As soon as I saw Black Widow last summer I felt this thought wiggling around in my brain. Is it…? Could it be…? Is…is Black Widow now my favorite Marvel movie?! Because I’m me, I certainly couldn’t say definitively. First, I’m not the type of person who can throw a term like “favorite” around lightly. To say I like or love something is one thing. But to say it’s “my favorite” or “the best” or “the greatest” of all-time? That requires a lot of thoughtful discernment for me. Second, there’s this odd reaction/habit within our culture, especially within our fandom cultures, where whatever is newest is automatically the best. It’s new! It’s shiny! It’s the best ever!!! So, while that’s never been me, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t having that sort of reaction when I first saw Black Widow on July 8th. I said I loved it. I said it was easily one of the best films the MCU has to offer. And I said it may be my all-time favorite movie within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, I needed time before I could say that with any certainty. Now I know. Black Widow is the best Marvel movie of all-time! And here’s why…
Let’s be clear about something at the start. When I say Black Widow is the best Marvel movie of all time, I’m speaking subjectively. Speaking of my reaction to a piece of art, I can only speak subjectively. That’s all any of us can do when speaking of art! Anytime we say a movie or TV show or comic or novel or play or series or etc. is “the best” what we’re always really saying is it’s “the best for me.” We normally leave the second part implied but it’s there. Again, all discussion of art is subjective. However, we (and when I say “we” I obviously mean “people online on Twitter, in YouTube videos, and in comment section threads”) can sometimes lose sight of that subjectivity. We have opinions. We often follow people who share our opinions, too, which makes it easy to build echo chambers online. The more time we spend inside our own little fandom echo chambers, the more we can mistake our subjective opinions for objective truth. And that’s when dialogue turns frustrating at best and downright mean at worst.
Now, I’m not claiming there’s nothing we can say about art objectively. There are formal techniques for writing and drawing and painting and filmmaking and all those sorts of things. People study them. People learn to employ and evaluate them. People can be professional artists or critics. But when we talk about the art we love and the art we don’t, even if we’re talking about the technical pieces of it, we’re still almost always talking about how the art (even its technical aspects) makes us feel. The most celebrated pieces of art through human history have people who are indifferent to them. The most disparaged pieces of art have people who glimpse the beauty of the divine though them, too.
That’s the way art works. We need to remember this when we discuss films, books, music, etc. with people or read articles or watch YouTube videos about a piece of art or scroll social media perusing reactions and opinions. In remembering this we open ourselves to explore, consider, and even be challenged by views that may be different – maybe even very different – from our own. And that’s important. Also, in remembering this it’s easier to be kind to those with whom we don’t agree. That’s most important of all.
So…why am I talking about this instead of Black Widow? Well, there are two reasons. First, I want to be up front with everyone that I know you likely won’t share my opinion. And if you do, you will most likely think so for different reasons. All of that’s fine! Whatever your thoughts on the Marvel movies, I love and validate them :). Go you! Second, I’m framing my discussion of this film within our subjective experience of art because I’m going to be exploring my personal connection to Black Widow and how that helps make it my favorite movie in the MCU. To do so, this will be the most personal, most vulnerable, most open piece I’ve ever shared here. And I’m happy to share it with you! I think it will be very cathartic.
So. Why is Black Widow the best Marvel movie of all-time (for me)?
Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) was my favorite Marvel movie for a long time because it actually worked and I saw so many of the comics I loved as a kid finally come to life on screen. Then James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) took the title (listen…I know they’re two movies but they play like two chapters in one story and this is my piece so I’m counting them as one XD) for how beautifully it illustrated the power of loving bonds to make outcasts and strangers friends and then turn those friends into family. But now the coveted title of “First in the MCU, First in My Heart” belongs to Black Widow.
