Red in Our Ledgers

A Review of “Black Widow”

It’s a shame that Black Widow has become best known for star Scarlett Johansson’s justified lawsuit against Disney over its simultaneous release in theaters and Disney’s streaming service. The dispute overshadowed the film’s rich and sometimes brutal character study, one that builds on the decade Johansson and audiences have spent with Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow works well enough on its own, but it truly excels as the final part of a broader character arc that began more than ten years ago with her first appearance in 2010’s Iron Man 2.

It also sheds light on a widespread but basic misunderstanding about why the Marvel Cinematic Universe works for so many people. The plots of these films tend not to be terribly intricate or complex, and they’re often dismissed as mere “theme park rides” reliant on special effects-laden finales to wow audiences. While there’s a grain of truth to these views, for the most part they miss the mark. Plots of Marvel movies, for instance, do frequently veer off into the absurd or the preposterous. But they’re only meant function as a scaffolding for stories that, at their heart, are driven by character: how our protagonists change and become heroes, how they see their own roles and live with them, and, most crucially, how they struggle to do the right thing despite their own flaws and often-checkered pasts.

Black Widow stands as a paradigmatic example of what make these blockbusters tick. Audiences have spent a decade with Natasha Romanoff, watching her grow and evolve in ways second only to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the slow beats and quiet conversations that make Black Widow work without this shared history. The end result is a character study punctuated with solid action sequences that both divert our attention away from the film’s rather over-the-top plot points and denouement.

Though Florence Pugh rightfully received praise for her performance as Yelena Belova, Natasha’s adoptive younger sister (it’s complicated), Black Widow remains Natasha’s show through and through. Yelena serves as a Natasha’s foil, and it’s through her constant poking and prodding that we see how Natasha has evolved as a character over the past decade. Her caustic jibes at Natasha’s earnest attempt to become a better person draw blood but make Natasha’s own bruised and innate heroism stand out all the more clearly.

“You’re a total poser,” Yelena chides her while mocking Natasha’s tendency to whip her hair back during fights. When Natasha retorts, “All that time I spent posing, I was trying to actually do something good to make up for all the pain and suffering that we caused. Trying to be more than just a trained killer,” Yelena responds that they’re both still trained killers – “except I’m not the one that’s on the cover of a magazine. I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.” It’s an emotionally unsparing exchange that throws Natasha’s best qualities into relief and reminds the audience why we find the character compelling in the first place.

Indeed, Black Widow has a number of organic connections to the broader narrative in which it’s embedded. Its callbacks and references are necessary rather than gratuitous, serving Natasha’s character arc – both in the film and overall – rather than obsessive fans on the lookout for such nuggets. Natasha’s dialogue with Yelena, for instance, harks back to the intense self-doubt she expressed in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Well aware of her own imperfections and past infractions, when prompted by her fellow Avengers to try and prove she’s worthy to lift Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, Natasha responds, “Oh, no. That’s not a question I need answered.”

It’s an open wound her surrogate father Alexei, a Russian former super-soldier and spy, does his best to pour salt in after Natasha and Yelena liberate him from a gulag. Attempting to convince his daughters of his quasi-parental feelings toward them, he declares his pride in their records as assassins: “You both have killed so many people. Your ledgers must be dripping, just gushing red.” A visibly disgusted Natasha pushes him away, leaving the audience to recall her interrogation of Loki in The Avengers. When she notes that she has “red in her ledger” in that film, Loki doubts she can really “wipe out that much red” from a ledger that’s “dripping, gushing red.” Though she apparently gets the best of the God of Mischief in this verbal exchange, a later talk with Clint Barton (aka the master archer Hawkeye) shows the encounter clearly left her shaken and deeply unsure of herself.

Even Natasha’s brief mention that she’s “not on speaking terms” with Tony Stark early on manages to be more than just a throwaway reference to a previous movie. It brings to the audience’s mind her parting scene with Stark in Captain America: Civil War, where the two heroes go straight for one another’s deepest insecurities. After Natasha lets a fugitive Captain America go amidst a fight, Stark accuses her of possessing “the double agent thing” in her DNA – to which she responds by questioning whether Stark is “incapable of letting go of [his] ego for one goddamned second.” It’s probably the most painful scene in the movie, with both characters directly attacking each another where it truly hurts.

Above all, though, Natasha’s decade-long character arc and Black Widow in particular show us the emotional and physical pain inherent in trying to become a better person and do the right thing. Natasha can’t atone for anything she’s done in the past, no matter how much she may want to – and neither can we. All any of us can do is try to act morally in the present, in the here and now we flawed human beings happen to find ourselves in at any given moment. We’ve got to keep going and take action in line with our values, refusing define ourselves by our uncertainties about ourselves or our past mistakes and ordeals.

As Black Widow reminds us, that’s easy to say and far harder to actually do. We’ve seen Natasha wrestle with it over the past ten years, and she doesn’t come away from it without her fair share of bruises and scars. There’s no reason to expect otherwise, though, and it’s perhaps the most heroic aspect of her character: her persistence in the face of her own doubts about herself and the harsh realities of her chosen path – as Yelena points out, “I doubt the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight.” Natasha remains a deeply flawed and human character whose drive to be a better person resonates with our own struggles to live up to our own potential – like the rest of the Avengers, she just does it on a much bigger canvas and with much higher stakes.

There’s much more that could be said for Natasha’s heroism, starting with her central role in Avengers: Endgame. Her determination pushes the film’s narrative forward, and her ultimate sacrifice testifies to her ingrained heroism. She herself explicitly states that her time with the Avengers not only made her a better person but made her want to keep trying to be a better person regardless of her own personal circumstances. Present across a decade of stories, this very human aspiration to overcome her flaws and errors in order to become more truly herself helps make Natasha an enduringly compelling character.

As Johansson herself put it, audiences see “a character that’s fully evolved. They know her history, her habits, they know the things that are important to her. There’s an intimacy that the audience has with this character now that we can finally embrace [in Black Widow]… Just to be able to have the opportunity to peel back all the layers of this character for a decade is such a rare thing.”1

Natasha’s growth and evolution as a character, in turn, tells us why so many people love the Marvel cinematic universe: not explosions or pseudo-profundities or a rollercoaster kind of rush, but the emotional bonds audiences forge with the flawed characters they see up on the big screen. Movies like Black Widow cultivate these connections with viewers in ways that more narratively complex and technically proficient films often fail to do. Marvel movies manage to resonate with many of us in very basic ways that regular old blockbusters and niche art films either don’t, can’t, or won’t.

There’s nothing ironic, subversive, or deconstructive about Black Widow or its predecessors; they’re straightforward and sincere. It’s far from an exact correspondence, but these movies mine many of the same emotional and thematic veins tapped by the earliest myths and legends of millennia past. Through their flawed heroes and larger-than-life settings, at their best these movies manage to tell us something about ourselves and our condition. In that regard, at least, they’re much more mature and adult in nature than much of what passes for contemporary popular culture.  

Audiences may have had a long wait to see Natasha’s own movie, but it was well worth it. We’ve accompanied the character over more than ten years, experiencing with her the stark reality that it’s not a simple or easy thing to look past one’s own flaws and aspire to be a better person. She reminds us that there’s no shortcut we can take to avoid the pain and hardship inherent in that undertaking. But the journey itself more than makes up for any scars we accumulate along the way.

With Black Widow, Natasha has finally earned her rightful place in the pantheon of cinematic heroes.