When Iron Man 2 premiered in 2010, arguably the only redeeming quality in an otherwise very lackluster entry into the franchise was the introduction of the character Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow. Since Black Widow is now available for all subscribers on Disney+, and it’s episode of Assembled is available as well, let’s revisit what made the MCU’s stand-alone Black Widow movie a success and why it was such an important entry for Marvel.
Marvel fans, especially female fans have been clamouring almost since the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to have a standalone Black Widow film. There were apparently talks to have a stand-alone Black Widow movie as early as 2004, and these talks have been delayed many times over the years. Scarlett Johansson has been carrying the mantle of this character for Marvel since 2010. In a franchise that has featured mainly white men, fans have become more vocal in demanding better representation to better reflect the wide range of diversity in the fan base.
Black Widow is a case study in representing the female gaze. When we first met Natasha in 2010 she was visually represented to appeal to a male audience. Tight, revealing clothing and immaculately done hair and makeup during intense fight scenes gave the impression that this character was distinctly designed to appeal to male fans. In Black Widow, however, Natasha sports full, functional body armor, messy hair, and clear signs of having been in a fight. Her look is utilitarian, and she is presented in such a way that we focus on her character rather than on her attractiveness. This is so important to women everywhere, especially young women who see themselves so often sexualized in media.
The sibling relationship between Natasha and Yelena (Florence Pugh) is yet another example of how intimately Marvel understands the experience of having siblings. Marvel has established a tradition of portraying iconic siblings, like Thor and Loki, T’Challa and Shuri, Wanda and Pietro, and most recently Shang-Chi and Xialing. Natasha and Yelena are the perfect sister duo, and anyone who has had the experience of having a sister will understand the dynamics between these two and the shenanigans that they get themselves into. Underneath all the banter and escapades, however, is a deep love and mutual respect that mark all of the best sibling relationships, especially between sisters.
Black Widow shows an incredible mastery of the found family trope. David Harbour and Rachel Weisz make incredible parental figures in this mix of very distinct individuals that somehow functions as a family unit. The found family trope is used so beautifully in Black Widow as this family comes together and genuinely connects over choosing to do the right thing after so many years. It’s only disappointing that we didn’t get to see the Red Guardian get his chance to face off against Captain America in what would have been an incredibly entertaining show-down.
The opening sequence was one of the more disappointing sequences. It felt like a rip-off of The Americans, and seemed very out of time to have the first villains introduced as generic European bad guys. It felt like watching old Cold War propaganda designed to instill fear that those evil Russians can be lurking anywhere. This is such an outdated depiction of Russians and Russian culture, and it was definitely a moment I was pulled right out of the story.
Relatedly, Marvel’s villain problem is continued in this entry in the character of General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). His villainy is so egregious and his plan is so convoluted and unrelatable, there is nothing for fans to connect to. He is dispatched quickly and coldly without really any character development at all, and he will soon be forgotten as one of the MCU’s weakest villains to date.
The introduction of Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who fans first met in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier gives us hope that maybe we are about to see a rare villain fans can truly root for.
Black Widow ultimately offered a satisfying character conclusion to a character that was so often underused and historically portrayed for the male gaze only. It’s a shame that fans had to wait this long for Black Widow to get her standalone movie, but it was more than worth the wait.
Black Widow is currently available to stream on Disney+.