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Black Widow (2021): A Review of Marvel’s Most Feminist Film

Disney Media/Press Kit

Natasha Romanoff: A strong female character who gets a proper send off.

Source: Disney Media/Press Kit

In The Avengers (2012), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) is a spy and assassin trying to make up for all the red on her ledger. In Black Widow, she confronts her blood-red history and the broken “family” relationships she left behind before becoming a heroine (Natasha does not possess superpowers, so she’s not a superheroine; plus, her unique set of skills includes extracting information and “neutralizing” people). This film is by far the most self-contained in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which means you don’t have to see 10 Marvel movies to understand or enjoy it. This origin story deftly skips the unwanted retreads, providing a look into Natasha’s tween years with her fake “parents” Alexei and Melina (Soviet agents played by David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) and Natasha’s “sister” and fellow sleeper agent, Yelena, undercover in Ohio.

Up to this point, the MCU has not paid attention to the hopes, dreams, and concerns of women, and frankly, there hasn’t even been much conversation between female characters other than in Captain Marvel. So Black Widow breaks new ground from Marvel’s male-centric past, developing several strong female characters, presenting a less hypersexualized Natasha, and taking on child trafficking, sexism, and misogyny. How?

 Disney Media/Press Kit

Cate Shortland, second from left, moves the MCU in a new direction.

Source: Disney Media/Press Kit

When we first see Natasha, she’s a 12-year old tomboy (Ever Anderson). Prepubescent and relatively gender-neutral in presentation, she’s quick as a whip, brave, and energetic as can be. Her value on screen does not come from wearing a skin-tight catsuit or being simultaneously ogled and googled by Tony Stark in a gym (see, or don’t see, Iron Man 2). Here, she’s a dewy-eyed, vulnerable kid, and that’s a fresh perspective on her character. Later, as an adult, she eschews heels in favor of combat boots and, more often than not, sports a leather jacket rather than the bodysuit. In addition, Yelena (Florence Pugh) comments on Natasha’s now well-established landing pose, legs splayed, her eyes staring directly into the camera: “You’re a poser. The way you move…Who is it for?” Director Cate Shortland had stated that she chose to make explicit this male fantasy of how a heroine “would” or “should” fight: “We were pointing at it, allowing the audience to be aware of what they had watched before and what they were watching now” (Dockterman, 2021). While still present, the male gaze is significantly attenuated in Phase Four of the MCU (so far).

In Black Widow, viewers discover that Natasha and Yelena were taken from their parents as babies, transported in shipping containers, and systemically abused and sterilized in the Red Room. This is a metaphor for child sex trafficking, a global, highly profitable criminal enterprise operating all over our real-world (Interpol, 2021; US Department of State, 2021). Taking on and literally taking down the sinister Red Room is a righteous cause (freeing women and girls from being made into tools of murder) and something the audience can really cheer on. The arch-villain Dreykov (Ray Winstone) is a slithering, sexist snake who sees girls as objects and a means to an end: world domination, one murder (and possibly seduction) at a time. He is the quintessential white male in power who loves the sound of his voice. The danger posed by this mind-controlling, malignant narcissist is uncomfortable to watch, especially when he moves from lengthy speeches to a savage beating of Natasha for daring to question his power and control. We can’t wait to see this mansplaining, woman-hating monster dispatched. It’s too spoilery to discuss here, but Natasha’s final interaction with Taskmaster’s other primary antagonist in the film speaks to how good it feels to be liberated from patriarchal domination.

I had a few quibbles. The use of spy/actioner tropes that were stale back in the late 80s and 90s was tiring. Just because portions of the film are set back then doesn’t mean we have to wade through predictable, derivative, and unfunny banter among the characters. Further, the idea that a staged family (e.g., photos together for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and July 4th were shot the same day) is somehow a real family, and people who have been trained and tortured to become emotionless killers, or have directly contributed to Dreykov’s capacity for mind control, can have a heartwarming reunion and group hug feels like a tacked-on happy ending. Perhaps it’s because I just finished five seasons (60 episodes) of the French TV spy series The Bureau, which is gritty and very grounded (no gadgets or sci-fi tropes to be found), and there is no Hollywood ending. (What can I say? It’s very French). Nevertheless, props must be given to a comic book movie that discusses menstruation, flouts mansplaining, shows how powerful sisterhood can be, and successfully provides a solid female character the spotlight and a proper send-off. Excelsior!

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