I’ve seen Black Widow! Well, I guess a better way to put it is I keep seeing Black Widow ;). It holds a special place in my heart. Black Widow marks the return of two long running traditions. My first showing on July 8th was the return of a Marvel movie opening night AND the return of seeing a movie after dinner on my birthday! The latter is something I’ve done since high school but was naturally on hiatus last year as our local Covid lockdowns were in full force. It felt so good to be back. Each time I’ve seen it since, I’ve noticed how comforting it feels to be in a darkened theatre again and hear those pages flip as the Marvel logo appears on screen. Black Widow is special for many reasons beyond my own traditions, too. Scarlett Johansson FINALLY has her own solo film as Natasha Romanoff, a character she debuted in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Yay! And what a film it is. It’s magnificent, one of the best within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Widow is the film Natasha (and Scarlett Johansson!) has always deserved. I’d argue Natasha, more than any other character, best personifies the most important recurring message in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and this film illustrates all she is brilliantly.
The idea of found family is at the heart of the MCU. I’ve always loved the idea even if I’ve never been fond of the name. “Found family” seems far too passive, as though you’ve just stumbled upon something. Rather, the families we create around ourselves take work. Love must be offered, accepted, reciprocated, and maintained. I often say one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life is family is everything…but family has nothing to do with blood. Rather, your family are those you’re bound to in and through love. This can happen with blood relatives but it’s not blood that makes a family. Blood is incidental. Loving is intentional. So I adore this idea/trope/narrative device because I believe it’s one of the most important lessons we can learn. However I don’t like the “found” frame. I’d prefer something like “forged family” or “chosen family” as loving and being loved is a creative – at times mystical yet always intentional – act.
We see this loving act of creation in the bonds that bind the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. We see it in Carol’s connection with Maria and her daughter Monica. We see it in Scott and Cassie’s tie to the Pyms. As these universe-saving superheroes are all anchored in chosen families, the MCU is showing us – again and again and again – when we give love and when we receive love we can do the most amazing things. No character in the MCU better personifies this than Natasha Romanoff and the heart of Black Widow is her beautifully vulnerable openness to creating family and the ferocity with which she defends those she loves.
SPOILERS for Black Widow follow, so please proceed based on your own comfort level with such things.
Black Widow begins with Natasha on the run after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Dodging Secretary Ross (William Hurt) and his security teams with skill so sharp it appears effortless, Natasha settles into a safehouse in Norway care of Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenle), a “private contractor” who provides such amenities to those living off the grid. Not a day into laying low, Natasha finds herself hunted by the mysterious Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko). The package Taskmaster seeks was sent to her by Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). It’s been twenty-one years since Natasha and Yelena last saw each other, their childhoods spent together in a deep cover Russian operation in Ohio from 1992-95 alongside their “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz) and “father” Alexei (David Harbour). It was the only family either of them ever knew and once the mission was over, they were separated and sent back to the horrors of the Red Room. When Natasha finds Yelena in Budapest, Yelena tells her the Red Room is still active, kidnapping young girls to brutally transform them into the world’s deadliest operatives. Natasha and Yelena then set off to forever end the threat of the Red Room and it’s commander General Dreykov (Rey Winstone).
The film opens with one of the darkest scenes in the MCU. After Alexei and Melina get word their mission in America is over, the idyllic life Natasha and Yelena had known for three years is shattered and they are taken to the Red Room. For Natasha, it is a return to the nightmares of her early childhood. For Yelena, it is an immersion into a hell she could never imagine. The scenes of Natasha, Yelena, and truckloads of unnamed young girls, all with tears running down their dirty cheeks, being shipped to the Red Room is evocative of the horrific reality of human trafficking. This connection is not accidental.