I wrote a piece last summer called “Black Widow and the Face of Family in the MCU.” In it, I talked of how the first Marvel movie opening night since Covid felt, how important it is the film addresses issues like human trafficking and women’s reproductive rights, how brilliant its portrayal of women moving through and healing from their trauma is, and – most importantly and most centrally – how Natasha embodies the message at the heart of the MCU, the importance of “Chosen Family,” more than any other character. In many ways, I was already explaining why Black Widow was my favorite Marvel movie in that piece! But I had yet to have the inner experience which would solidify it’s beautiful importance to me and that’s what I want to examine here.
This is why we’re so passionate about the movies, songs, novels, plays, and TV shows we love most – they touch something deep within us. We aren’t always able to articulate what they move or how they move it, but the movement happens all the same. And that’s so important! This is why we see angry, heated arguments about whether or not any piece of art is “good.” When we lose sight of the subjective nature of these things and we encounter someone who doesn’t love a piece of art we love, or even someone who hates a piece of art we love, it can feel like our experience of that piece of art (as well as what it moves within us) is being threatened. So we fight to protect, to validate what it means to us. Everything I wrote in “Black Widow and the Face of Family in the MCU” is true (for me ;D). The film resonated with me for all those reasons. But it was months later when I learned what it was really touching inside me and it was part of perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever learned about myself.
As I’ve written before, I’ve been doing IFS (the Internal Family Systems model) with my therapist Katherine for over a year. With IFS I’m learning to see all my thoughts, feelings, emotions – literally everything within me – as a part of myself. The goal of IFS is to learn how to meet, recognize, listen to, and converse with those parts. In so doing, I learn the jobs they do for my system, I learn what they hold, and the more I know about them the more I can love and appreciate them. All of our parts want to be heard, valued, and appreciated! Trust me, I know this sounds weird if you’re unfamiliar with IFS. It took me a while to find my rhythm with it, too. But it works! It has done wonders for my anxiety and increased my self-knowledge more than I ever knew was possible.
For example, I have a very active helper part I know as the Caretaker. But there’s another side to that part, too – the Fixer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been driven to help others in big and small ways, whether it’s something as simple as dropping something off for someone or as complex as carrying as much of the pain and struggles of a loved one as I can so they don’t have to do it alone. Helping is essential to meaning-making in my life. It’s one of the very first things I learned about myself when I started therapy. I also learned I need to be mindful of seeking out mutually symbiotic relationships so I can help as I am driven to without finding myself routinely taken advantage of. The Caretaker is moved to help by compassion, the Fixer by desperation. That desperation is the sense that I have to help because if I don’t everything will crumble. Someone I love will be hurt and sad which makes me sad. I’ll feel guilt, too, for not doing all I can to help them. And I fear I may lose them if I don’t carry as much for them as I can.
While understanding the Fixer as a separate part from the Caretaker is a new discovery for me, I’ve been exploring these feelings that drive me to help and to try and carry so much more than I should or can for almost as long as I’ve been in therapy. And since starting IFS, I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know the Caretaker.
Mid-October (so three months after first seeing Black Widow), the 12th to be specific, I was journaling before bed. I was trying to work through this confusing experience were I found I felt like a burden to a friend of mine when I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, I wasn’t. The friendship is strong, mutually symbiotic, loving, and supportive and I know there is no sense of burden in it. But I could see this sense of being a burden wrapped around it all the same. As I explored that in my journal something big opened within myself.
I was thinking of how I knew I wasn’t a burden in this friendship. Then I began to cry. Then I began to cry harder and harder. I thought, But I am a burden and that’s why I work so hard to help others, to alleviate the burden of knowing me. That came to me in waves, the first part – But I am a burden – followed almost immediately by the second part – that’s why I work so hard to help others – then a while later – to ease the burden of knowing me. I cried. I cried so hard I had to stop a few times to remind myself to breathe. I cried so hard I sat by the toilet in the bathroom because I was worried I may throw up.
