Marvel’s Long-Awaited Spin-off is a Soaring Feminist Success that Showcases the Studio at its Best

by Hassan Ilahi

Strong superheroines that aren’t sexualized are scarcely seen in Marvel’s male-dominated movies. Following its 2010 launch of Black Widow, the company has developed a misogynistic trend for objectifying heroines through the male gaze. With her promiscuous poses, scantily clad costumes and luminous looks, Black Widow has proven that heroine’s roles in comic-book movies are starkly limited to being bo-thor-some sexual objects that are harassed with hawk-like eyes by hulk-some heroes. Despite her sex appeal, however, Black Widow has always represented a stinging step backwards for a company that’s otherwise created empowering superheroines. As 2019’s Captain Marvel claimed, women don’t need to uncover their clothing to be marvelled at. Why, then, has the company disappointed fans for a decade by depriving its superheroine of her standalone movie?

Now, Marvel returns to the big-screen and marvel-lously fulfills fans’ expectations by finally giving its superheroine spotlight she deserves in its long-awaited film Black Widow. A comical, action-packed and engrossing espionage thriller, it demonstrates Marvel has made progress towards representation. With her first blockbuster, Cate Shortland reimagines Marvel’s sexualized superheroine through feminist perspective. Packed with spellbinding cinematography, exhilarating espionage and extraordinary performances, it’s a successful spin-off. Although Black Widow is undeniably entertaining, ultimately it isn’t a flawless film. Its story is conventional, and lacks larger-than-life antagonists. Nonetheless, it provides light-hearted entertainment that will delight Marvel’s fanbase.

Black Widow follows a fugitive superheroine that embarks on life-threatening expedition to confront her frightening past. Scarlett Johansson reprises the role of Natasha Romanoff, a secretive spy that yearns to escape her traumatic past as a child-trafficking victim. However, Natasha’s past comes back to bite her following an unexpected family reunion. Assisted by her enigmatic sibling Yelena (Florence Pugh), Natasha seeks vengeance against perpetrators. Without the Avengers, Natasha discovers identity.

Director Cate Shortland is familiar with themes of feminist self-discovery. Ever since she achieved critical recognition with “Somersault” in 2004, Shortland has proven to be a fantastic female filmmaker. Her directorial debut Somersault offered a provocative look at an adolescent girl’s journey to discover her sexual identity. With Black Widow, however, Shortland has created her first femalecentric comic-book blockbuster. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to reinvigorate Marvel’s over-sexualized superheroine from a feminist perspective, but she pulls it off successfully. Using spellbinding cinematography, Shortland draws viewers into a fugitive superheroine’s journey to overcome her frightening past. Whereas previous MCU movies (ex. 2012’s The Avengers) objectified Natasha’s body through camerawork, Shortland sensibly takes a different approach with Black Widow. Instead, she consciously strives not to eroticize Natasha’s body through hand-held shots. Working alongside cinematographer Gabriel Bernstein, Shortland adeptly employs hand-held camerawork to emphasize Natasha’s fight skills over body. Inspired by 2017’s Wonder Woman, hand-held cinematography showcases Natasha’s strengths without objectification. As symbols of female empowerment, hand-held shots showcase Marvel’s commitment towards representation. Shortland excels at reinventing the heroine, and her latest feature is worth watching in theatres as a result.

If backstories behind vengeful superheroines do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to watch Black Widow. Shortland excels at orchestrating action sequences that demonstrate Natasha’s fractured family dynamic. In most comic-book blockbusters, action sequences merely represent mindless spectacle and normally distract from storytelling. Fortunately, though, Shortland steers clear of mindless action in Black Widow. Accompanied by stunt coordinator Rob Inch, Shortland competently utilizes action sequences to enhance storytelling by highlighting Natasha’s love-hate sibling relationship. For instance, action is utilized particularly well to convey family dynamics in the sequence where Natasha initially encounters her dysfunctional sister. During this nail-biting scene, Natasha engages in a barbaric brawl with her sister following 20 years of separation. It’s hard to not marvel at hand-to-hand combat that signals sibling tension between two sisters in a gritty style that evokes Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies. Through this Bourne-esque action, Shortland builds a realistic family dynamic that gives the superheroine humanity absent from previous iterations. Furthermore, Jany Temime’s costumes deserve praise. The costumes capture Natasha’s transformation throughout the MCU from hypersexualized stereotype into inspiring superheroine. Through extraordinary production values, Shortland builds feminist dynamics.

One can’t overlook phenomenal performances.

Scarlett Johansson delivers her finest performance to date as Black Widow. Following her first appearance in 2010’s Iron Man 2, Johansson has spent most of her career sidelined as a sexist object in Marvel’s comic-book films. With Black Widow, however, she’s finally given an opportunity to showcase emotional range in the role. In her final MCU appearance, Johansson captures a vulnerable aspect to the superheroine that fans have seldom seen before. With mesmerizing expressions, she conveys bravery, perseverance and heroism of a spy that attempts to overcome her traumatic childhood. It’s a marvelous performance that represents a fitting farewell to Marvel’s most misunderstood superheroine.

Florence Pugh is fantastic in the role of a ferocious spy that endeavors to escape shadows of her world-famous sibling. Inspired by Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, Pugh creates a strong female character driven by sisterly love. As Natasha’s fierce sibling Yelena, Pugh showcases knack for portraying love-hate relationships between sisters using nonverbal gestures. Whether she’s sarcastically mocking her sister’s sexual pose or enviously questioning her 20-year absence, Pugh expertly uses gestures to capture sisters’ feelings towards famous siblings. It’s a dazzling performance from Britain’s finest actress.

The final, most unforgettable standout is David Harbour. As Natasha’s wise-cracking patriarch, he’s gut-bustingly hilarious.

Despite its top-tier performances, however, Black Widow delivers low-key fan-service that falls infinitely short of its starkly superior predecessors. Shortland’s decision to focus solely on the spectacle of superhero fights is clever and innovative. However, it leaves no room for character development. For instance, we’re barely given reasons to care about Natasha beyond glimpses of her dark childhood as a human-trafficking survivor. Therefore, the movie doesn’t entirely give its heroine closure she deserves. Furthermore, the film suffers from lack of larger-than-life antagonists. Without spoiling anything, the villain Taskmaster is given a big plot twist that doesn’t entirely work. While this secret-identity plot twist worked for a villain like Mandarin in 2013’s Iron Man 3, it diminishes Taskmaster’s powers in this movie. For any comic-book movie to truly succeed, villains always need to come across as considerable threats for heroes. Marvel has always been renowned for its memorable villains, and in this sense Black Widow falls short of expectations.

On a final note, it’s worth mentioning that not everyone will withstand Black Widow’s stinging bite. Unlike Marvel’s family-friendly blockbusters, the movie’s darker tone won’t please children. The movie covers harrowing topics such as human-trafficking, female oppression and trauma that will frighten kids. Children that are sensitive towards realistic depictions of child-trafficking may be triggered by certain sequences. Due to its alarming subject, Black Widow won’t appeal towards children.

Ultimately, Black Widow is a solid spin-off that weaves tangled webs which often eclipse its pincerlike bite. An entertaining but conventional blockbuster, it proves heroines deserve recognition in comic-book movies. If The Avengers could save Marvel as a company, they would advise it to assemble heroines fans can marvel at without staring with hawk-like eyes at stark bodies.

Hassan’s Grade:  B+