It’s a little frustrating to see so many reviewers dismissing Black Widow as being too overloaded with Marvel Cinematic Universe action to have any depth — or worse, dismissing the entire MCU as commerce — because it’s a sure sign the reviewer is just phoning it in. Some of them seem to be pre-written like celebrity obituaries, making the same predictable complaints with each installment, just copy-and-pasting in a new movie title to maximize search engine optimization.
It’s frustrating because we’ve all got assumptions about how super-hero movies work, but I think Black Widow shows how super-hero movies can work. It is undeniably packed full of over-the-top action sequences that, especially towards the end, strain any notion of believability. But it’s also completely aware that those action sequences are at the core of a super-hero movie. Instead of trying to compartmentalize them away from the “real cinema” of thematic exploration and character development, it’s really clever in how it uses the action to introduce or reinforce the themes.
One of the best examples of that is how it introduces a new incarnation of the villain The Taskmaster to the MCU. In the comics, it’s a character from the 80s who trains other mercenaries, and whose super-power is being able to reproduce a hero’s abilities and fighting style just by watching them. In Black Widow, the character’s super-power is being able to perfectly encapsulate a hero’s character development and personal growth.
To explain why requires lots of spoilers, though, so don’t read this unless you’ve seen Black Widow.
Credit goes to Ryan Arey for his video giving his take on “the real meaning of the movie and her journey in the MCU,” which if I’m being honest, is a little too reductive for me, but does a great job making explicit a lot of aspects of the movie that I appreciated, but couldn’t put into words how and why. Watching that video, and a re-watch of Captain America: The Winter Solider, which I highly recommend to get more out of Black Widow, helped clarify it.
I already said that I’d been skeptical of Black Widow, because it seemed too late to be releasing a prequel for a character whose story was already over. If they wanted to add depth and context to Natasha’s key scenes in Infinity War and especially Endgame, then the time to release her solo movie was before those movies, right?
I guess that shows why the people planning out and making these movies are making the big money and I’m not, because in retrospect, this works so much better. It’s a better post-Endgame send-off for the character, since for better or worse, the series had always been mainly about Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. At the time, it seemed odd that the lengthy memorial at the end of Endgame just included a brief mention of Natasha (and Vision, for that matter), but really, it would’ve just diminished the importance of her sacrifice to stuff it into an already over-stuffed movie. A bit like tacking “the Professor and Mary-Ann” to the end of the Gilligan’s Island theme: better than “and the rest!” but not by much.
By the same token, inserting a Black Widow solo movie would’ve ended up feeling like a disservice to a character who deserved more. The audience by that point was all-in on Infinity Stones, so giving us a non-Thanos-related story would’ve felt like filler. And squeezing the Infinity Stones into Natasha’s story would’ve detracted from it. For evidence: Thor: Ragnarok, which is super-entertaining, but still feels like a goofy, over-the-top side story even though it includes the literal apocalypse.
Which I mention just to establish what I think the goal of Black Widow was: 20% setting off the next round of MCU installments with an outstanding new hero, 80% solidifying Natasha’s character arc, which had been covered in broad strokes throughout most of the other movies.
That character arc, in broad strokes: she was a super-spy, partly because she’d been cruelly trained as a spy and assassin since childhood. Iron Man 2 set up the idea that she was so good at assuming different identities because she had no real core identity to betray. Avengers emphasized her wanting to be part of a team despite her so frequently having to depend only on herself, and suggested that her loyalty to Hawkeye and Nick Fury/SHIELD stemmed from a debt that she felt she needed to repay.
The Winter Soldier contrasted her with Steve Rogers, establishing that her responsibility was always to her mission (“Agent Romanoff is comfortable with everything”), while Steve’s was to his core ideals; by the end, she’s committed to establishing a core identity for herself. Age of Ultron went more into her personal history, both as a source of guilt she needed to overcome, and also to show why it was so important to her to be part of the team. Civil War emphasized her loyalty to the team and the mission, but gave her the chance to go against her “mission” and act according to her conscience.
Then the events of Black Widow take place. After that, Infinity War shows how her relationship with Steve had become more familial, instead of just being co-workers. (It’s interesting now to see how much of their banter in The Winter Soldier takes the form of office gossip. At the time, it was just emphasizing how competent they are to be so casual in the midst of a high-stakes mission. In retrospect, it feels like Natasha experimenting with having a friendship, but only at the shallowest and most superficial level).
Endgame showed that she’d finally found her core identity: she was trying to make things right not out of guilt, or duty, but because it was the right thing to do. Her relationship with Clint was no longer one of debt but a real friendship. And when she’s ready to sacrifice herself, she tells Clint that it’s okay, because she has no unfinished business and nothing left to atone for.
The part of her story that had been missing was the shift from being driven by her haunted past, to being at peace with herself and the people around her. Black Widow delivered that in a way that seems ham-fisted when given as a plot outline, but which I think feels seamless when delivered in the form of a spy-thriller-tinged super-hero movie.
All of the main characters are, essentially, some aspect of Natasha. Yelena is her but younger, with the potential that comes from finding her freedom but not feeling as directly responsible for what she’d been made to do. She seems more driven by anger than by guilt. Melina is the version of her who’s capable of cruelty by dissociating herself from the real implications of what she’s doing; there’s a sense that they’re both haunted by it and never completely able to separate themselves completely. Alexi is just the version that’s overshadowed by the “heavy-hitter” heroes, discarded as soon as he was no longer useful.
And the Taskmaster is the most explicit. Another girl who’s been robbed of her identity, treated like a machine that can be sent out to do horrible things, her only concern the success of the mission. The whole reason the Taskmaster exists is because there’s inherent drama in a hero having to fight herself. In comics, that plays out in the form of special abilities and fight scenes. In movies that have spent years turning comics’ broad metaphors into mostly-real-world interpretations, it can also be a metaphor for a hero’s emotional struggle.
With the inclusion of a throwaway line from Avengers when Loki mentioned “Dreykov’s daughter,” it literally becomes Natasha fighting against the past that haunts her. She’s no longer as single-focused as she was in The Winter Soldier, since she doesn’t treat “destroy the Red Room” as her only mission objective. In fact, she’s not even the one to kill Dreykov; she makes it her mission to selflessly free all of the other women who’d been enslaved.
It all fits together so perfectly that I’m actually envious of the writers (and, likely, Marvel executives) for the feeling of satisfaction they must’ve felt, having all of these disparate pieces laid out before them, and then realizing how to make everything connect. And then I’m not envious of the process of making the movie, and turning something so perfectly on-the-nose into something that feels like a plot- and action-heavy story working seamlessly except for a slightly clumsy scene involving “American Pie.”
There is, obviously, a formula to Marvel stories, which the movies have wisely kept: give each character a dominant flaw and/or character trait, and then put them against obstacles and antagonists that iterate on the same character trait over and over again. That’s not a limitation, though; it’s essentially the core of popular storytelling. It seems shallow to dismiss it as shallow spectacle, when it allows for such great moments as a ruthless Terminator causing a car to flip into a crowded subway station serving as a metaphor for a hero’s past coming back to haunt her, or two sisters resolving their issues of rivalry and abandonment while kicking out a car door that then gets torn off and takes out a pursuing motorcycle.