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Passing the Gauntlet: Black Widow and the Future of the MCU by Rosie Willoughby

Rosie Willoughby reviews Marvel Studios' Black Widow (2021) and discusses the value of female-led superhero films.

After nine appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s finally Natasha Romanoff’s time to shine.

Two years after the last instalment was released, Black Widow becomes the second of Marvel’s twenty-four films to feature a female lead. It’s 2016, and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) has discovered a way to undo the conditioning that the Black Widow assassins have undergone in the mysterious Red Room. There’s only one person who can help her bring it down for good: her sister, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson). Reuniting with their surrogate parents Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour), the family must face the mistakes of their pasts, and free the Widows still under mind-control.

Black Widow has possibly the most intense opening of any Marvel film. Most of them feature an action-packed or mysterious prologue, followed by a second-long sting of the title - in Widow, however, this is replaced by a full scene of opening credits set to Malia J’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Played over slowed, dramatic vocals are shots of young girls packed into shipping crates, cameras thrust into their faces, and training sequences that take us up to Natasha’s present. The tone set up here carries through the rest of the film. In a genre of superpowers and magic, Widow is instantly grounded in reality with visual connotations of human trafficking and exploitation wrapped into the metaphor of the Red Room- a unique opening among its MCU counterparts.

"In a genre of superpowers and magic, Widow is instantly grounded in reality..."

The new team of Black Widows - trained inside the Red Room - have been chemically mind-controlled and raised from childhood to be assassins. Used as bodies rather than free-thinking agents, any traits not useful to General Dreykov - played by Ray Winstone - are stripped away.

Dreykov, as described by screenwriter Eric Pearson, is a “cowardly... scumbag-y villain... hiding in the dark.” The head of the Red Room and main antagonist of the film is indeed a pathetic character, yet so recognisable in the men who abuse their power and believe they can scurry away into the shadows without facing consequences. He only has the confidence - if it can be considered that - to fight Natasha when he’s under the impression that due to her conditioning, she will be physically unable to defend herself. Alongside the film's analogies for trafficking, there is a further metaphor of the exploitation of power that certain men enact when they know they have the upper hand on vulnerable women. Dreykov has controlled the lives and fates of dozens - quite possibly hundreds - of young girls, and finally gets his comeuppance when he is forced to face his legacy: women who want him dead.

In fact, it is Dreykov whose line sums up the whole film. As he gloats to Natasha about his power over an international network of Widows, he explains his plan for taking power by using “the only natural resource that the world has too much of: girls.” This sentence is enough to make you vomit on its own - but doesn’t it also completely underscore the attitude the patriarchy has for women in every facet of life? It doesn’t have to be superpowered espionage: this devaluation of women occurs in government, filmmaking, and every industry that has cowardly sexists like Dreykov at their head. It’s so real that when Natasha punches him in the face seconds later, I could feel the ache in my knuckles as if I’d done it myself. And of course his cowardice leads to him fleeing from the only fair fight of his life - leaving his mind-controlled daughter Antonia (Olga Kurylenko) and Widows behind to finish the job he is too scared to do himself.

In the thirteen years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what is the resource they have utilised least? Women. But the thing I loved about Widow is that while it tells a story that specifically resonates with women, has a majority female cast, and is filmed in a significantly less objectifying way than Natasha has been shot before, it does so without the desperation for fanfare that its predecessors, Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame had an issue with.

"While it tells a story that specifically resonates with women... it does so without the desperation for fanfare that its predecessors, Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame had an issue with..."

In the past, Marvel has contributed to what Jude Ellison Sady Doyle referred to as the ‘gender perception gap’. The normalisation of women appearing less frequently than men in media has led to a ‘gap’, where when women and men are given equal screen time, men are much more likely to perceive that women are being overrepresented. Natasha’s appearances as the only woman in the six-person Avengers line-up has shown the gender perception gap in action. Black Widow’s pushback on this was both necessary and cathartic. It took me until I left the cinema for it to click that I’d just watched a Marvel film that entirely revolved around complicated, flawed but fierce women. Because there was nothing that felt forced about it. No more of the uncomfortable emphasis on sanitised “girl-power” moments like in Avengers: Endgame. It wasn’t awkwardly highlighted in the text - women were just there.

I think about what this film would have done for me had it been released five, ten years ago. Natasha Romanoff’s origin movie has had a long road to release. Despite ideas being pushed around prior to the advent of the MCU and discussed once again in the mid-2010s, where it was expected to become the first female-led Marvel film, it took until 2021 for her long-awaited solo outing. When I first got into Marvel, I was content with looking up to the majority male characters and looking for myself in them - it simply wasn’t an option to restrict my admiration to characters of my own gender. But for a moment, imagine what it could have been like if we’d seen Widow on our screens in 2016. The standard it could have set for a franchise that up until recently, has had a dismal proportion of 20% of characters being female-coded.

