The Tragedy of Black Widow

After waiting years for her own movie, Natasha Romanoff has gotten a film that never fully embraces her in all her complicated glory.

Stylized photos of Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff inside Black Widow's hourglass-like insignia
Marvel Studios / The Atlantic

This story contains spoilers for Black Widow.

Black Widow may be billed as a superhero film, but Black Widow is no typical superhero. Natasha Romanoff, the spy turned Avenger played by Scarlett Johansson, is singular when it comes to comic-book heroines: She has no special powers, just a self-reliance and compassion developed from having escaped an oppressive program that tried to turn her into a machine. She’s not a straightforwardly inspirational character like Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman, nor is she the gender-flipped version of a popular male character like Supergirl or Batwoman. And she has waited patiently for her turn to star in a standalone film—so patiently that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline, she’s now dead.

Marvel Studios’ first film to be released in theaters in more than two years, Black Widow works as both a prequel and a swan song for Natasha, given her death in Avengers: Endgame. Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the movie follows Natasha as she reunites with her adopted sister of sorts, Yelena (played by Florence Pugh). The two embark on a mission to destroy the Red Room, a Russian program that brainwashes women into becoming assassins—and one that Natasha thought she had dismantled years ago, before becoming an Avenger. To finish this unfinished business, they reunite with their “parents,” Russian spies who had raised them as children in America as part of a sleeper cell.

In many ways, Black Widow is a domestic drama that focuses on Natasha’s guilt over making it out of Russia, abandoning her “family,” and reinventing herself. It’s a tragedy and an apt portrait of an identity crisis. Any film about Natasha should explore the relationship between her heroic present and her violent past—and how the skills she cultivated as a killer play a part in both. So it makes sense when a villain called Taskmaster appears. Taskmaster is a highly skilled, helmeted human with the ability to mimic any move in sight, which means that when Natasha encounters the character, she’s essentially fighting her mirror image—an avatar of her past who shares all of her skills but none of her humanity. Such copycats are common, even classic enemies for superheroes; they challenge superheroes’ heroism, not just their abilities. Natasha and Taskmaster’s street-level brawls are appropriately bloody and brutal, looking more like scenes from the Bourne and recent Bond movies than like footage from a Marvel production.

But this is a Marvel production, and what seems at first like a grounded spy movie buckles under the weight of the expectations that come with being part of the MCU. To justify its existence as an entry in the franchise’s latest “phase” of projects, Black Widow turns the spotlight from Natasha onto Yelena, setting her up for her return in future stories, including Disney+’s Hawkeye later this year. To soften the tragedy of Natasha’s origins—including a forced hysterectomy—cheesy one-liners pepper the script. And to compete with the grand scale of other Marvel films, the movie’s final act casts the intriguing Taskmaster aside in favor of the cartoonish Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a villain who intends to take the Red Room program global, indoctrinating as many little girls as possible because he believes that they’re a “natural resource the world has too much of.”

Making Dreykov Natasha’s primary rival grinds the film—up to that point, a compelling study of the most enigmatic Avenger—to a halt. It betrays her darker history, flattening her personal conflict and quest for self-acceptance into a facile one of a woman taking down a bloviating man who hates women. Natasha’s intimate and poignant discussions with Yelena about their shared search for purpose and control are all but forgotten, replaced by frenzied scenes of their family rushing to destroy Dreykov’s floating, Moonraker-like aircraft.

The film ceases to be about Natasha wrestling with her heroism; by pitting her against a raging misogynist, Black Widow tries to simplistically cast Natasha as a pop-feminist icon. Forget Natasha’s past, the movie seems to say. The future is female. It’s as if the film, halfway through, became afraid to mar her legacy with a complicated arc in which she confronts the consequences of her previous actions—and opted to eulogize her as an indisputable heroine. The move is as perfunctory and transparent as the scene in Endgame that rounds up the female superheroes (sans Natasha, by the way) for a “girl power” money shot in the middle of a climactic battle.

True, Marvel prefers not to tarnish its departed heroes’ images. Tony Stark was once a war profiteer, but he lingers in the MCU as an untouchable martyr, appearing as an almost Christlike figure in Spider-Man: Far From Home. The title of “Captain America” gets tricky in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but the show never blames Steve Rogers for the government’s failures. Still, those movies’ conclusions feel satisfying and earned. Those departed Avengers had starred in their own films—films, plural—that, taken together, painted a full picture of who they were. Natasha, though, has only ever been a supporting player, a human Swiss Army knife for the Avengers’ myriad missions, a superhero-of-all-trades for a screenwriter to fashion into whatever the script needs, whether that be a sexist stereotype, a hacker, a love interest, or a de facto leader. As Johansson herself put it to Time, Natasha “was used as a kind of chess piece for her male counterparts.”

Black Widow didn’t need to turn into hagiography to make up for Marvel’s earlier indifference toward the character. Early on, the film suggests that in defecting from the Red Room, Natasha moved past her conditioned ideas of her womanhood and yet still relies in some part on her ruthless training to do what she does. The film tiptoes up to that tension when Taskmaster is revealed to be Dreykov’s daughter, Antonia (Olga Kurylenko), a woman Natasha thought she’d killed as a little girl—“collateral damage,” Natasha says, from her first attempt to take down the Red Room. Antonia, as a result, has been trained to reject femininity and has internalized her father’s beliefs, making her a foe who represents the Red Room’s insidious and enduring ideology: that women become stronger only through suffering. But the film sidesteps the showdown between Natasha and Taskmaster, instead devolving into a mid-air spectacle rife with explosions and gravity-defying stunts; an abrupt conclusion treats Taskmaster as an afterthought.

The best superhero stories aren’t about the protagonist’s powers but about their choices. They exemplify how it’s just as powerful to be able to learn from one’s mistakes and to accept one’s flaws as it is to be able to, say, shoot webs from one’s wrists. As a character whose strength comes not from suffering, but from her empathy and her capacity for self-reflection, Natasha is the embodiment of that idea. It’s why she can outsmart a god and why she can tame the Hulk. It’s also why she has ardent fans who lobbied Marvel for more than a decade to let her star in a standalone film.

Black Widow understands this in scenes between Natasha and Yelena, when Johansson imbues Natasha with a world-weary resolve opposite Pugh’s wounded idealism. In such moments, the film finally shades in who Natasha is at heart: a character who may seem to be ready for anything and up for being anyone, but who’s still trying to understand the effects of her trauma. The messy third act, and its insistence on making Natasha infallible, doesn’t ruin the film. But it does make Black Widow a missed opportunity; Natasha never gets to make the choices that could help her complete her portrait. And given how her story eventually ends, there are no more chances left for her to tell the rest.