Despite her lack of fantastical superpowers, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow more than held her own along the other Avengers right up to the moment she sacrificed her life to help save the universe in Avengers: Endgame. Director Cate Shortland’s new Black Widow solo film is a reminder of just how lethal a fighter Marvel’s Natasha Romanoff always was, even if she sometimes looked a bit silly doing it.
As Black Widow follows Natasha on a journey to take down the infamous Red Room that tortured and transformed her into a superspy, the movie takes time for a couple of standout moments to make an important observation about how its leading character has been portrayed throughout the franchise.
After receiving a mysterious cache of vials containing an unknown substance, Natasha sets off for Budapest where she reunites with her estranged sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) for the first time in years following their forced separation as children. Though the two women beat the ever-living hell out of one another for a good few minutes immediately after their reunion, their fight is cathartic and a way for them to be sure that they can trust one another, and it isn’t long before the pair call a truce.
Throughout much of Black Widow, there’s a decided tension between Natasha and Yelena stemming partially from the traumatic way their lives as adoptive sisters came to a sudden halt, but also from the fact that Natasha seemingly chose to leave her past life with Yelena and their parents behind completely. As much as Natasha genuinely cares for Yelena, her sister provides her with intel about the modern Red Room that makes it easy to see how Yelena felt abandoned. Not only is the Room Room still in operation, but General Dreykov (Ray Winstone)—the man who ran the original operation and who Natasha thought she killed—is still quite alive. As an Avenger, these are the sorts of things that the hero presumably could have discovered and dealt with quite easily had she bothered to look into them.
While Yelena certainly begrudges her sister to a certain extent, she also knows that Natasha has been rather busy with her Black Widow duties, some of which have become public knowledge because of the spectacular nature of skirmishes the Avengers get mixed up in. One of the ways Yelena calls her sister out and lets her know she’s been watching her from afar is by asking her point-blank what the deal is with all of her signature battle poses which, while “cool” and “sexy,” make little sense for combat situations.
The decidedly male gaze that Black Widow’s been generally shot with in the bulk of her previous appearances in other Marvel movies has been almost as conspicuous as the way the character was largely sidelined compared to many of her male counterparts who were given the opportunity to star in their own movies years ago. After being introduced in Iron Man 2 as an undercover femme fatale who Tony Stark objectified in a way Disney and Marvel Studios would probably shy away from these days, Black Widow went on to become a core part of the live-action Avengers brand, and the MCU’s first leading female superhero.
Today, there are far more women kicking ass and taking names throughout the larger MCU, but for years, Black Widow was the sole woman on the Avengers team and the one whose sex appeal was often the focus of their presentations. In the scenes where Yelena makes fun of the way Natasha tends to “hero land” (as if she knows that people are watching her), Black Widow’s speaking directly to the audience and drawing attention to its own cheesecake-y scene. The solo film features its own fair share of moments where Natasha and the other Red Room Black Widows are recognizably doing the most instead of methodically and discreetly killing one another. But Black Widow also takes particular care to use its gaze to highlight how, within this story, both Natasha and Yelena have agency over their bodies and actions—something that becomes a larger theme throughout the movie.
By the time Black Widow comes to a close, Natasha gets in at least one dramatic three-point landing accompanied by an extravagant hair flip, and within Black Widow, those beats work as jokes because of the movie’s self-awareness. Silly as it was, Natasha’s schtick canonically served her well right up until the very end but considering Yelena’s distaste for her sister’s poses, there’s a chance that might be the last of that specific element of flair in the MCU. When you consider Black Widow’s mid-credits scene, you can see how we may be in for even more exploration of both Yelena as well as stories of Natasha through her seeming successor in the not-too-distant future.
Black Widow is now in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access.
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