The latest big-screen Marvel movie is about family versus the totalizing demands of a society that sees fertility and parenthood as an inconvenience. Black Widow focuses on super-spy Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), a woman with a dark past who became a mainstay of the Avengers, earth’s mightiest heroes. Natasha navigates a world much like ours: governments are largely untrustworthy, Cold War resentments linger, and the powers-that-be hate and fear women’s fertility. The film's thrills and twists make for an enjoyable spy caper, as Natasha confronts ghosts of her past that illustrate the uneasy place of women, children, and family in a world of hegemonic powers.
The Black Widow of Marvel’s comic books was created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Don Heck. She began as a villainous Russian femme fatale and KGB operative, but eventually defected to the U.S. and joined S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s good-guy spy organization. In previous Marvel movies, Johansson’s cinematic Black Widow has been laconic about her past, sharing simply that she has “red in her ledger” that she wants to wipe clean—specifically her service to a sinister organization called the Red Room. In this movie, directed by Cate Shortland, we finally get more than a glimpse into that backstory.
The film opens with a flashback set in Ohio, introducing a normal American family: Natasha is a scrappy child playing with her little sister Yelena, while the girls’ parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) watch over them fondly. The portrait of Midwestern domestic bliss is shattered when dad announces it's time to race to a hidden prop plane and take off before the American authorities catch them. As it turns out, he’s a Russian spy who's just completed his mission. The apparently happy family is fake, a deep cover ruse. The four of them land in Cuba where, with dad’s approval, the girls are shuffled into the Red Room’s brutal training program, destined to be turned into weapons, into “Widows.” Eventually, Natasha and Yelena are separated.
Their totalitarian leaders have contempt for women and family life. The head of the Red Room, General Dreykov, boasts that his schemes make use of “the only natural resource that the world has too much of. Girls.” To Dreykov, children are raw material, women are pawns, and romance and family life are mere tactics of subterfuge and manipulation.
The film, of course, isn’t counting family out just yet. Years after entering the Red Room, Natasha, on the run from the U.S. government, is pulled out of hiding by a family reunion of sorts. She’s lying low when Yelena (a magnetic Florence Pugh) crashes back into her life. At their reunion, the younger operative reveals that the temporary family life they had as children was achingly real to her. Their quest for answers leads them to the man they once called father, now no longer undercover (though inconveniently locked in a Siberian prison).
David Harbour brings schlubby charisma to the role of Alexei Shoshtakov. He’s a washed-up Soviet supersoldier addicted to reminiscing about his glory days. Upon being sprung from prison, he greets his “daughters” with enthusiastic pride. Natasha has become a famous Avenger. And Yelena? “Yelena, you went on to become the greatest child assassin the world has ever known.”
The Widows aren’t having it. Yelena calls him out for handing them over to the cruel tutelage of Dreykov, and reveals one of the Red Room's terrible costs: At graduation, the Widows are sterilized. It’s a way to save the operatives from distractions. Yelena lists what was stolen from her: ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes.
The movie doesn't sit too long with how monstrous Alexei’s betrayal was. But as the story proceeds, the three team up to challenge the Red Room. Their “mother,” Melina, reappears too, though Natasha questions whether she is friend or foe. Will this reformed fake family implode, or will they manage to do something good together for those still under Dreykov’s thumb?
There are some obvious real-world parallels to the Red Room’s treatment of women and families. The historical Soviet Union is an easy one, but so is the Chinese Communist party, with its attempts at “population control.” Draconian measures like the One Child Policy stemmed from a fear that loyalty to family could compete with loyalty to the party, and often resulted in the abortion or infanticide of girls.
We in the West are not, of course, off the hook. I see casual anti-natalism daily from Americans who complain about governmental support for parents and babies, as if raising the next generation were a hobby and not an essential human activity. We can even see this kind of ugly attitude in those who have worked on this very franchise.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, director Joss Whedon introduced the idea that Natasha’s fertility had been stolen from her. But Whedon, it transpires, may not be so different from his villains. Actress Charisma Carpenter alleges that Whedon treated her with cruelty and contempt during her pregnancy. According to Carpenter, after she told him she was having a baby, Whedon called her into a closed-door meeting to ask if she “was going to keep it.” Carpenter writes, “He proceeded to attack my character, mock my religious beliefs, accuse me of sabotaging the show, and then unceremoniously fired me the following season once I gave birth.” Like the Red Room, Hollywood sets run by men like Whedon have little use for women who have embraced motherhood.
For bastions of the progressive capitalist entertainment industry no less than for Soviet supervillains, the age-old process of childbirth and family formation presents a threat to be managed rather than an opportunity to be embraced. Black Widow takes this theme in an unexpectedly heartwarming direction: Perhaps even the bonds of a fake family might be enough to topple a regime that hates family life. I can only hope this helps inspire everyone battling little Dreykovs in their governments, communities, and workplaces.
Alexi Sargeant is a cultural critic, writer, and editor.
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