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Black Widow gives the character a soul — several years too late

Why the timing of Marvel’s latest movie is so frustrating, even as its story gives Natasha a satisfying MCU send-off.

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Scarlet Johansson in Black Widow.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Marvel has spent a decade telling Natasha Romanoff’s story, but it’s mostly been mumbled and embedded in movies about the men flanking her. Audiences have had to trace the Black Widow’s web through the entertainment juggernaut’s big team-up Avengers films and the stories of Iron Man 2 (2010), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and Captain America: Civil War (2016), connecting the one-off lines and monologues scattered within.

While US government experiments transformed Steve Rogers into Captain America and spurred Hank Pym to invent magic shrinking juice that would eventually create Ant-Man, those events didn’t happen in a vacuum. Natasha, as played by Scarlett Johansson, was collateral damage on the more brutal end of the same effort, as Russia tried to keep up in the superhuman arms race.

A Secret KGB program, designed with a hefty dose of eugenics, found her as a child and trained her to become one of the coveted Black Widows — a highly trained assassin and spy. To ensure loyalty, the program leads experimented on and sterilized her against her will.

Against all odds, Nat managed to break free from the program and link up with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. She was able to put her skills to good use, helping to recruit new Avengers and ultimately to save the world (and half the lives across the universe) by sacrificing her own life in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.

All this backstory happened without Nat getting a movie of her own.

And though Marvel’s bigger team-up movies treated her like a central figure, it wasn’t until her final appearance in Endgame that the studio crystalized her worldview and showcased her humanity.

As Endgame opens, Natasha’s surviving coworkers have moved on after half the population has been snapped away. Steve Rogers is talking about seeing whales in the Hudson and attending survivor support groups. Tony Stark has moved to the mountains and had a kid. But Nat isn’t ready to give up. She’s still commandeering what remains of the Avengers’ control center, the only member of the team who is still committed to the possibility of saving her friends and everyone else Thanos obliterated. Having a shot at restoring their lives is what ultimately compels her to sacrifice her own. She doesn’t even live to see what comes of her efforts,

So in the present-day MCU, Nat is as dead as any Avenger can ever be. Enter the maddeningly late but satisfying send-off Black Widow, in which we finally get to see Natasha Romanoff’s story in full.

Nat’s solo venture, directed by Cate Shortland, doesn’t undo the events of Endgame but instead clarifies the character’s decision to die in order to give her teammates and humanity a shot at defeating Thanos. Black Widow is a prequel of sorts, set in the pocket of time between Civil War, when the Avengers temporarily dissolved and many of them landed in jail, and Infinity War, when the team met Thanos for the first time. Nat is on the run from the government, trying to live on her own. That’s when the past she’s been gabbing about for the last decade finally shows up, on-screen and in the flesh.

Unlike typical Marvel movies, Black Widow doesn’t present an apocalypse to avoid or a world breaker to defeat. If Nat decided to ignore the threat that confronts her in Black Widow and keep to herself, the world would keep spinning along — just slightly more nefariously. It turns out one of her pre-Avengers associates has discovered that the program that turned Nat into a super-assassin has also sharpened millions of other girls into Widows like her. Their training was conducted against the girls’ will, just like what happened to Nat.

Almost instantly, you can see what’s she’s about to do. Nat’s inability to separate work from life and coworkers from family doesn’t make her the best cold-blooded assassin. But it does make Nat a pretty good Avenger. Even if Black Widow is years late and can feel retroactive in parts, Nat’s own (very good) movie asserts the character’s legacy in the MCU and what she meant to the franchise as a whole.

Black Widow assembles the shreds of Natasha’s backstory into a fully realized character portrait

Every Marvel movie released since 2008’s Iron Man raises a question that none of the films can ever be cleaved from: Do you need to see the previous Marvel movies to know what’s going on? Black Widow is no exception.

