Roundtable Review: Black Widow & The Future Of The MCU

Black Widow. Marvel Studios. 2021.

After several delays, Black Widow was finally released in July 2021. WWAC’s Louis, Lola, and Gretchen discuss what they enjoyed about the film, where it could have been improved, and how Black Widow impacts the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Black Widow

Cate Shortland (director), Gabriel Beristain (cinematographer), Leigh Folsom Boyd and Matthew Schmidt (editors), Eric Pearson (screenplay), Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson (writers)
Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone (cast)
Marvel Studios
July 9, 2021

Black Widow movie poster

We’ve been waiting so long for this film. Now that it’s out, what did you think?

Louis: I thoroughly enjoyed Black Widow! I had managed to avoid all promotional materials (including trailers and GIFs) so I went in there knowing absolutely nothing. I love watching superhero films with no prior knowledge so everything’s a surprise.

Lola: I loved it. And I was veeerrrry skeptical going into it because of being let down by movies like this in the past. But even if you didn’t know much about the MCU, I feel like it was a very enjoyable complete action movie by itself. I love action movies, especially ones that manage to balance killer fight scenes with humor and some heartfelt moments in between. It hit all the right notes for me!

Gretchen: I was also a big skeptic about this film — I’ve never been a big fan of ScarJo, and the fact that Natasha is already dead killed much of my excitement to see it right when it dropped. But I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would. It’s a solid spy thriller, and I’m bummed that Marvel couldn’t get it together to debut this years ago — like, in 2016, right after Civil War — when it would’ve had the most impact and made the most sense.

What worked for you in Black Widow?

Louis: The family dynamic, particularly between Natasha and Yelena, was so much fun. I thought the action was some of the best in the MCU. There was something visceral about the hand-to-hand combat — I could feel the punches through the screen. I also thought Taskmaster was an intriguing villain and there’s plenty of room for the character to grow in the universe.

Lola: Those action scenes were killer. In comparison, the action scenes in Birds of Prey felt like they were trying too much to be hardcore. These felt SO cool and badass but natural. I love action scenes that have a bit of humor (like the car chase in Budapest) and are visually beautiful (the helicopter lifting out of the avalanche had me jumping out of my seat). It hit all the same feels for me that Mad Max: Fury Road did. Here’s an action movie for me as a femme, not just an action movie that happens to have more than the bare minimum of women.

Gretchen: Ok I have to defend Birds of Prey here because I thought those fight scenes were also fantastic, but I agree that Cate Shortland, along with cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, absolutely captured how brutal hand-to-hand combat can be. And I loved how you were just tossed into the story and how gritty and not “Typical MCU Superhero Aesthetic” it was. It felt perfectly in line with spy films like Mission Impossible and Jason Bourne. I also thought Dreykov — who spits that girls are a “natural resource the world has too much of” at one point — was written as the perfectly despicable, slimy villain to explore themes of abuse, consent, and agency.

Natasha, Yelena, and Melina in Black Widow.

Can you pinpoint any areas for improvement in Black Widow?

Louis: While I enjoyed the new characters, Black Widow felt like Avengers 4.5 instead of a solo film for Natasha Romanoff. Considering this is her final outing, I would have liked for her to get a bit more screen time.

Lola: I don’t know that this is an area for improvement, but I found it very interesting that they set up this movie by focusing on Natasha’s “Americanness.” I’ve done some research before on Cold War themes in American cinema and that opening set off ALL the red flags for me. But then surprisingly it didn’t go in that super anti-Russian/Soviet direction. The bad guy was mainly General Dreykov himself as a singular bad guy who happened to have Russian backing. Another thing was that Yelena (versus Natasha) still has her Russian accent even though she would have learned multiple languages in the Red Room and could probably speak standard English without trouble. I need to do a second watching to fully develop my thoughts on this though. When I got all excited about the Cold War implications during the “Miss American Pie” song part, my partner politely asked that I try watching the first time just for fun. So I tried to turn off my inner academic (a little at least).

Gretchen: Ok I’m going to preface this by saying: Yelena was my favorite character in this film, and I have loved Florence Pugh’s work since Midsommar. I’m excited to see her potentially be the next Black Widow of the MCU. But it also doesn’t escape my notice that they had an opportunity to set up a woman of color to join the Avengers and they just…decided to not do that? Once again? We see them rescue a bunch of nameless Widows of color at the end of the film, and tragically we see two of them die at the start. But they’re all ultimately just window dressing in Natasha’s family’s story. It’s not Black Widow‘s sole job to fix this, I understand. But there’s a definite pattern in the MCU that, at this point, is impossible to ignore. If it’s a story touting a “kick-ass female character,” she’s very likely going to be white. And if there’s a woman of color in there somewhere, she’s very likely going to be a sidekick, or a complete background character. Twenty-four films and several shows in, this has become both predictable and exhausting. It’s tiring to turn on one of the few films about super heroines and see that the only woman who looks like you gets stabbed in the stomach within the first five minutes.

Also, in the wake of Marvel already getting criticized about the fat Thor jokes, the camera zooming right in on Alexei’s stomach as he struggled to squeeze into his old suit could’ve been left out. (Stop taking jabs at David Harbour’s body! Justice for Hot Dad David Harbour!)

What were your feelings about Black Widow, the character, before this film was released? Have they changed because of the film?

