How Do You Solve a Problem Like Natasha? Marvel’s ‘Black Widow’ Is Fun But Not Enough

If you’re looking for a few hours of entertainment combining powerful women and a string of superfluous chase scenes and improbable combat, Black Widow will fit the bill.

(Marvel Studios)

For readers who haven’t been keeping up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over the last decade-plus, here’s a spoiler warning. If you don’t want to know what happens to Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) across the franchise’s 24 films, you may want to avoid this review and Black Widow, itself, until you’ve had a chance to catch up.

Even though this newest film takes place between the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), it’s difficult to discuss without revealing things that happen to Natasha later in the franchise. (If you don’t care about spoilers and just need a brief refresher, the 12-minute Disney+ Legends video summarizing Nat’s time in the franchise is surprisingly comprehensive.) Black Widow opened this past Friday nationwide in theaters, as well as via premier streaming access on Disney+.

As for the plot of the film itself, no spoiler warnings are necessary; there’s nothing much to spoil. From start to finish, Black Widow proceeds along with predictable precision. Sure, there are a few unanticipated reveals and characters who behave in ways you may not quite expect; there are the inevitable betrayals and comebacks and turnabouts and idiosyncrasies. But there’s little about Black Widow that’s genuinely surprising and the film runs its course in a simple, familiar way.

Saying so doesn’t have to be read as a wholesale critique—sometimes we crave predictable entertainment. Sometimes it’s nice when the heroes win and the villains lose, when those who are suffering find whatever peace they can. For me, the trouble with Black Widow is how it resonates with the other MCU films and with Natasha’s eventual fate. For fans who were saddened or angered by her death in Avengers: Endgame (2019)—when she martyred herself to secure one of the Infinity Stones and save the universe—Natasha’s first and only solo film may feel like a bewildering coda.

Black Widow is not an origin story; it’s more of a superhero vignette, highlighting a gap in the Avengers timeline when Natasha was briefly separated from the rest of her team. We learn more about her abysmal childhood, when her adoptive parents handed Natasha and her also-adopted younger sister, Yelena, over to the Red Room, a vicious Russian facility where young girls are trained as assassins or die trying.

The majority of the film deals with the fallout of Natasha’s disastrous family legacy, as she reluctantly seeks out her now-adult sister (Florence Pugh), father Alexei (David Harbour), and mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) in a bid to take down the Red Room once and for all. Natasha hasn’t seen her family in 21 years, and yet they all immediately fall into a bickering intimacy that might read as quaintly familial if it weren’t overcast by the dark shadows of loss, pain, and the years of psychological and physical torture Natasha and Yelena endured due to their parents’ choices.  

It’s difficult to reconcile this dissonance even in moments when the film tries to lay it bare. While both Natasha and Yelena openly express their warranted feelings of lingering betrayal and doubt, many of these conversations feel like meandering jokes waiting for a punchline.

Even when the sisters first reunite as adults, they try to kill each other in a fast-paced, ruthless fight that somehow also feels like a playful sparring match, with its sequence of evenly matched punches, kicks and weapon switcharoos. They trade a brief series of barbs where Yelena questions why Natasha never came to look for her after Natasha defected and became an Avenger—but, in the end, the women fall back on a sisterly camaraderie that seems unlikely given their traumatic past.

In some ways, this is par for the course for the MCU, which is known for attempting to strike a balance between action, drama and humor. Even the darkest of Marvel films include a few requisite one-liners and some films in the franchise seem to be played almost entirely for laughs. Black Widow occupies a middle ground. Rife with the dark subject matter necessary to explain why Natasha has always been such a cipher—a former spy and assassin who lies easily and whose personality can change as seamlessly as the flip of a coin—the film also attempts to humanize her by developing her alongside her quirky, homicidal family.

(Marvel Studios)

Marvel has always struggled with Natasha; she was the first major superheroine introduced in the franchise—in Iron Man 2 (2010), as a leather-clad S.H.E.I.L.D. agent masquerading as Tony Stark’s femme fatale notary. Over the last decade, Natasha has been given a lot more depth, developing into a haunted-but-intrepid warrior capable of leading the Avengers when all hope seems lost. But her characterization often shifts on a series of spectrums, as if no one (not even the writers) can quite figure out who she should be: sexy or frigid, kind or brutal, empathetic or overly rational.

The central plot of Black Widow involves the sisters trying to free the other Widows, chemically mind-controlled fighters who were kidnapped as girls by the evil Dreykov (Ray Winstone). There are a lot of women in the film if we include this cadre of fierce but brainwashed assassins, and yet the other Widows’ lack of agency means they feel a bit too much like damsels in distress to register as particularly impressive characters. Dreykov even calls them a “natural resource” that he can tap into at will, reducing the Widows fully to objects to be controlled—and waiting to be rescued.

On the plus side, Nat’s sister Yelena is a dynamic character and Pugh and Johansson have a fluid, exuberant chemistry. The acting is strong overall, and the action sequences are fun, even if they fall into the ‘fight first, ask questions later’ ethos of most Marvel films. If you’re looking for a few hours of entertainment combining powerful women and a string of superfluous chase scenes and improbable combat, Black Widow will fit the bill.

When Natasha was a child, Melina taught her that “pain makes us stronger.” Throughout the franchise, Natasha’s disappointment in herself and her attempts to make up for her evil past have been pivotal to her motivations as a character. Black Widow aims for that redemption arc, allowing Natasha to finally erase the “red from [her] ledger.” But trying to balance touching moments between an estranged family and a roundabout, action-heavy plot feels both too intense and like not quite enough to soothe the wounds of Nat’s ultimate sacrifice.

Black Widow may be an enjoyable romp on the surface, but as a triumphant send-off for Natasha Romanoff, it feels hollow: too little, too late.

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.