There’s nothing like car chases and exploding cloud-fortresses to get you weepy about the mighty force of sisterhood, eh? Black Widow, the latest showing from Marvel Studios’s ambitious Phase 4 rollout, is the first to bring two sister assassins together to helm one of the franchises’s box office behemoths. Although the prequel was conceptualized, in part, as a way to right the wrong of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)’s eternal sidelining over the course of 10 years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow ends up a story primarily about family: who makes them, why we fight with them, and why we’ll die fighting for them. Initially convinced she deserves to be alone, Natasha learns by movie’s end that she has, of course, never really been alone at all. It’s a sweet, if kitschy, moral to the story.
Yet it’s not Natasha herself but Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, Natasha’s long-lost sister, who ultimately makes the final product worth the price of admission (or $29.99 on Disney+). Pugh plays the tragicomic former brainwasheé with a degree of complexity that Johansson is (and was) rarely given the room to fill out. One moment breezy and ruthless as she tears apart her sister’s performative posing, she just as quickly darkens when Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), the girls’ one-time adoptive father figure, admits he was bored with their peaceful undercover life in Ohio. She’s upset that anyone could argue her childhood wasn’t “real;” she remembers it as the one authentic joy of her life. Only when Alexei begins to speak-sing the words to “American Pie” does the light slowly return to her face.
The rest of the story follows Natasha’s redemption arc, as she seeks to clear the “red from her ledger” by tracking down the Red Room operation that forcibly transformed her, Yelena, and hundreds of others into killers. “Girls: the one resource the world has too much of,” justifies Dreykov, the undeniably sinister but confusingly motivated founder of the Red Room, who kidnaps young girls (often poor, immigrant ones like Natasha and Yelena) for brainwashing and tactical training. Natasha’s purpose in Black Widow is to destroy this operation forever; Yelena’s is to realize Natasha’s legacy is worth something.
In the original Marvel comics that introduced her, Yelena was a cruder figure, a Red Room assassin who believed herself the rightful owner of the “Black Widow” title. She was not Natasha’s sister but her fiercest rival, only eventually convinced of doing “the right thing” after multiple story arcs. In the film, Yelena is retconned as an innocent little girl who fully believes Natasha to be her sister whilst the two of them ride bikes and attempt backbends in Ohio. The young Natasha, already in the midst of her Red Room training, knows the truth. She attempts to protect Yelena from Dreykov’s manipulation, only for the two of them to be tossed into a shipping container, ferried away to the facility, and separated from each other for years of brutal training. Their eventual reunion, decades later, feels more in line with the comics: They spar, furious at the physical and figurative distance that’s come between them. Natasha has moved on. Yelena feels abandoned. Natasha thinks herself a hero. Yelena is under no such delusion.
But as the film progresses—as they total cars in Budapest, bring the floating Red Room down to a blazing heap, and trade vests—Yelena’s childlike admiration of Natasha returns. She sees the Avenger the assassin is trying to be, and her earlier barb–“I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero”—loses some (though not all) of its ferocity. She sees a way of life for herself, one that could recall, if not the joy, then perhaps the purpose of her childhood.
So it’s not surprising to watch as Yelena cleans up the flowers and gifts at the foot of Natasha’s present-day grave in Black Widow‘s post-credits scene. Somehow, she has learned of Natasha’s sacrifice to ultimately defeat Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, but she clearly doesn’t have all the information. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine appears, Yelena takes her words at face value. (Perhaps they’ve worked together before, or Valentina has recruited her as she did John Walker in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier?) Valentina convinces her that the man responsible for Natasha’s death is not Thanos but Clint Barton, Natasha’s former S.H.I.E.L.D partner and the fellow Avenger known as Hawkeye.
Certainly this scene’s purpose is largely to set up Disney+’s Hawkeye series, set to premiere later this year. But it also raises a question about Yelena herself: Who is she now? Is she working with Valentina? Might she take on the Black Widow mantle?
In the comics, that’s exactly what happens. In the wake of Natasha Romanoff’s death in the crossover event Secret Empire, Yelena honors the late Widow by donning her title. We know the Yelena of the film is skeptical of Natasha’s born-again hero identity, but might she have changed her mind following Endgame? We won’t know until Hawkeye arrives and Pugh puts her martial arts skills to the test once more. Here’s hoping she returns with a vest emblazoned with the Black Widow logo—and, of course, tricked out with many more pockets.
Watch Black Widow on Disney+
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