Cate Shortland, the director of Black Widow and the first woman to be the solo director of a Marvel film, said they wanted, “the Marvel universe to intersect with reality. So we talked about trafficking. We talk about women’s reproductive rights in the film because they’re things we care about. And instead of it being about victimization, the characters make jokes about it because it’s happened to them. I hope that that lifts people up. The trauma the characters have been through, they’re trying to come up and answer it, not let it put them down.” Shortland is quite certain this film, addressing the themes it does and the way it does, couldn’t’ve come at any other time:
Two things happened [that made this film possible]: ‘Black Panther’ created space for both filmmakers and for diverse voices, and I also think it gave the studio confidence that we would come and see those movies. I think the expectation was that we wanted to watch white men and if they weren’t white men, we wouldn’t come. And after the #MeToo movement, the other thing that happened was we could say what we wanted to say; we could make jokes about women’s trauma and the control of women’s bodies. I think the expectation was that we were going to make a dark film and so we wanted to say ‘No, we’re not going to make a dark film because we’re not victims. These girls are going to kick ass.’
Disney, to their credit, was supportive. When they first screened Black Widow for Bob Iger (Disney’s CEO at the time), Shortland said, “he said, ‘Can you please push it further, because it’s really important that we talk about it.’” Scarlett Johansson was appreciative of their creative room as well saying, “[I]t’s very brave in a lot of ways that Marvel let us go there. They have a huge parent company (in Disney) and you don’t know what kind of pushback you’re going to get. We’re talking about issues that are provocative and people are going to have feelings about them and it’s to a wide audience. They understand the importance of their massive reach and that you can actually try to provoke some sort of collective consciousness about these very serious subjects”
Of the film’s opening Florence Pugh said, “I cried twice because it looked so real and so damaging. I never would have assumed that a film like this would be dealing with such deep and painful story lines, especially the abuse of the women and the capturing of young girls.” Within the horror of human trafficking, we see young Natasha reveal a core part of who she is. On the beach in Cuba, with Melina being carried away on a stretcher and Alexei talking to Dreykov, Natasha kicks the hand of a Soviet soldier off of Yelena’s arm before pulling his gun, pushing Yelena behind her, and brandishing the gun at the soldiers around them. While there are tears in her eyes her aim doesn’t waver as she threatens to shoot and kill anyone who comes near Yelena. She remembers the horror of the Red Room and she will kill to protect her sister (a sister born of love, not blood) from being given over to it.
This is the same Natasha we saw playing with Yelena in the backyard a few scenes before, the Natasha who held Yelena as she cried after falling and scraping her knee. Love radiates from Natasha. Despite their only spending three (albeit formative) years together in Ohio, they became very real sisters. This is who Natasha is. She never knew her blood relatives yet she’s spent her life building family by opening her heart so completely to those around her. You can feel the energy! You can see it! Love pours from her with a courage rivaling any displayed in facing the villains she’s come across and she will do anything to protect those she loves.
When Clint was struggling with the world of gods and monsters they’d been thrust into in The Avengers, it was Natasha who reassured him. As Steve tried to acclimate to modern life in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Natasha never left his side and their true friendship, their concern for one another, the connection they share is so beautiful! At the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron; while Tony, Clint, and Thor leave and Hulk disappears into the wind, it’s Natasha who stays with Steve to lead the new iteration of the Avengers. She’s there because of her relationship with Steve, yes, but she’s also ready to open her heart to their new family with Wanda, Vision, Sam, and Rhodey. In Captain America: Civil War, she signs the Sokovia Accords in an effort to keep their family together and, when she realizes she made the wrong call, she risks her own safety to help Cap and Bucky escape. In Avengers: Infinity War she faces down the Mad Titan and his infamous Black Order and when the unthinkable happens, Natasha works more than any other Avenger to hold their family – and the universe! – together after Thanos’ snap in Avengers: Endgame. The Avengers remain active because of Natasha’s direction.
From a Chitauri army to a cosmos in mourning, no threat or emotional turmoil causes Natasha to falter. Through it all, she never leaves the side of those she loves. She does this all without having any superpowers or flashy robot suit, too! Her power is her heart, her ability to love openly and courageously – a point underscored in this film.
In Black Widow we see Natasha reunited with the first family she remembers. She immediately goes to Yelena’s aid when she gets her message and, as soon as she learns Dreykov is alive, she commits herself to destroying the Red Room for good to protect others from her fate. While there is a protector part of her which needs to vocalize they were never really sisters, we see Natasha and Yelena fall back into their sisterly rhythm right away. We see their banter (one of the highlights of the movie! Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh have the best chemistry) but we also see their deep emotional bonds come back to life right away as well.