The most important film to keep in mind with regard to Black Widow is 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. That movie sets up Nat’s “current” situation and explains why she’s on the lam.

But even in Civil War, Nat exists largely as a supporting character. The movie doesn’t actually offer that much insight into her interior life.

The plot of Civil War, which began as an event in Marvel’s comic books, was touted as the splintering of the Avengers and the dissolution of the bonds that kept this team together. The root cause was an esoteric set of documents called the Sokovia Accords, which basically said the Avengers should be government-restricted. Tony Stark agreed with them, Captain America didn’t, and boom — this led to the greatest breakup in the MCU.

Civil War’s missed opportunity was showing how the Avengers’ implosion affected Nat most of all.

Black Widow steps in to show us how, unlike her fellow Avengers, Nat has no life outside of the team. As the rest of Marvel’s movies have established, Tony Stark has Pepper Potts and Rhodey. Steve Rogers has Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson. Wanda has Vision. Ant-Man and Hawkeye have their respective families. Spider-Man has MJ, Ned, and Aunt May. T’Challa has his kingdom. I suppose that’s why Nat was later paired off with Bruce Banner in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, but then he went missing and didn’t return until Infinity War.

Nat’s Avengers coworkers are her only family. Hence, her urging Steve to keep the team together in Civil War. Nat begs him to keep her family together. She has no compelling argument or overarching strategy for reuniting the Avengers, she just needs the team to keep existing.

“Staying together is more important than how we stay together,” she tells him.

At the end of Civil War, Nat is the only thing that stands between Steve and Bucky getting away from government capture. She breaks the accords and allows Steve and Bucky to escape. Because Nat is often underused and underwritten, viewers have to connect the dots to see that the trust she has in her fellow Avengers is more important than whatever legislation she wants Steve to sign. She is willing to act in their best interest even if it puts her at risk.

That’s what family does, right?

The Avengers split leads right into Black Widow where she’s now in violation of the accords. On the run and off the grid, she comes into possession of a package sent by one of her former colleagues, Yelena, played by Florence Pugh.

Yelena isn’t just a former colleague the way Steve and Tony aren’t just Nat’s Avengers coworkers. Back in the ’90s when they were young girls, Yelena and Nat were part of an undercover cell of Russian sleeper agents posing as a wholesome Midwest family. While their parents were spiriting away government secrets, Nat and Yelena’s sister act provided part of the makeshift family’s cover. Having undergone some preliminary Widow training, Nat was seemingly old enough to understand the circumstances, but to the younger Yelena, that fake life was her real one, and all she ever knew.

Nat barely hesitates in jumping in head-first and risking her life to find and help Yelena, who herself was indoctrinated into the Widow training program. It just so happens Yelena has found something that could possibly dissolve the program.

The pair are pursued by a masked, probably Russian, humanoid, a bionic killing machine that can flip cars and has flawless aim. A batch of Widows, trained just like Yelena and Nat, are also on their tail. With each bullet dodged and every concussion from the attacks they don’t evade, it becomes more apparent that Nat felt the sisterly relationship too.

That maybe explains Nat and her devotion to the Avengers. It has long seemed like the Avengers taught Nat about family, but Black Widow suggests that perhaps it’s the other way around: that Nat learned about finding family at a young age, when she and Yelena were Russian spies, and it’s something she’s been pursuing ever since. The family she found in the Avengers made it a no-brainer, as we saw in Endgame, for her to give up her life for all of theirs.

The film does an admirable job of humanizing Natasha, even if its efforts come too little, too late

The hilariously frustrating thing about Black Widow is how much it undoes the short-changing of its title character not only in Endgame, but throughout her entire existence in the MCU.

Until now, Nat has largely been a wingwoman who, in small moments, shares a few tidbits about her past. Few of those moments have contained much depth, limited to Nat monologuing to other characters with a sprinkling of hot words like “Budapest” (referring to an important secret mission) and phrases like “red on my ledger” (referring to the people she’s killed and the bad deeds she done). The microdoses of her history piqued interest, but they never materialized into anything more than tiny prompts — it’s been up to audiences to imagine what Nat’s backstory looks like as Marvel hasn’t made room to showcase it.