Louis: I’ve had such mixed feelings about Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and that’s mainly because of the largely male writers and directors who’ve been working on the character. In the MCU, Black Widow has far too often been relegated to the “girl” role. She’s the sexy girl, the soft girl, the badass girl, but she’s, at the end of the day, “the girl” on the team. This film gave us much more of her and it’s changed my perspective on the character. She isn’t just a fighter, she’s someone whose happy (albeit fake) home and family were stolen from her. Natasha has had to learn all these skills to hurt but she’s instead used them to help. She feels guilt but isn’t consumed by it—she knows how to move on without forgiving herself. I hate that we’ve had to wait this long for all these aspects of Natasha’s personality to be explored. Because now she’s gone from the MCU.

Lola: YES! Exactly, Louis! I’m mad that we finally get some growth for Natasha… and she’s already been fridged. (Yes, I consider her death a fridging for a lot of reasons, but that’s not what this roundtable is about.) I honestly shied away from her in the comics for the same reasons Louis mentioned. I don’t like when the female character feels tokenized or oversexualized, and until really recently she usually felt like both. A former spy in a black catsuit called Black Widow? Cliche, much? I liked how she was the linchpin to the plot in the first Avengers movie, but since then she’s hardly had much screen time. I was a little miffed that they made the Black Widow movie an ensemble and not just about the title character, but after seeing it I was won over. So have my feelings changed much? No, probably not. But I was pleasantly surprised by what they achieved in this film to fight the character’s past and it gives me hope for the future.

Gretchen: Agree with Louis and Lola that it’s such a travesty that they didn’t debut this film until after Natasha died. Her characterization has always been pretty uneven, so whether or not I like Natasha has always depended on the film. We saw her be more vulnerable in Winter Soldier and Endgame, but she’s largely been this kind of smirking, omniscient, perfectly done up figure. It wasn’t really until Black Widow that we saw all the cracks. She’s bitter! She’s a terrible sister! She dyed her hair blue as a kid! I wish I saw this side of her earlier.

Natasha, Alexei, and Yelena in 'Black Widow.'

Black Widow was supposed to be Natasha Romanoff’s solo vehicle but it’s actually got quite an ensemble cast. Which characters stood out for you and why?

Louis: Yelena stole the show for me. I love a snarky, funny character who is also incredibly good at her job and isn’t afraid of her emotions. Yelena was the whole package for me. I had serious doubts going in whether I would like her but I absolutely adore her. Her dynamic with Natasha was adorable and relatable. I’m a sucker for great sisters and Yelena was the perfect choice for Natasha’s sister. I wish they’d had more time together.

Lola: I mean clearly Yelena was the best part of the movie. The “this would be a cool way to die” bit and the “such a poser” comments were my favorite. Turns out the posing commentary was an off-screen joke by Florence Pugh that got written in and I loved it. She played Yelena with this great mix of acerbic wit and fatalistic enthusiasm. Maybe that character resonated with me because she’s so clearly a millennial with the theme of hope turned to disillusionment. The way they handled Alexei stood out to me in the fact that they managed to underplay or subvert his traditional role. Every time he tried to have one of those big patriarchal emotional scenes something interrupted it or it turned out SUPER awkward. The icehouse story was just… I died laughing. Turning him into basically a big himbo that instead highlighted how badass the ladies were was awesome.

Gretchen: I absolutely loved Yelena’s dark humor and how she played off Natasha’s older sister jadedness. I liked Melina’s cool rationality mixed with Alexei’s weepy arrogance. As someone with also has a younger sister and two parents who feel like complete opposites, all their bickering felt like a love language.

Do you see Black Widow actually having an impact on the MCU? Is there room for a sequel or two? Can the characters appear in other films and shows?

Louis: I haven’t heard anything about sequels to Black Widow but there’s potential for a trilogy. It’s quite possible to have an entire trilogy set between Infinity War and Endgame where Natasha and her family go around helping fellow Widows and saving the world. Alternatively, future films could focus on Yelena taking over the Black Widow mantle and joining the Avengers. I can see that happening. Yelena seems to be destined for the Hawkeye series, which is exciting. I would love to see her and Kate Bishop team up. As for tying into the MCU proper, the Avengers could do with a whole bunch of highly-trained assassin-spies spread all over the world. If you look at the major battles against Thanos, the Wakandan army was a huge asset. The Widows could easily become an army of their own and fight alongside the Avengers!

Lola: I definitely hope Yelena picks up the Black Widow mantle and joins the Avengers. Her verbally sparring with the dudes? Sharing knowing looks with Okoye? Perfection. I’m a little nervous about them setting her up to be the bad guy in Hawkeye. Maybe she’ll switch sides quickly and team up with Kate Bishop? Sadly, I don’t see Black Widow having much of an impact on the MCU. Could the story support at least one more movie? Sure! Will they actually do it? Nah. I liked this movie better than Wonder Woman but the character of Black Widow doesn’t have the same name recognition. Maybe, just maybe there could be a TV show on the Widows regaining their lives or starting their own organization? I could see that being more likely with all these offshoots for Disney+ they’re making. But I won’t hold my breath. I think Disney is going to celebrate that Black Widow wasn’t a complete flop and then focus on casting yet another new Spider-Man. (No that’s not been rumored, but come on. You know they’re gonna do that before we get another Black Widow.) I wish they’d adapt The Unstoppable Wasp now since they’ve introduced the Red Room. Since they’ve also introduced the multiverse it could work! And they don’t have enough shows yet for YA audiences.

Gretchen: I agree with Lola that Disney+ seems like the most likely vehicle for any kind of Black Widow sequel. I’m not a huge fan of Yelena being tied to Valentina because then I have to remember John Walker, who I’d frankly rather forget. But I am excited at the prospect of seeing her kick Clint’s ass.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir
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