By Alex Edwards
Picture the scene: it’s nearly two years since I’ve enjoyed a Marvel Studios film in cinemas and I’m excited to kick back with Scarlet Johansson’s overdue solo adventure, Black Widow.
The opening act creates a style very atypical of this universe’s repertoire, with cinematography verging on the overindulgence of a Zach Snyder project – a guilty pleasure of mine. The bulk CGI shots are few and far between, opting for classic ‘Bond-like’ car chases that pair well with its ominous title sequence. Suddenly the midpoint has arrived in the blink of an eye. Natasha and her show-stealing companion Yalena (Florence Pugh) have hopped from set piece to set piece and I’m fully invested in the action.
By this point in the average female-lead flick, the sex of our protagonist will have been highlighted, be it through their sexualized fighting style, their comparatively revealing costumes, or just by having other characters say how sexy they are; see Wonder Woman (2017). Johansson has had a fair share of male-gazey production in the early Marvel films, but now taking a producing role herself, all mentions of the hero’s figure are left back in the writing room. Instead, director Cate Shortland gives us many opportunities to see the aptitude and spectacle of our protagonists without unnecessary sexualisation.
As we approach the third act we’re introduced to the orchestrator of Natasha’s upbringing and training, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). For part of her plan, Natasha needs to take a few punches and Dreykov is incredibly willing to comply. As we see Natasha flinch to a raised backhand, a history of abuse is implied. With this, Shortland invites us to explore the film’s theme: trauma.
As we progress as the authors of our lives, we create a narrative that we find events to be consistent with. Trauma is an event so ill-fitting to that narrative that it cannot be fully processed, preventing the emotional growth and continuation from that point. This is true both for characters in films and the viewers that watch them. In stories that successfully tackle trauma, characters will endure a journey of introspection in which they rewrite their narrative to include the traumatic events, allowing them to progress.
The most effective setting in which Natasha could examine her trauma would be her initial escape from Dreykov’s influence, where she was challenged to recontextualise the events of her life from assassin to defector. The film itself agrees, with many references to this period of Natasha’s life and the interesting action sequences that surrounded it. This then begs the question, why are we not following these events during the film?
When done correctly, trauma is an interesting character journey to explore, however Natasha has already processed her previous experiences. As she declares herself in The Avengers, “I’ve got red in my ledger; I’d like to wipe it out”; her history has been a part of her character since 2012. It seems as though Shortland haphazardly attaches trauma to her finale to add something to the poorly characterised antagonist, but accidently highlights that her titular hero cannot significantly develop between the pre-established cinematic appearances.
And then, after getting to the post-credits, it all began to make sense. Black Widow does tell the story of an assassin turned defector at a critical time of her character; not the one we have loved for the past decade, but the one we are going to love, Yalena. Until now she has created a faux history of family to replace her tattered reality. It is only by opening up to her past, by reconnecting with that family in the present, that she can legitimise her upbringing and move forward to form new emotional connections. I am truly excited to see Florence Pugh fill the gap as Black Widow. Her interestingly juvenile portrayal accurately depicts a person processing these experiences growing up, whilst also making her a charismatic addition to any cast.
Overall, this film is an interesting watch: a mixed bag of Russian accents, a funny set of characters, and a pretty conventional Marvel finale. Most of all it is a launching pad for a new star of this universe, the new Black Widow.
Illustration: Alex Edwards