Black Widow (Cate Shortland, 2021)

Long overdue for reasons ranging from garden-variety studio sexism to serial pandemic-related delays, Black Widow is a top-tier entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It earns a place alongside the likes of Black Panther (2018), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) for its vividly imagined world, whiz-bang action sequences, muscular direction, and terrific screenplay (written by screenwriters Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson, and Eric Pearson, in collaboration with director Cate Shortland and performers Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh). More significantly, Black Widow also has real heart (in its heroine and in the broken, bonkers found-family at its center) and a compelling feminist theme—one that raises the stakes in the film considerably.

Taking place in the period between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow follows Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) as she embarks on a chain of quests to find the family that raised her and, with their support, defeat an enemy responsible for her abduction from her birth family. As dangerous events unfold, Natasha discovers more about what’s false and what’s genuine about her adoptive parents—the casually wicked scientist Melina (Rachel Weisz) and endearingly goofy super-soldier Alexei (David Harbour)—as well as her sister, Yelena Belova (the wildly charismatic Florence Pugh).

Uncommonly weighty for a movie in the MCU, the subtextual themes of Black Widow appear to take a page from (of all things) Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book about global gender-based oppression, Half the Sky (2008), which asks the question: What happens when the world doesn’t value girls? In this movie’s case, the answer is quite grim given the light entertainment that the MCU traditionally provides, and it tracks alongside what Kristof and WuDunn observed: Unwanted girls are stolen or sold and imprisoned, their bodies used without their consent. This being a Marvel movie, the real-world problem of sex trafficking and slavery that Kristof and WuDunn describe is metaphorized into a premise a little less horrifying, which is that these unwanted girls are taken and trained in the “Red Room” program to become mind-controlled assassins in the service of a shadowy mastermind who seeks global political dominion by “using the only natural resource the world has too much of: girls.” (Warning: From here on, there are spoilers.)

The writing in Black Widow makes the parallels explicit between real-world trafficking and fictional exploitation: Of her participation in the Red Room program, Melina discloses, “Why does a mouse born in a cage run on that little wheel? . . . I was never given a choice.” One stolen girl chillingly cries out, “I don’t want to do this! He’s making me!” as she is controlled by an unseen manipulator. Two others—Natasha and Yelena, our leads—describe receiving forced hysterectomies, a traumatically invasive method of controlling exactly what they can do with their bodies, similar to the real-life forced birth control, sterilization, or abortion faced by trafficked girls and women internationally and, not incidentally, faced by indigenous and Black women within our own borders throughout American history. And tellingly, the mechanism for controlling the will of the young women is described as “chemical subjugation,” akin to the drugs used to keep trafficked girls compliant and unable to fight back against their captors. All of the girls abducted into the program are sedated in transit. When they arrive at the Red Room training facility, girls who can’t make the cut are killed and “thrown out like trash.” As Yelena says of the facility’s mastermind, “To him, we are just things.” Similarly, of her birth family’s abandoning her to be taken to the Red Room, Natasha herself says, “I was thrown out in the street like garbage.”

As though this weren’t heavy enough, the film develops another striking parallel with real-world traumas faced by many women and girls, this time within the entertainment industry itself. As the movie proceeds, the identity of the captive young women’s unseen oppressor is revealed. He is one General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a Harvey Weinstein-like figure with a bloated face and puffy, sausage-like fingers. As Weinstein once had, Dreykov has absolute power over his small army of talented women, whom he intimidates by closing distance with them, breathing into their faces, and pawing at them with his beefy hands. (The visual similarities between Weinstein and Winstone make Winstone’s scenes even more unsettling: Winstone’s Dreykov sports a few days’ worth of stubble, wears expensive suits, and leans into the overbearing impression which his size allows him to create.) The connection between Dreykov and Weinstein becomes obvious when Natasha finally has him on the ropes and pointedly asks him, “When was the last time that you had a conversation with somebody that wasn’t forced to talk to you?” With the energy of the #MeToo metaphor behind it, Natasha’s defeat of Dreykov and liberation of his imprisoned women is especially gratifying.

And that’s the key to keeping the painful allegorical subtexts of the film from overwhelming its pleasures as entertainment. Ultimately, the spectacle at work in Black Widow isn’t just in the gasp-inducing action scenes, and the joy of the film isn’t just in the daffy and but genuine conversations in the family scenes; it’s in Natasha’s and Yelena’s commitment and determination to free the women under Dreykov’s control, and to free themselves from their painful pasts in the process. Taking down Dreykov is both a mission and a lark to the two daring, hypercompetent young women, who visibly enjoy their own death-defying heroics (as do we). Yelena in particular relishes her newfound freedoms. She says, “I never had control over my life before, and now I do. I want to do things!” Yelena will be a worthy successor to Natasha’s Black Widow, and her warm heart, quick wit, and no-nonsense personality will make her a treat to follow in future chapters of the Marvel saga. While it’s a shame that Natasha likely won’t join her for future heroics, it’s satisfying in this movie to see Natasha join Yelena to wipe away some of the “red in their ledgers” through their courageous action on behalf of the voiceless girls and women they save, giving them back their choices and their lives.