Discussion: Black Widow

Black Widow

CW
CW/TW: abuse, gaslighting, human trafficking, children and adults experiencing and processing trauma, some needles

Black Widow is the latest film installment in the MCU, finally giving us the backstory for Natasha Romanoff that everyone’s been hollering for. A bunch of us watched it right away and we have thoughts, y’all!

It takes place between Civil War and Infinity War, with Natasha reuniting with the people who were the closest to family she’d ever had (you know, before she met the other Avengers). Of course, we have Scarlett Johansson as Natasha. She’s joined by Florence Pugh as Yelena (the little sister), David Harbour as Alexei (the dad), and Rachel Weisz as Melina (the mom). Together, they’re going to take down the man responsible for the Red Room, which is the Black Widow espionage training program. At some point, all four worked for the Red Room, and Natasha doesn’t have fond memories of her time as an assassin.

The movie opens with a flashback straight out of The Americans, and the Cold War visual references continue throughout. After Yelena and Natasha reunite, the movie morphs into a buddy action movie, with the two sisters racing across Europe to find the surrogate parents that they haven’t seen in years, and searching for clues that will help them stop the Red Room from controlling its recruits.

Because pretty much all of this discussion is a spoiler, we’re putting the majority of this post behind Ye Olde Spoiler Tags. This is meant to be a discussion if you’ve seen the film, so we don’t want to give away too much if you haven’t.

Discussion begins!

Tara: I liked it! It’s far from a perfect film, but it has a few things going for it that kept me hooked. The humour was the biggest one one, because it helped balance how dark some of the themes are. To me, this is one of the darkest films in the MCU (possibly actually the darkest), because it digs into trauma, human trafficking, and the worldwide expendability of women. If it hadn’t been so funny, it would have been pretty damn bleak. Also, in some cases, the humour cut directly into the heart of an issue, like the Widows’ forced sterilization.

Alexi: Why the aggression, huh? Is it your time of the month?

Yelena: I don’t get my period dipshit. I don’t have a uterus.

Natasha: Or ovaries.

Yelena: That’s what happens when the Red Room gives you an involuntary hysterectomy. They kinda just go in and rip out all your reproductive organs. They just get right in there and chop them all away. So you can’t have babies.

Alexi: OK, OK, you don’t have to get so clinical and nasty!

Yelena: I was just going to talk about fallopian tubes…

I was also not expecting Florence Pugh to steal every scene she’s in. She’s hilarious, with a dry, cutting humour, and she’s also a total badass. Unfortunately, beside Yelena and the bombastic Alexei, Natasha is the least interesting character in her own film. At one point, my husband even turned to me and asked “Whose movie is this?”, because it felt more like Yelena’s than Natasha’s. I could happily watch many more hours of Yelena, so I’m thrilled to hear that she’ll be in all 8 episodes of the new Hawkeye series that will be released later this year.

Elyse: I sort of experienced this on two different levels. On the one hand it was a very meta attempt at fixing Marvel’s previous treatment of Black Widow’s character, and just an enjoyable action movie.

There was a more personal element for me also. I grew up in a household with addiction and abuse, and my sister is really the only person who understands how that shaped me since she was right there too. Natasha and Yelena are similarly trauma bonded. And as an older sister, I felt the pain of not being able to protect my younger sister acutely (even though that wasn’t my, or Natasha’s, job).

It also directly addresses Me Too to the point that Ray Winstone’s character should have been named Shmarvey Smeinstein.

I think the movie operates on two levels: breaking the cycle of trauma on the familial level and on a global level. Melina normalized what happened to her in the Red Room as a means of survival, and her “daughters” aren’t willing or able to do that. The macrocosm is that Natasha and Yelena were used by powerful men in ways that went against their will, and they want to dismantle that entire system and liberate all the Widows.

That sounds like a lot (and it is) but to Tara’s point, the movie nails the humor (sometimes gallows humor) that makes it enjoyable. It’s also not bleak. It’s a theme of “I’m going to fuck shit up for people who need their shit fucked up.”

Shana: I’m representing the casual superhero film watcher here. You know, the person who didn’t know that Black Widow had to make up for Joss Whedon pooping the bed. As someone who’s only seen three MCU films, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. It almost works as a stand-alone, especially if you don’t watch the post-credits scene. And I agree with Tara, Natasha’s the weakest part of the movie, although I may be biased by my dislike of Johansson.

