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Black Widow is a nostalgic, action-packed eulogy

Marvel’s newest film combines fast-paced action sequences, insightful explorations into first female Avenger

Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been waiting for a glimpse into the elusive Natasha Romanoff since her debut in Iron Man 2. After an 11-year long journey with the Avengers, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) finally got her own movie July 9.

The film begins in 1990s Ohio, following Natasha’s childhood with her younger sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) and her parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz). The opening paints a glossy picture of domestic suburbia, only to reveal that Natasha’s parents are Russian spies posing as a couple. Natasha and Yelena are separated and trained to become spies and killers in the Red Room — an ever-nebulous Soviet training program for young women. Chronologically set in between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” the rest of the movie follows Natasha in hiding in the aftermath of “Civil War. When she reunites with her “family,” she discovers that the Red Room is still running and joins forces with them to shut it down.

While Black Widow can be enjoyed as a stand-alone movie, with many new characters introduced and developed within the two-hour runtime, it is best appreciated as a part of the large, intricate web of Marvel stories built over the past decade. Apart from the nostalgic references to the other Avengers and the set-up for the plotlines to come, Black Widow is the final piece of the puzzle that is Natasha Romanoff. Her story is powerful in itself, but far more so when contextualized with the shadowy glimpses we have gotten into her emotions and her past over the years. For many fans, Natasha’s death in “Avengers: Endgame” was one of the saddest, so expanding her character before she permanently leaves the Marvel Universe is the perfect goodbye.

Natasha has been seen as the spy, the fearless fighter, the loyal friend and even the romantic interest of The Hulk — but in “Black Widow,” we get to see her as an individual. We see that behind the image of the superhero is a person still striving to truly claim that identity. Behind the scenes of the spy who always outruns and outsmarts is a woman in hiding, watching a movie and sipping a beer. Right after we see Natasha’s traumatic past, and after years of watching her saving the world trying to atone for unnamed crimes, this glimpse into the ordinariness of the most human Avenger is oddly poignant.

Despite Marvel having introduced more female superheroes in recent years, Black Widow was the first, as well as the only woman of the original six Avengers. So amongst the many pleasures this movie provides is that of watching Natasha operate with and around other women. Even the climactic action of the movie is crucially dependent on an understanding between Natasha and her mother, a single moment of honest admiration that bridged the chasm created by years of separation and trauma. The most successfully developed relationship in the film, however, is that between Natasha and Yelena — whether they are fighting each other or laughing together, their sisterly bond is evident.

Apart from delivering the witty banter characteristic of any Marvel movie, Natasha’s interactions with Yelena reveal more about her than any other moments in the film. Yelena calls her out unabashedly — from her tendency to strike a pose while fighting to the very fact that she considers herself a superhero, saying “I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.” Not only does Yelena point to Natasha’s moral crisis, which has been ambiguously alluded to throughout the franchise, but it also becomes an important point in Yelena’s own character development. Through her candid relationship with Natasha, she becomes increasingly sensitive to her sister’s struggle to grow from killer to hero.

Yet it is not only the screenwriting that makes Natasha and Yelena’s relationship convincing. The easy chemistry of Johansson and Pugh helps maintain the nuance of the sisters’ interactions, as they make light-hearted teasing seem natural while also accentuating unresolved friction that brims below the surface.

Although “Black Widow” delves into the complexities of Natasha’s relationships and emotional development, it is by no means short of Marvel’s trademark action sequences; in fact, the film’s fight scenes are among the most focused and engaging in the MCU, all without falling victim to the cinematic and sartorial objectification of Johansson of past films. Perhaps this is due to its female director, Cate Shortland, but it is refreshing to see that the film is significantly removed from the male gaze that undeniably exerts its influence upon the other films in the franchise.

As a prequel, “Black Widow” accomplished the difficult task of remaining both consistent and original. Although the film skips timelines and takes us into the past, it never feels irrelevant — it gives the audience mourning her death one last chance to say goodbye, so that the entire film is inevitably a nostalgic gift to fans of the Marvel Universe and Black Widow.


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