Spoilers for Black Widow, Avengers: Endgame, WandaVision, Loki and Captain Marvel
I’ve just started the Hawkeye series, which I am quite enjoying, and remembered I never published this lil’ take on the Black Widow movie, which came out last summer (which in the world of the MCU might as well be a decade ago). Anyways, after years and years of playing second fiddle to male leads Black Widow finally got her own movie and it was…fine. I mean, this is the MCU so don’t expect too much from their efforts at ‘diversifying’ their portfolio. Nevertheless, it’s popcorn guzzling fun with Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh knocking it out the park as lolsome kinda-sisters and the villain has a secret floating base hidden in a cloud and blah blah, let’s get to the analysis.
The MCU actively avoided producing a film with a female protagonist for years because leaked emails in 2015 revealed CEO Ike Perlmutter didn’t think it would sell (which reminds me of the time a ‘friend’ told me a gay Captain Kirk wouldn’t sell). Yup, women aren’t profitable. This is just one example of the sexism Scarlet Johansson would have experienced during her many, many years playing a secondary character, not to mention the objectification, having to kill people with her thighs (I mean, does Thor ever do that?), her love-interest plot-device status, and a briefly mentioned backstory including an enforced hysterectomy in the Red Room – a grim Russian spy-making facility. Oh, and in her final movie appearance in Avengers: Endgame she dies. She throws herself off a cliff to save a guy (and the universe) and doesn’t even get a big funeral at the end, unlike Tony Stark. She also doesn’t come back to life, unlike Loki and Vision. That’s not to mention the countless sexist questions Johansson had to field in interviews for the films, rarely receiving allyship from the male actors, who didn’t get questions about clothes and underwear (apart from this one).
After all this she finally got her own movie. Trouble is, it’s not really her movie but an introduction to her replacement (because, she’s dead, remember), aka Yelena Belova, played brilliantly by Florence Pugh. They’ve got a long backstory involving being fake sisters with fake parents, brainwashing and the Red Room. But Natasha escaped all that and joined the Avengers, leaving Yelena stuck for years (until someone blows special red powder at her which undoes her chemical brainwashing, yup, that happens in the film). It’s when the pair meet that we get the best acting in the film. They are such believable siblings – squabbling, mocking, loving and trying to make sense of their superhero super trauma. Most MCU films and series are dependent on the chemistry between the two leads – usually a straight white man and either a black, straight male sidekick or a white, straight female sidekick/love interest. Captain Marvel saw a white, cisfemale get the lead and her own straight, black cisfemale sidekick – any potential romance between them 100% denied by the MCU rules even though it wouldn’t haven’t been had Monica Rambeau been a guy. Anyways, Johansson and Pugh are great.
Yelena mocks Natasha for selling out to the Avengers, for flicking her hair back, for always doing a certain fighting pose because, apparently, she loved posing and being looked at. I laughed at the sibling rivalry and banter but once I left the cinema I realised it wasn’t funny at all. Black Widow flicked her hair and posed because that’s what the script and directors had her do. They objectified her because that’s how they profited from a female actor and character. Yelena also criticises her for selling out to the Avengers but she never had the chance to buy into anything else. Her character was never written to have significant agency. It kinda hurts, then, that in her own film she is mocked by another female character for having been objectified and for lacking agency. Black Widow is a victim of sexist storytelling and the lack of imagination of predominantly male teams to imagine well-rounded female characters. But as far as the MCU is concerned it’s all a joke. Talk about rubbing sexist salt in the sexist wound.
Another joke concerns the enforced hysterectomies that Natasha and Yelena were subjected to by the Red Room. After busting out their fake-Dad from a Russian prison (it’s a long story involving an avalanche) Yelena criticises him for never having really cared about her. He mocks her, asking if it’s “that time of the month”, to which she replies she cannot have a period. She then vividly describes what the hysterectomy was like. On the one hand it’s great to have a female character school a male one in periods (and the lack of them) and the nature of a hysterectomy. But the trouble is, it’s played for laughs. Yup, their torture and mutilation is a joke. Black Widow even smirks when Yelena threatens to talk about “fallopian tubes”. This is often the case with the comedy of the MCU. So many moments that could be serious or played for emotion, are played for laughs. Although can you imagine Tony Stark and Captain America bantering about enforced vasectomies? Even Yelena putting flowers on Natasha’s grave in the post-credit scene is interrupted by Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (played hilariously by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) blowing her nose. So that’s Black Widow’s death and Yelena’s grief getting a punchline.
Another hurdle the film falls at is racial diversity. The two leads are white as are the actors who play their fake-parents. Nothing inherently wrong with a bunch of white leads but it’s how the other characters are treated that’s important. There’s Oksana, another Black Widow, played by Michelle Lee, a Chinese American martial artist, stuntwoman and actress. She doesn’t last long as, having fled the Red Room, she’s stabbed by a pre-Red Powder Yelena. Oksana then bleeds to death, it’s a tough watch. Later on, the Black Widow assassin Ingrid chases Natasha but ends up falling from a roof and hurting her back. Dreykov, the super (white) villain and head of the Red Room, then commands Ingrid to blast herself in the head as she’s failed her mission. It’s another hard watch especially as Ingrid is played by Nanna Blondell, a Swedish actor of Ghanaian decent. The trouble here is that the film couldn’t commit to a more racially diverse group of leads but it did diversify the secondary cast, which results in a lot of non-white* characters dying at the hands of white ones. We’ve seen this before in Thor and Age of Ultron. Unfortunately, art appears to be imitating life by normalising the deaths of non-white people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diverse casts (100%) but I want diverse leads as well and I want race to be successfully integrated into the DNA of a story just as it was, in many ways, in Black Panther, when a predominantly black team were put in charge. Where was the predominantly female team for Black Widow? And what about a predominantly queer team for the queer lead hero that the MCU ain’t even promising us?
There was a lot to enjoy in the film and I, for one, am loving Phase 4 of the MCU as a lot of the white, male leads take a step back to allow for a host of new characters. But the MCU needs to diversity how it creates and tells its stories, not just diversity who gets a leading role. As Natasha says to Yelena in the trailer below, “That’s not my story”, and I reckon she could be talking about the very film that is meant to be telling her story. Tbh, if I were Black Widow I wouldn’t just flee the Red Room, I’d flee the MCU.
P.s. I’m using the term non-white* not to reduce people to something that they are not (i.e. white) but in an effort to try and show that whiteness is going on here and not something that can be taken for granted and considered normal (or not even seen). I appreciate it’s a clunky term and one I may jettison as I continue to educate myself.
P.p.s. as another little post-credits comment, in terms of the MCU and it’s abysmal history of female representation can I just complain that having slogged my way through six sometimes inventive, sometimes dull episodes of Loki I was disappointed (but not surprised) that the person who causes all the bad that’s going to happen for Phase 4 is…..drum roll…..a woman. Yup, female Loki, played by Sophia di Martino, is the one who might just be responsible for the next multiversal war.