My favorite scene in the entire film is when they discuss Yelena’s vest. It’s so funny but we see so much more move between these two women than humorous banter.
Yelena – “You know this is the first piece of clothing I’ve ever bought for myself?”
Natasha – “That?”
Yelena – “Yeah, you don’t like it?”
Natasha – “Is that like, uh, like Army Surplus or…?”
Yelena – “Ok it has a lot of pockets but I use them all the time and I made some of my own modifications.”
Natasha – “Oh yeah?”
Yelena – “Never mind.”
Natasha – [chuckles]
Yelena – “Shut up. The point is I’ve never had control over my own life before and now I do. I want to do things.”
Natasha – “I like you vest.”
Yelena – “Gah, I knew it. I knew you did. It’s so cool, right?”
Natasha – “It’s cool, yes.”
Yelena – “And you can put so much stuff in there. You wouldn’t even know.”
It’s been twenty years since they’ve seen each other yet Yelena cares what her older sister thinks of her vest. Natasha’s opinion is important to her. That little girl who idolized her big sister as they played in the backyard is still very much alive in Yelena. Natasha, too, teases Yelena about her vest…and then offers a sincere compliment. She knows it’s important to her and, just like that girl who’d always protect her little sister as they played, Natasha still wants to be a loving steward of Yelena’s feelings. She wants her sister to be happy. And, army surplus jokes aside, because the vest is so important to Yelena, it is to Natasha, too.
We see this connection in another of the film’s already-iconic scenes, when Yelena teases Natasha about her fighting pose. It’s a little sister teasing her big sister (but there’s real pain there, too, when Yelena tells her, “You just didn’t want your baby sister to tag along whilst you saved the world with the cool kids”) yet the words hit Natasha. She’s taken aback when her sister undercuts a part of who she is and she’s also shaken by Yelena’s casual comment that she isn’t “one of the big [Avengers].” Yelena’s opinion matters very much to Natasha, too.
All this is to say, despite twenty-one years passing since they last saw each other, despite all the pain, trauma, loss, and heartache that filled those intervening years, Natasha’s heart is still open and her love ready to pour out to Yelena, past all those walls she’s erected. That connection was always alive. They were always sisters. As when she threatened those guards on the beach in Cuba, Natasha will still do anything to protect her sister – including free falling through the fiery wreckage of the Red Room as it plummets to Earth (in one of the hands down coolest scenes Marvel’s ever given us). Natasha offers her love. Yelena accepts and reciprocates it. Their family is maintained and Natasha will protect her sister with a fierceness matched only by the courageousness with which she loves her.
While her ready acceptance of Yelena back into her heart makes sense given their relationship, Natasha opens her heart with remarkable speed to the “parents” who left them to the Red Room twenty years ago, too. Despite his ego and his brashness, Natasha accepts Alexei’s eventual contrition is sincere. And even though Melina betrays them all to the Red Room, Natasha is willing to believe her when she admits it was a mistake and then trusts Melina with her and Yelena’s lives. Natasha makes this decision in a matter of moments! Melina justifies herself to Natasha by saying, “I was cycled through the Red Room four times before you were even born. It’s all I know.” In the wake of this immediate betrayal and admission to a lifetime of conditioning, Natasha has the courage to trust the love she believes still binds them. And her faith in Alexei and Melina is vindicated!
While Black Widow’s final action set piece – the explosion of the Red Room and Natasha’s attempt to save Yelena in midair and then battle Taskmaster through the wreckage as they all fall to Earth – is certainly one of Marvel’s most over the top sequences, I also find it a strikingly brilliant metaphor for how Natasha lives her life. The world around her is literally crumbling. Everything is on fire. Yet Natasha is able to weave through it all to save Yelena and ultimately free Antonia Dreykov from her father’s Taskmaster programming. When literally everything is crumbling, Natasha has the strength to hold on to those bound to her in love and pull them through. Her family is restored and preserved through her sheer force of will.