In the grand, expansive, decade-long history of the MCU, Natasha Romanoff has existed in the footnotes. There are myriad reasons why — including the sexist way studio executives used to think about superhero movies, which led to the first female Avenger being used as much for sex appeal as anything else. The unfortunate result is that Nat sacrificing her life in Endgame felt a bit unearned or cheapened. Similarly, most of Nat’s arc in the MCU has embodied the trope of the Avengers’ premiere female superhero having to expend the most emotional labor.

Black Widow doesn’t fix that neglect, but it does try to salvage whatever it can to give Natasha an honorable legacy.

Every line, every plot twist, every scene, and every shot in Black Widow attempts to show the humanity of this character and her willingness to put her own life on the line for the people she cares about.

The crux of the movie’s story hinges on Nat breaking a system of abuse. Yelena informs Nat that the man who turned her into a Widow, a shadowy figure named Dreykov, has actually created a worldwide army of brainwashed Widows who are totally under his control. If he tells them to shoot themselves, they do. Yikes!

The allegory to very powerful, very abusive industry men is as obvious as Dreykov’s highly guarded and highly glamorous office, with its hidden locks and gadgets that only Dreykov can activate.

Breaking this cycle doesn’t mean killing Dreykov. Someone else could easily take his place. Rather, Nat wants to free the Widows of their mind control and give them lives they never had. Yelena, whom Nat failed to protect, is Nat’s living reminder.

Florence Pugh and Scarlett Johansson are both acutely talented at infusing their characters with unspoken depth. They elevate a reunion with David Harbour’s Alexei and Rachel Weisz’s Melina, their fake sleeper agent parents, into something that feels cannily relatable.

But the best parts of the film see Pugh and Johansson interacting as if they’re in a buddy comedy. The pair’s big sister/little sister chemistry works, and it’s helped along by funny, self-aware scenes in which Yelena explicitly criticizes the way Nat has been used in past MCU outings. At one point, she ribs Nat for being the least powerful Avenger. “One of the big ones” will come and “avenge” you, Yelena tells Nat, as an explanation for why Dreykov hasn’t come after her before.

Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow landing in her famous pose.

Yelena also comes for Nat’s superhero “pose.” Unlike her male Avengers counterparts who just jump and land, several past Marvel movies have seen Nat land her feats of strength in an agile, lateral, squat: Butt pushed out, thighs clenched. Yelena’s comments are a sly, self-deprecating jab at Marvel’s history of marketing Black Widow as a sexpot. The joke is so effective it made me wish Shortland had done even more to make Marvel squirm.

The lengths that Nat is willing to go to for Yelena hammer home how much Nat desperately needs her found family — and will do anything to protect them.

The other Avengers would do the same for their respective loved ones, no doubt. But it’s hard to fathom that they — outside of Tony Stark and his own Thanos-defeating sacrifice — would give as much for their teammates as Nat would. After Infinity War, they weren’t hopelessly waiting for blips at the command center the way she was. In Endgame, most of them weren’t thinking about the future of their coworkers’ families when they were busy saving the world. Would Ant-Man give his life for Pepper Potts? Would Wanda Maximoff sacrifice herself for T’Challa and Shuri?

Given what we’ve seen in earlier Marvel movies, I don’t think anyone would confidently say yes.

Black Widow shows that Nat’s willingness to make that kind of sacrifice is what sets her apart from the rest of the Avengers. The movie connects the crumbs we’ve been fed about who she is and affirms that she’s selfless in a superhuman way. Though her selflessness goes against what life has continually taught her — that relationships are a weakness that will always let you down — it’s also the skeleton key to her legacy. What a thrill to finally be able to understand it.