"Black Widow" Leaves its Protagonist on the Sidelines

Editor Lauren Kisare ‘22 breaks down Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow.” While Florence Pugh puts in a strong performance as the Black Widow's sister, the film suffers from tonal inconsistencies and the sidelining of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow.

At long last, Black Widow’s standalone film has arrived. Debuting a year late due to Covid, the highly anticipated Marvel prequel kicked off the summer with its release on July 9.

And while it has all the main features of a classic Marvel superhero movie — flashy chase scenes, a talkative villain and misplaced humor — “Black Widow” doesn’t feel quite as robust as other Marvel films.

Perhaps that’s because “Black Widow” isn’t an origin story. Given her character’s death in “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), it’s understandable why Marvel shifted gears for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), opting for an edgier, James Bond-style film in place of a conventional prequel. Still, it’s a shame, as there is something charming to the traditional origin story and the way it introduces a new superhero into the world.

The goal of any Marvel superhero film — especially the ones dedicated to individual characters — is to make you love its heroes. Whether it’s through Iron Man’s wit, Captain America’s patriotic spirit or Spiderman’s infectious enthusiasm, these films mold their characters into superheroes you want to root for. Even when they are flawed, you always exit the theater believing in their integrity. And in a movie about Black Widow, a veteran member of the Avengers, I expected the same: an adventurous film weaving in those familiar story beats to spin super-spy Natasha Romanoff into Black Widow, a hero we would ultimately come to love. But it doesn’t, unfortunately. Or at least not well enough.

The film’s shortcomings in this respect are partly the result of Black Widow’s morally ambiguous backstory. Unlike Iron Man, Captain America and Spiderman, Black Widow started out as an antagonist of sorts, spending her youth training to be an assassin in the Red Room, a secret Russian facility designed to turn young girls into weapons. “Black Widow” opens in the year 1995, giving us a glimpse into Romanoff’s childhood with her adopted younger sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) in Ohio. Behind the scenes, their father Alexei Shostakov (David Hopper) and mother Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weiss) are undercover Russian agents, posing as their parents under the direct orders of General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the mastermind behind the Red Room. After S.H.I.E.L.D agents sniff the faux-couple out, the family escapes to Cuba, where the girls are eventually handed over to Dreykov and put through the Red Room’s repressive Black Widow training program. The movie then jumps to 2016, when a mysterious message from her long-lost sister brings Romanoff to Budapest, where she must once again confront Dreykov and the atrocities she committed before escaping the Red Room and becoming an Avenger.

The writers interestingly chose to focus “Black Widow” on the aftermath of “Captain America: Civil War,” where Black Widow is now on the run for breaking the Sokovia Accords, a legislative bill that placed the Avengers under the authority of the government. Based on this pattern of events, it seems the film’s goal was never to validate Black Widow’s importance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but to explore her dark past and its entanglements with her current hero identity. And while this approach makes sense within the Marvel timeline, it’s regrettable, as Black Widow’s pre-Avenger life is what gives her complexity, more so than her Avengers career, where she is often sidelined by her superpowered male counterparts. Everything that is interesting about Black Widow stems from this history and not being able to see it in its entirety was a loss.

It’s a sticky situation, as most Marvel characters are able to slide into the MCU as decent, likable heroes who prove their merit and relevancy through their solo films. Black Widow, on the other hand, doesn’t always emerge as the clear hero. She doesn’t spew idealism like Captain America or have a clear sense of moral integrity like Spiderman — among other traditional heroic traits.

In “Black Widow,”  it is Romanoff’s sister Yelena who emerges as the representative Marvel superhero, a clear promotional opportunity since Yelena is set to fill Black Widow’s shoes in future Marvel projects, notably with a confirmed appearance in Hawkeye’s upcoming Disney+ series.

While the phasing out of a long-standing Avenger is inevitably awkward, Florence Pugh’s performance as Yelena was refreshing to watch. The “Midsommar” breakout star added verve and authenticity to the role of Yelena that has been sorely absent from recent Marvel films. In many ways, Yelena becomes the star of this movie because she does what the writers were unwilling to do for Black Widow’s character: develop emotionally. Whether discovering the only family she ever knew wasn’t real or grappling with trauma from the Red Room, Yelena is a character you can’t help but side with.

The film is undoubtedly building hype for Pugh’s reappearance as the new Black Widow, and I admit, I am eager to see how her character evolves in the MCU. This generational turnover of older Marvel superheroes — from Iron Man to Spiderman, Captain America to The Falcon and now Black Widow to Yelena Belova — is exciting to watch. My only qualm is that this debut had to happen in a film meant to commemorate Natasha Romanoff, who is relegated to a side character in her own movie. So, while Yelena is afforded many opportunities to showcase her dynamism as an individual and superhero, Romanoff, with all the depth of her backstory, is left fairly under-explored.

Of course, stoicism has always been distinctive to Black Widow, and it would have been uncharacteristic to make her more personable. But unfortunately, personality matters in Marvel movies, and the story would have been much more emotionally resonant had it shown viewers that Romanoff possesses more complexity as a character. For a superhero who has appeared in nine Marvel films thus far, you would expect a lot more character growth at this point.

That said, it may be unfair to wholly blame Black Widow for how wooden she came across when the film’s uneven humor made it difficult to sympathize with her. Comedy has always been a staple of Marvel films. Romanoff herself is known for making sarcastic quips and digs throughout the Avengers series, so it was no surprise when they reappeared in this film. But for a movie that covers darker themes than the average Marvel feature, it was disturbing how often the leads made light of the film’s heavy subject material. While Marvel humor is usually tolerable, the forced comedy in this supposedly serious film was unbearable.

As a viewer, it was hard to sense what mattered to Romanoff due to this off-kilter humor. Every time a sensitive topic was brought up, it was usually glossed over with a cheeky one-liner or drowned by witty banter. As a result, the tonal shifts were in complete disarray, and I came out of the movie not knowing what the film wanted me to feel for its characters, whether that be pity, contempt, sadness or anything.

Yelena emerges as a compelling lead in this film because she’s the only one who breaks out of this cyclical humor and authentically adopts the film’s serious tone. Although she does take part in the wisecrack jokes here and there, Yelena still has many intense, vulnerable moments that allow you to go deep with her character. Romanoff, on the other hand, shares nothing with the audience, and the dry humor, unfortunately, made her character that much more closed-off and hard to read for the rest of the film.

In the end, I expected a movie that would push Black Widow to be something more than the stone-cold super-spy we know her as. If the filmmakers could do it for Iron Man, Thor, Yelena and many more, then surely they could do it for Black Widow, the last original Avenger to get their own solo movie. And while the quality of the cinematics was stellar, Romanoff doesn’t evolve here for me. She stays the same, and for fans of Black Widow, maybe that is enough.

With her character’s death in “Avengers: Endgame” and not much of a future left for her in the MCU, it’s clear this movie’s goal was to tie up loose ends and create a meaningful send-off for Natasha Romanoff. And it does just that, but nothing more.