In many ways, we’ve all had to do the same over the last year and a half as the pandemic left us dealing with isolation and fear on a scale we’d never known and we longed, as Ingrid Michaelson sings on “To Begin Again,” to “hold [our] friends like long lost lovers.” This isn’t lost on Scarlett Johansson either, who observed, “I think it’s a good film for now. The movie’s about the family you choose and after being separated for such a long period of time and everybody reevaluating the things that are most important to them, this film coincidentally reflects a lot of what we’ve all been thinking about for the past two years.” This is just one more beautiful example of Black Widow’s importance and the coincidence in its release timing only adds to the film’s already remarkable power.
I went into this movie expecting to love it (which I did!) but also to be mildly resentful. I thought I’d resent how Marvel’s decade-long delay in giving us a solo Black Widow movie denied us years of Scarlett Johansson-led Mission: Impossible/Bourne Identity/James Bond-esque movies in the MCU. What I found myself feeling instead was greater resentment at how her story ended. There has been a great deal of criticism of Natasha’s sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame, not because she died but because she died in a way which implied her family meant “less” than Clint’s as a) she hadn’t had children and b) his was “blood.” I read many well researched and well-argued articles examining how this story decision was the antithesis of the MCU’s central message of the importance and validity of “found family.” And now we know Natasha had TWO families she lost on Vormir! This makes it worse!
Nope, I don’t like it. I resent not the lost spy movies but the time lost between Natasha and her first chosen family. I want a Black Widow 2 and a Black Widow 3. She and Yelena need more time together! I want to see those stories! I think EVERYONE would agree Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh have THE BEST chemistry in the MCU so we all need more movies with them together. At least we have Black Widow :).
(Incidentally, it’s easy enough to bring her back. They could go the cloned body/memory implant route. They could say the Soul Stone didn’t take her soul but held it protected within itself (as it does in the comics). They could say what the Red Skull told Thanos – “The Stone demands a sacrifice. In order to take this Stone you must lose that which you love, a soul for a soul.” – implies a willing sacrifice and since Clint didn’t willingly kill Natasha she isn’t really dead. They could say, since Steve returned the Soul Stone to the exact moment it was taken, it was never really taken so Natasha survives. Comics give us endless options for these sorts of things.)
When asked if Black Widow being made sooner could’ve changed what happened in Endgame, Johansson said, “I don’t know if it would’ve changed her fate. It’s hard to say. When we went into ‘Endgame,’ we knew that there were going to be some big sacrifices. [So] when I got the call from [Marvel Studios President Kevin] Feige, I kind of anticipated it. It didn’t feel wrong but it was still heartbreaking. But whether if we made it earlier it would’ve changed her ultimate fate, I have no idea.”
It was heartbreaking indeed and it’s all the more heartbreaking now, knowing Natasha will never see Yelena, Melina, and Alexei again. At the end of Black Widow she encourages her family to leave without her, smiling and saying, “Besides, if it can work out with the four of us, you know, there may be some hope for the Avengers – a little bit.” Finally reunited, Natasha won’t give herself time to savor this moment. Instead she chooses to go pull her other family back together, once again through the sheer force of her will.
When Black Widow’s final scene began and I saw Natasha get off her motorcycle, her hair cut short once more and dyed blonde, my heart dropped a little. She’s off to Avengers: Infinity War which leads to Avengers: Endgame…and we all know what that means. But it left my heart full, too, and it carried its own beauty. Even though I wish Natasha could’ve had more time with her family, that’s not who she is. She can’t rest while those she loves are hurting. All she is is given freely and fully to those she loves, to her family. If the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is choosing your family then Natasha Romanoff is the patron saint of the MCU. Once someone’s in Natasha’s heart, she’ll never let them go. You can keep your magic hammers, ricocheting shields, and iron suits because I can’t imagine a stronger superpower than that.
 Briann Truitt, “‘We could not have made this movie 10 years ago’: How ‘Black Widow’ got real about trauma and abuse,” USA Today. Published July 13, 2021. Accessed July 18, 2021. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2021/07/13/black-widow-women-pushed-marvel-film-to-get-real-abuse/7938150002/
 Sonaiya Kelley, “Scarlett Johansson on how the long wait revealed the right timing for Marvel’s ‘Black Widow’,” Los Angeles Times. Published July 7, 2021. Accessed July 18, 2021. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2021-07-07/black-widow-scarlett-johansson-florence-pugh