Eventually, I began to calm. I could feel Self returning (in IFS, “Self” is the name for our core, the part that radiates love and acceptance and curiosity and it never gets angry or upset). How long did I cry? I don’t know. Twenty minutes? Half an hour? Longer? But Self returned and I was able to appreciate the deep beauty of what I just experienced. I thanked that part for all it carries. I thanked it for trusting me enough to share. I let it know how much I loved and appreciated it. As it began to unblend (in IFS when we feel any emotion it’s said that part has blended with us) I told this part we weren’t a burden. I asked it to trust me. I asked it to trust those we love. And I reminded it we had a session with Katherine the next night.
As I cried I kept hearing that this was the Caretaker’s origin story. I don’t know why I feel like a burden to others but I know the Caretaker works to help alleviate/ease the burden of knowing me. Then, with the burden eased, people wouldn’t leave me. But people do. They leave. Or they blow me off. Or they don’t listen. Because I’m a burden. That’s what this part feels, what it holds, what it believes. See? This was a HUGE moment of self-discovery! Looking back at my life after meeting this part was like watching a movie with a big twist ending after you know what the twist is. I could see it everywhere!
In my session with Katherine, she gave me wonderful context for all of it. This part that feels like a burden to everyone is an exile. It was born when I was very young and then went into hiding. The Caretaker grew to protect it. The Caretaker helps and helps and helps and helps and helps everyone so I’m not a burden to anyone and people won’t leave and the Exile won’t feel that pain. The Exile, walled off and protected though it is, wants attention. So it draws me to people who will leave me or blow me off or not listen. It wants me to feel what it feels so I can see it, understand it, and help it but in so doing it reinforces its own narrative.
Six nights later I had a dream. Our parts can, and often do, communicate in dreams or through memories. It was so vivid and I woke up from it in the middle of the night. A central part of this dream, surprisingly, was Black Widow. Specifically it was the film and specifically it was the scene where Natasha plummets to the earth through the wreckage of the Red Room and the scene where she and her family are gathered around the table at Melina’s home.
The Exile spoke with such clarity! As I lay in the dark I thought how Black Widow is alllllll about family and all Natasha does to hold hers together. Even though she couldn’t as a child, we see her reconnect with Yelena (her sister whom she feels she failed), Alexei (her father who so often doesn’t hear her), and Melina (her mother who betrays her, only once, but in a pivotal way). She does all she can to protect them, especially Yelena, and they come together to protect her as well. Then I thought of what I wrote months ago about the scene where Natasha falls through the wreckage of the Red Room back in “Black Widow and the Face of Family in the MCU”:
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.
And I thought…whoa. Is part of why Natasha as a character and Black Widow as a film resonate so much with me because the Exile and the Caretaker are so seen in them? I work so hard to help others to alleviate the burden of knowing me so they won’t leave. As I described the above scene to Katherine in our session I said – in the film but especially in my dream – it felt very much like Natasha pulling and holding all of her loved ones to her amidst the chaos. Then we talked about how I framed Natasha’s character arc through the entire MCU in that piece:
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: The 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.
Now, this certainly wasn’t a new analysis. I wrote of how irreplaceable Natasha was, how she’s the very soul of the MCU, years ago. I think anyone who looks at the films could see how central she is to the Avengers family and their mission. But SO MUCH of my life has been lived to help others, to carry their burdens – both in compassion and in desperation – to hold them close so I wouldn’t lose them, to hold everything together for everyone. Naturally a character who lives her life like this is going to move me, to touch my heart in a special way. When I talked about all this with Katherine she agreed Black Widow and Natasha’s character in general were resonating with something deep within me. My ultimate frame of Natasha’s character in “Black Widow and the Face of Family in the MCU” expressed my admiration for and longing to be able to do as she does:
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.
