Black Widow isn’t really a film about Natasha Romanoff, the most famous person to use the moniker, and it helps it immensely.
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Black Widow, now playing in theaters and available for streaming through Disney+ Premier Access
On paper, Black Widow would appear to be primarily focused on the titular hero, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). The long-time Avenger has been at the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since she was introduced in Iron Man 2, ultimately sacrificing her life to help restore life across the galaxy in Avengers: Endgame.
With that in mind, it would be fair to expect Black Widow to be a send-off focused on Natasha tying up previously unknown loose ends before her canonical demise. However, the film is instead far more concerned with the unexpected family unit she leaves behind, and it’s the best decision the filmmakers could have made. By focusing Black Widow not just on Natasha but all the other women who have taken up the mantle, the film retains stakes and emotional depth and becomes less about the past and more about the future.
During the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha ends up on the run after allowing Captain America and Bucky Barnes to escape custody. While evading capture, as Black Widow reveals, she’s then recruited by her once-adopted sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) to help bring down the Red Room once and for all. From the get-go, much of the film’s plot is driven by Yelena over Natasha. Yelena breaks free of the Red Room’s control and warns Natasha of their continued existence, still cherishes her brief time with her undercover family and ultimately becomes the leader and liberator of the other Black Widows around the globe. She’s the one with a definite arc instead of Natasha, who spends most of the film learning to accept Yelena’s views and embrace her family once more.
The other major Black Widow in the film is Melina (Rachel Weisz), who while undercover with the girls in their youth had served as their “mother.” Melina is established as having to truly care for the girls and her partner Alexei (David Harbour) but attempted to overcome these feelings by continuing her work with the Red Room in relative isolation. Although the film teases a betrayal from her, Melina’s arc is also about embracing the family that was taken from her, cementing the bonds between them by helping bring down Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and the Red Room once and for all. She’s even positioned to become the mother to all the newly released Black Widows around the world, giving her the ability to make up for the actions of her past — a common theme for Natasha earlier in the MCU.
Even Alexei gets more development than Natasha, with his bravado and ill-placed pride in Natasha and Yelena’s skills hiding a genuine love for the girls who were briefly his daughters. They all get the chance to escape the events of the film alongside the rest of the previously mind-controlled Black Widows and the freed Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), setting them all up for new adventures and roles within the MCU.
It’s a good thing the film didn’t focus primarily on Natasha, as that would have removed much of the dramatic stakes at the heart of the film. Natasha’s path to Avengers: Endgame is unmovable, meaning any sequence with her in danger inherently loses tension because the audience knows she escapes and completes her arc. But instead of giving Natasha the brunt of the work, Black Widow dives into the rest of the family unit and what they go through, with their relative secrecy in the MCU making their survival and growth more of a question mark. By not focusing on Natasha and instead on the Black Widows as a whole, Black Widow allows itself to be a far more engaging and interesting film than it would have been if it were just a straightforward prequel about Natasha and her motivations.
Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow stars Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova, David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian, O-T Fagbenle as Mason and Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff. The film is now in theaters and available on Disney+ Premier Access.
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