Saturday, 24 July 2021


Beware! Plot Spoilers below!

Given that Natasha (aka the Black Widow) first appeared in the third Marvel Comics Universe film, ‘Iron Man 2’, back in 2010, there are those who have seen this solo outing as somewhat overdue. And this is almost literally true, you need to retrofit its events between already released films.

But perhaps the much-criticised delay was in part down to a wariness over how to do it. Natasha’s more spy than superhero, a creature of the shadows. And how do you spotlight that? As I said at the time, despite all the shared screen time, ‘Captain America The Winter Soldier’ (2014) got its title for a reason - Cap was the moral centre of the film. She inhabited the blurred line between right and wrong he fell into and struggled with. But what does a shadow do when there’s no goody-two-shoes for her to cast against?

One solution is to hold her at a distance. She’s twice shown as ahead, not just of other characters in the film but of us in the audience. Early on, she leads an enemy - and with him us - to believe she’s still in a building she’s already flown. And in the finale her plot to defeat Dreykov is revealed to us piece-by-piece, by repeated flashbacks. In this genre plots and calculation are more commonly seen as a villain’s thing, against which the hero brings his innate virtue and bulging biceps. All this helps her keep her anti-hero credentials.

And so we’re given not a new Cap but more Widows. With the help of one real sister (Yelena) and several proverbial ones (the amassed Widows), she works to overthrow the manipulating Dreykov. It’s almost the ‘Marvel Team-Up’ scenario, where the girls first tight one another, then figure out they’re better off working together. Even the armour-clad adversary Taskmaster, this film’s equivalent of the Winter Soldier, turns out to be another Widow, and hence turnable. (I plead guilty to first assuming she was male, and now have to march at the back on demos.)

The only man in on their plot is the sisters’ father, Alexi, a boastful but bumbling and ineffective figure. (Though there seems no continuity between how he’s played in the opening flashback and later.) In one gag he speaks into his comms, only to be told they didn’t bother issuing him with any. This isn’t just to give the show a clown, it provides a contrast between the weak father and Dreykov, the ‘bad Dad’. In a great gag, once free of Dreykov’s control Yelena immediately goes for every girls’ dream - clothing with pockets.

When Natasha confronts Dreykov, the twist is that he’s saddled her with a “pheromone lock”. This latest piece of sci-fi gobbledygook makes less sense than usual. Once she smells him she’s rendered incapable of fighting him. So did he have to avoid showering prior to the showdown? But pheromones are used by animals to perpetuate kinship, a notion often reinforced in popular culture. (Remember those Lynx adverts?) So this establishes Bad Dad as Natasha’s True Dad, the strong man, rather than the semi-useless Alexi.

And Natasha reacts in typical fashion. Just as she did with Loki back in ‘The Avengers’, she uses her enemy’s hubristic boasting against him. She goats him into breaking her nose, blocking her capacity to smell him and so breaking her link to him as pack leader.

So does that make this an anti-patriarchal film? Plenty will argue so, and from both sides of the ‘culture war’ divide. And Marvel seem smart enough to have clocked that the frothings of the anti-woke mob give them free publicity, so are worth stirring up. (Though intriguingly, and alarmingly, Marvel boss Isaac Perlmutter is a yuge Trump donor.)

But there’s another way of reading that moment. Remember her now-notorious line in ‘Age Of Ultron’ (2015)? Revealing to Bruce Banner she’d been sterilised by the Widow programme she adds “you still think you’re the only monster on the team?” And we’re reminded of this when Alexei sarcastically asks Yelena “is it that time of the month?”, for her to explain the details of her forced hysterectomy. (Admittedly a good moment in itself, nailing us boys’ yukkiness at female biology.)

In that context the significance of that nosebleed takes another turn. You don’t need the most vivid of imaginations to see it as representing the return of menstrual blood. Tied in with her gaining her freedom from Bad Dad, with her de-monstering of herself, is the re-establishing of her womanhood. In other words, if this film is opposed to patriarchy it’s a patriarchy which doesn’t define and then place you in the role of ‘woman’, it’s one which specifically denies you that role. In other words, it’s not any kind of anti-patriarchy at all.

And the film pulls off another conceit on the back of that. The backstory has to be dated to the Nineties to work chronologically, but it breezily folds that era into the Cold War in order to re-establish the familiar formula: East = tyranny, West = individual freedom. Natasha’s family may be somewhat matrilinear, but family is still what this film is somewhat obsessively about. Sheep would be easier to count than the number of times that word is used. And as their family is split up immediately on returning to the East, it’s effectively treated as an American import. (Anyone familiar with the sexual politics of Stalinism is here invited to laugh risibly.) So when family = good, we can bet collectively = bad. In fact here collectivity isn’t associated just with conformity but complete mind control.

What we have then, is an apparent individuality which is actually based on a kind of essentialism. A contradiction which is liberal thinking in a nutshell.

It might be objected that most viewers are unlikely to think any of this, and are more likely to come out the cinema saying “cool white costume” or “that Black Widow, she kicks ass!” And even Freud once said a broken nose was just a broken nose. (Or something like that anyway.) But the subliminal nature is precisely the problem. It’s the odourless smells which travel the furthest. And patriarchy is probably the most deep-rooted, the most ‘naturalised’ of all oppressions. You almost don’t need to try to reinforce it, you just need to rub with the grain.

And the serum comes in here, Soviet collectivist ideology in bottled form, at odds with ‘human nature’ and therefore switch-offable by a plot MacGuffin, which essentially provides instant deprogramming.

We are probably better off looking to Hollywood for textbook examples of the disease rather than expecting them to administer any cure. (Particularly any cure not reducible to magic red pixie dust.) But then neither should we entirely forget the first explanation for that busted nose. Perhaps it comes down to the nature of the ‘culture wars’, where legitimate questions about representation are reduced to a crude form of accountancy, until supposedly progressive voices become no more than a kind of mirror image of the anti-‘woke’ mob. Many fans uncritically lauded ‘Black Panther’ (2018) for having a a black lead, overlooking a plot about a born royal reclaiming his throne from an ignoble troublemaker, in order to restore peaceful relations with the West.

The metafictional elements of the film come in here, with Natasha watching James Bond and Yelena teasing her for posing in fights and generally being a cover girl. But this gag rebounds. ‘Black Widow’ is much closer to the corporation who put a woman on the recruitment poster, and considers that job done. A cover girl with a broken nose is still a cover girl.

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