Kids deserve to see more of themselves on screen, whether that be through representation of gender, race or sexuality. Recent offerings in the MCU's phase four have delivered on the promises for more diversity in the franchise: WandaVision saw a female-led, introspective look at grief; The Falcon and The Winter Soldier reflected on racism, written in the wake of the summer 2020 protests. Loki heralded the confirmation of the first LGBT+ character in the MCU. With each progressing phase, the MCU has upped its representation, with Kristen Ray noting how the proportion of female-coded characters almost doubles across each. With this trend, it suggests that phase four will see Marvel finally tip into having an equal number of female characters - with it will come more characters for little girls to look up to.

"Phase four will see Marvel finally tip into having an equal number of female characters - with it will come more characters for little girls to look up to..."

I appreciated that this first dip back into the MCU was a striking, original piece - mostly outside of the confines of the Marvel formula. While it satisfies the standard desire for action, for the most part the fighting and stakes remain small-scale. The dinner scene hinted at introspection from the characters, but once the formulaic flying-around-blowing-things-up climax came, Melina and Alexei’s roles in their daughters’ exploitation were no longer interrogated. We never see any reflection from Melina on her direct role in creating the mind-control agents administered in the Red Room, and while she comes together with the rest of the family to bring it down, we are left wondering where this decision came from. When you have Rachel Weisz playing every other aspect of this deadpan but affectionate character to perfection, it’s frustrating not to have left her a scene that saw her reconcile with what she’s done and must do. Alexei - a mostly self-absorbed character whose only comfort is looking back on his achievements - is consistently undermined in his attempts to atone towards his daughters, first by their being arrested and then several times after he is snubbed for comic relief. While we see the family at the end, united in their success, the changes they’ve each gone through are never fully acknowledged. How do they feel about their experiences? What do they want to do next? In Widow, Natasha’s family are wrestling with the regrets of their past and reconciling their positions within this family, so wouldn’t it make more sense to match this introspection with a small-scale finale? It’s a shame that a film that comes so close to realism (in the superhero genre, at least) has to become so wildly over the top at the end, rather than sticking the landing with a less explosive finale.

Black Widow was a victim of timing. Originally slated to be the first Marvel female-led solo film, it trails Captain Marvel by two years, was pushed back for a year due to COVID-19 and was only released after the titular character had died. Going back in time to visit her in a prequel feels redundant when none of it can be applied to her future appearances: Widow serves more as a Yelena origin story than Natasha’s long-overdue solo outing. With such great chemistry between the characters, it’s tragic that we won’t be seeing their dynamic on-screen again, and that the MCU’s first female superhero has almost been relegated to a supporting role in her own movie. There is a sense of irony to see Natasha’s excitement at the end of the film - of wanting to bring her Avengers family back together - when the audience knows the team will only be reunited by her death in Avengers: Endgame. It’s an unfortunate elephant in the room that brings down the stakes of the film, which could have been avoided by Widow being scheduled earlier in phase three.

No review of Black Widow can be written without pointing out the obvious. Florence Pugh’s debut as Yelena was phenomenal. So far, phase four outings have been the original characters passing the mantle to new ones. Widow is the transition from Natasha to Yelena, and there isn’t another actress who could take up the role like Pugh. In her ongoing disdain of Natasha’s “posing” to eventually trying it out for herself, she demonstrates she can carry the humour into future appearances. But where she really steals the show is the quiet moments. She was part of the Ohio mission before she was old enough to understand it wasn’t real. “The best part of my life was fake and none of you told me,” she exclaims tearfully. Pugh delivers these lines with such betrayal and childlike sincerity that it stops the film in its tracks and forces everything to sink in. Natasha may be the namesake of the film, but Yelena is the heart: she is the one who suffered from Melina’s chemical conditioning, acting for Dreykov’s benefit, who has the antidote that will save the remaining Widow agents.

"Pugh delivers these lines with such betrayal and childlike sincerity that it stops the film in its tracks and forces everything to sink in..."

It’s unfortunate that Natasha’s only solo outing will also be her last. She deserved much more from the MCU in the past decade, but her legacy will be felt in phase four. Black Widow came close to breaking free from the Marvel formula, with its opening credits and grounded tone. Phase four is hoped to be more welcoming of directors’ individual styles, such as Chloé Zhao, who stayed true to her direction while combining with MCU conventions in her upcoming film, The Eternals. Black Widow was the Marvel film I was waiting for all these years - and it was worth my while. The sadness that we won’t see Natasha again is balanced out by excitement at eventually reuniting with the characters we’ve been introduced to. Yelena has been confirmed to appear in the upcoming Disney+ series, Hawkeye, and now it remains to be seen whether she will fill the Black Widow shaped hole in my heart when it premieres later this year.

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