Everything I love so much about Natasha Romanoff is tied to what the Caretaker does within me to protect the Exile. She bends heaven and earth to protect her loved ones and keep them close, something which naturally resonates deeply with me given the deep (and largely unconscious until recently) fear I have of those I love leaving me. In meeting the Exile, I met the deepest, most hidden, most vulnerable part of myself I’ve yet to discover. In Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow I have a hero who embodies this part – its hopes, fears, and dreams – in a fully fleshed out way. Is it any wonder Black Widow is my all-time favorite Marvel movie? How couldn’t it be?
So, you may be wondering, why am I sharing all this with you, dear reader?
That’s a fair question. I already wrote “Black Widow and the Face of Family in the MCU” months ago. I could’ve just let that stand. I could’ve even went back to edit it to clearly say it’s my favorite movie in the MCU. Why open myself in this way? Why share with you such a personal connection to this film?
Well, in my writing as well as in my classes, I don’t know how to teach without stories and I think it helps make my point about the subjectivity – and the importance of our subjective experience – of art in a very clear way. But there’s more to it than that. In sharing it and in your taking this journey with me, dear reader, it helps me, too.
The Exile – all our exiles – want to be seen. They want attention. And, if they are holding pain or carrying wounds, they want to be healed. They can be so clever, too!
While I don’t know exactly when it was born, this Exile has been hidden within me for over thirty years. The night it chose to finally reveal itself to me was the night before a session with Katherine, yes. But we have weekly sessions. Why did it share itself then? First, all the IFS work I’ve been doing helped open it. More importantly, it took advantage of the timing. The day of my session with Katherine, I didn’t teach but still had to be at work all day. We had a faculty meeting that afternoon but we had the morning to work in our classrooms, grade papers, plan, or whatever. So the Exile knew it could test sharing itself before we talked about it in session with Katherine!
Ashley and I were working together and chatting in her room all morning. We talked about our respective evenings and as I prepared to tell her about all that moved in me I could feel my parts…tense up. They weren’t stopping anything but they were cautious. But Ashley is safe – my entire system feels safe with her. It’s such a wonderful gift in our friendship. So I went on. Almost immediately the Exile blended. I began crying – not as hard as I did the night before but I was crying. This part blended while I was sharing the story with Ashley because it felt completely safe with her – it could “come out” and be seen as it was. In the midst of it all, as well as afterwards once Self returned, it felt so good to share this with Ashley. The part felt seen and loved and accepted. I had a shot of energy that moved through my whole system. I was awake. I was alive. I felt free. It felt good.
It was one of the most moving, beautiful moments of my life. I was fully seen in the most vulnerable I’ve ever been. I was heard. I was loved. I was reassured. I received it all. And I felt so free and so strong because of it. I felt alive in a way I may never have before. Katherine later explained the feeling was Self-energy. I got it from Ashley, as she was in Self (just present and loving and accepting of all I shared), and I was able to touch her Self-energy and move into my own. I was so full. I felt so at peace, so harmonious.
I told Ashley I was hopeful this meant my system would be open to discussing it all with Katherine at our session – and it was! In addition to all the context Katherine was able to give me, it just felt so good to share it with her, too! So I continued to feel my way along. If the Exile wants to be seen, I began to see with whom it was comfortable being shared and how it was comfortable being shared (it couldn’t be a phone call, for example, it had to be in person which makes all the sense in the world to me). Over the next few weeks, checking in with the Exile and making sure it was comfortable each time, I continued to share my knowledge of this beautiful new part of myself I had met with others with whom my system felt safe. With varying degrees of tears each time, I told Theresa in her classroom one day after school. I told Kalie while we were at her apartment. I told Lauren while we were out to lunch. Each time I knew we’d have uninterrupted time together and the Exile knew it, too. It could come out. It could be seen. It could be received. And each time, as happened when I told Ashley and when I talked about it in my session with Katherine, I felt so good. I was seen. I was received. I was loved. Again and again and again.
