just how YA does things. For one reason or another, the adults are always sidelined so the kids can save the day and/or take the lead. And this, if not handled well, drives me up the wall.
In The Hunger Games, for example, it works masterfully. The entire nature of the competition is designed to make children fight for their lives. Also, we see that Katniss’s mother has serious emotional problems that leaves her an absentee mother in every sense but her physical presence (at least in the first novel). The story is structured in a way that it is completely plausible these teenagers would be on their own.
However, in Black Widow: Forever Red we see Ivan Somodorov send his personal paramilitary assassins after Ava (and Alex who gets wrapped up in the whole thing because…insta-love so he has to follow her everywhere). Black Widow is there to help, of course, and gets the kids to a secure S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. While there, she and Tony begin trying to figure out what Somodorov did to Ava and how it affects Natasha specifically and the world at large. Then because she’s angsty and doesn’t like/trust Natasha or S.H.I.E.L.D. Ava and Alex sneak out and decide to try and get to Odessa on their own so they can figure everything out and stop Somodorov on their own.
This is a thing that happens.
I’m supposed to believe that these two seventeen-year-old kids would leave one of the most secure locations on the planet where they are protected by highly trained S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives and two of the freaking Avengers to try and stop Somodorov themselves? I’m supposed to believe they would ever believe they could handle this on their own without Black Widow, S.H.I.E.L.D., and freaking Iron Man?!? And they are doing this because Ava doesn’t really like Natasha so she wants to go figure it out herself?? Nope, sorry. I don’t buy it.
I mean, I know suspension of disbelief has to be a part of any experience of fiction. But this totally snapped it for me. It pulled me out of the narrative. I know the kids have to do their own thing…but sometimes there’s NO WAY the kids could ever handle things better than the adults. This is one of those times. I’m sorry Ava and Alex. If you really think you can handle the mad scientist and his whole organization of assassins better than two literal Avengers who are literally called “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” then maybe you deserve to die at Somodorov’s hands. Too harsh? I don’t care.
But do they die at Somodorov’s hands? Well that would be a MAJOR SPOILER and I’m not ruining it. I think you’d have more fun reading the book yourself. Sure, the kids leaving to do it all on their own totally pulled me out of the story for a bit but, by and large, I really dug it. Plus, Black Widow is amazing! Any chance I have to experience a story with her (that also happens to be written by one of Marvel’s incredibly talented female authors) I’m going to chase. If we want to see more films, comics, and novels starring Marvel’s brilliant female characters (especially ones that also have women on the creative end of it!) then we need to celebrate and participate in these sorts of things whenever and wherever we can find them. Thankfully, Black Widow: Forever Red is every bit as entertaining as it is important in continuing to celebrate the diversity Marvel can highlight, both in their characters and their creative talent.