These characters were new to me, but the themes were universal enough that I had no trouble getting sucked in. I might be an outlier, but I didn’t find Black Widow particularly dark. At least, not any more than, say, Black Panther or WandaVision. The themes around trauma and trafficking are fully integrated into the story so that it felt like the stakes were important, but it didn’t overshadow the fun of watching women beat the bad guys—with their bodies and their brains.

This reminded me of the Cold War action movies I grew up with, only with women in charge and special effects that didn’t suck. I appreciated that the main emotional storyline is between the sisters, and their would-be parents. There’s no 5 minutes of badly shoehorned romance here. Rachel Weisz is particularly excellent as a world-weary spy; she’s brilliant but caught in a web made by mediocre men. Who can’t relate to that situation? I hope this means we’ll see more women in their fifties kicking butt in action films.

Probably my favorite part of the movie was how the male heroes happily embraced a supporting role. One of them even says he’s the brawn to her brains. I did find myself wishing that the stylized fight scenes were more elaborate. I never tire of watching women beat up men, and there wasn’t quite enough of that for me. What did you think of the decision to have so many fight scenes between women?

Tara: That didn’t bother me, because they all made sense. If they hadn’t, I would have been irked, for sure.

Carrie: As an ardent MCU fan, I thought this movie was…OK. I loved the humor and the dynamics between the sisters. However, it suffered from an over-reliance on plot elements that we’ve already seen in other Marvel movies (faceless Terminator-type antagonist, floating fortress, fight while falling on a piece of said flying fortress). It could have so easily been an ‘A’ movie and instead it’s a ‘B-/C+’ for me. I had to wait all these years for this?

But fear no more! I have fixed it. Marvel, this really wasn’t hard to do. Please note that I accept, check, cash, money order, or PayPal.

Natasha: I don’t understand this evil plan. I have to smell his pheromones in order to be under his control? How would this possibly work on anyone more than a foot away from the guy? Are you really telling me that all I need to defeat this guy is a headcold?

Melina: “Pshhh, Natasha, you were never good at science. Let me worry about smells and you just follow my advice here.”

On freeing the widows:

Natasha: Now you are free to make your own choices.

Misc. Widow 1: You mean, we are free to make choices on an exploding flying fortress with no identities, no real world contacts, no established safe houses, and no money?

Misc Widow 2: cough*White feminism*cough

Also ending scene:

Yelena: I’ll use the intel you gave me to find and free the rest of the Widows.

Natasha: After I break my people out of jail, I’ll leverage a place and some funding so we can set up a support home and remote services for these women. You and I both know that getting free from the chemical restraints is the easy part—they have years of grooming and abuse to deal with, just like we did.

Yelena: For once, that is not a shit plan.

Natasha: And hey, try not to kill anybody. Life is about more than survival, you know.

Yelena: I’ll do my best.

Ending Scene: Natasha, Yelena, Alexei, and Melina stand together amidst the wreckage of the Flying Fortress and prepare to go their separate ways:

Melina: When we were undercover in America and posing as a family, we were fake, but surely now we are real.

Yelena: Fuck that! When we were children you and Alexei lied to us, gaslit us, and turned us over to a secret organization knowing that at their hands we, along with other girls, would be subjected to years of emotional, psychological, and physical abuse. Natasha and I are sisters but you two can go fuck yourselves.

Carrie: I saw this movie at the Drive-In with a friend who had never seen a Marvel movie. Based on her reaction, this is not the movie to start with—she got the basic gist, but felt like she was missing a lot.

Shana: I didn’t mind missing out on the broader context, but I could see that being frustrating, especially since the beginning drops you in the middle of the action, and the end doesn’t offer full closure either. Overall, I still liked it. Weaving in the fight against women’s exploitation made it more relevant than your usual action movie, and the dark humor hit my sweet spot.

Carrie: The first half was fabulous beyond belief, but eventually it became a hot mess. Not terrible, but not as good as it should have and could have been, either.

Tara: Even with the mess, it was still way more watchable for me than a solid third of the MCU film catalog. I’m glad I saw it and I’ll probably watch it again.

Shana: So, we thought Black Widow was funny, flawed, handled trauma well, and tried to solve past MCU nonsense with mixed success. Bitchery, what did you think?

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