So here, in giving this story to whomever reads this piece, I’m letting the Exile know how much I love it. We enjoy talking about and sharing the things we love! I’m letting it know how much I appreciate all it has carried and the courage it took to reveal itself to me. And I’m showing it I am in no way, shape, or form ashamed of it. I love it. It is a beautiful, brilliant part of me and I wouldn’t be me without it!
I’m also reassuring it that we’re not a burden to others and we can share our most vulnerable parts out loud, too, and trust others to hold and care for them just as we hold and care for those sorts of parts in the ones we love.
I apologize if you were expecting more – or a more complex – narrative analysis of the film when instead you got a whole lot of me and my important and very personal emotional journey which I found reflected in Black Widow. (Ah! Did you see that? I don’t want to be a burden to you either, dear reader, so I’m apologizing for fear I was. Hello my beautiful Exile, I see you and I love you and please know no one had to read this or read to the end if they didn’t want to – so we’re good :D.) But if I’m discussing “Why Black Widow is the Best Marvel Movie of All-Time (for Me)” this tells the story of why Black Widow rests in my heart the way it does.
While not always this complex, all the art that touches us moves something significant within us. As a result, no two people can ever have the exact same experience of any piece of art. Those who share our love, will love it for their own reasons whether similar or very different. And those who don’t, well that can hurt sometimes because of how personal a connection we may have to the piece of art.
Black Widow is such a beautiful gift in my life! It is an exceptional film about my favorite character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it also moves something deep, and deeply important, within me. There’s nothing quite like that feeling :). And while I don’t presume Black Widow plays that role in your life, whatever piece of art does, please know I celebrate it with you because you are beautiful and important and all that piece of art does for you is, too.
I would’ve never been able to learn all of this about myself if it wasn’t for Katherine and our IFS work. For years, she’s been my guide on the path to finding strength and self-knowledge within myself I didn’t know I had. She helped save me when I desperately needed it and I’ve only grown stronger, healthier, and happier since our work together began. I’ve learned, therapy is not just for “triage” and some of the most amazing growth comes when you’re “feeling alright.” If you’ve ever considered therapy – if therapy feels like something you need or something you’d just like to try – I offer this link to Psychology Today so you can browse detailed listings of mental health professionals in the U.S. and all over the world :).
If you’d like to read more about Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, you can try these pieces:
“Black Widow and the Face of Family in the MCU” if you’d like to see the first, more narrative analysis-driven reflection I wrote about the film.
“The Irreplaceable Brilliance of Black Widow” is my consideration of Natasha’s importance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the days before Avengers: Infinity War came out.
And if you’d like to learn a whole heckuva lot about her 50+ years of comic history you can try:
“Black Widow: A Comic Book Retrospective – the ‘60s and ‘70s” to learn about her origins as an Iron Man villain, her joining the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time, and her romantic relationships with Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Alexi Shostakov/the Red Guardian, and Matt Murdock/Daredevil.
“Black Widow: A Comic Book Retrospective – the ‘80s and ‘90s” sees Natasha’s character begin to take on a darker tone in some stories as her best there is at what she does spy status is solidified. We also see a real growth of Natasha’s friendship with Steve Rogers as she helps him lead the Avengers before becoming the team’s leader on her own.
“Black Widow: A Comic Book Retrospective – ’00 through ‘10” has arguably the defining Black Widow story in this era as well as the introduction of Yelena Belova, a reconnection with Matt Murdock/Daredevil, and she helps train Bucky Barnes to take over as Captain America after Steve dies. We see the beginning of Natasha’s romantic relationship with Bucky while she superhero-s with the Mighty Avengers and a superspy-s with S.H.I.E.L.D.
“Black Widow: A Comic Book Retrospective – ’10 through ‘20” sees Natasha’s relationship with Bucky continue to deepen but tragedy strikes…and continues to as Natasha dies during their battle against Hydra’s Secret Empire. She will be resurrected through a Red Room clone body and memory implants and then begin a journey of discovery to try and figure out who and what she really is.