‘Black Widow’ Pays Homage to Female Empowerment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Forrest Hartman


Black Widow

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material.

Available: In theaters and with Premier Access on Disney+


Although the push for a more inclusive movie industry should be both applauded and perpetuated, I am regularly frustrated by the way some media outlets blindly embrace the marketing wings of film studios. Readers likely remember the onslaught of stories about the representational importance of the 2019 blockbuster Captain Marvel. Not only did that movie break the glass ceiling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some argued, but it was an important move forward for cinema in general.


The progressive ideas expressed in such reviews are well meaning because representation does matter, and women are notoriously underrepresented on screens both big and small. Even a cursory look at the movie and TV industry demonstrates that – at least in the mainstream wing of the business – women get fewer key roles, are often presented primarily as sexual objects, and struggle to land work behind the scenes. In fact, it’s sad that the scales are this uneven more than two decades into the 21st century.



Because of that, it was a big deal when Marvel decided to throw a bone to women by allowing a female character to lead her own franchise. Trouble is that too many pundits decided that Marvel’s decision to simply deliver Captain Marvel was enough.  The creative forces behind the MCU were widely praised for the simple act of doing the right thing, and far too many failed to call Captain Marvel what it is: a subpar Marvel picture. In other words, when a female character was finally given the spotlight, she was forced to prove her worth with a script that was recklessly shoehorned into a cinematic universe that had been mostly assembled with meticulous care. While the intent may have been more than tokenism, the movie sure seemed like a haphazard stab at stemming legitimate accusations of sexism.  


Now that a few years have passed, I suggest we rethink some of the glowing reviews for Captain Marvel and remember the film for what it was: a halfhearted step in the right direction. Fortunately, 2021 proves that Captain Marvel wasn’t a one-off attempt to silence critics. With Black Widow, the MCU and director Cate Shortland have delivered a movie that is both better than Captain Marvel, and more empowering.


Black Widow is still far from perfect. It’s a comic book film and comes with all the flaws inherent to the genre. There are ridiculous moments, plot points that could be better developed and action sequences that are more about dropping jaws than exercising brains. But that’s the case with many films in the genre. Remember, for instance, that Iron Man 3 and the second Avengers films were merely serviceable.


Black Widow is a good, albeit not great, MCU film, yet it punches far above the class of Captain Marvel in several ways. First, the title character is not the only high-powered female on display.


The film, for those who have somehow avoided the hype, takes us back in time, filling in blanks surrounding Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) – aka Black Widow – the female Avenger whom we’ve watched fighting alongside Captain America and company in so many previous efforts. The movie primarily focuses on events that occurred right after those in Captain America: Civil War. That said, one needn’t go back and watch all the previous MCU films to enjoy this one. Knowing that Romanoff is a famous Avenger is preparation enough.



The plotting puts Romanoff in touch with her long-lost sister – Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). Viewers quickly learn that neither had an ideal childhood and that Natasha isn’t the only badass in the family. That means we have not one powerful female figure but two, and there are more as the film progresses. In fact, the only male figure in the film portrayed with as much import as the Natasha and Yelena is a Russian superhero dubbed Red Guardian (David Harbour), and he is largely used for comic relief. In other words, Natasha and her sis don’t need men to save them. Rather, it’s the men who get lessons in courage and determination.


The plot also seems perfect in the #MeToo era because Natasha learns that many young, Russian women are being manipulated into becoming elite assassins with a powerful mind-control device. This is an obvious metaphor for the fact that women are too-often treated as property or means to an end, especially when the prime villain, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), makes a point of stating that his army was built from the one resource the world has an overabundance of: women. This isn’t a subtle moment, but it is meaningful, in that too many in the world seem to agree with Dreykov. None of the thematic elements in Captain Marvel were this progressive or thoughtful. Rather, that film was heralded as a standout simply because Brie Larson was given a costume and the majority of lines. Shortland guides Black Widow with an adept hand and makes certain that this picture walks the talk.


As with most films in the MCU, there are plenty of moments requiring high-level suspension of disbelief. For instance, Natasha is ridiculously hard to kill for someone with no actual super powers. But she is a superhero, so you have to give her that, right? The plot could be smarter … or more inventive, in that “Black Widow” is a straightforward action movie. We learn about Natasha’s background, she learns about a great evil, and we follow her and her sister as they try to take it down.


The story doesn’t revolve around potential Armageddon (refreshing since most comic book movies have world-ending stakes these days), and we don’t get cameos from other Avengers. We also don’t get the immense creativity seen in the recent MCU TV series WandaVision, which – by the way – was also a better nod to female empowerment than Captain Marvel. But we do get an enjoyable picture that moves like lightning, packs a load of impressive action sequences, and punctuates the journey with characters who are likable and funny. In short, this is an MCU film that feels like it belongs in the MCU.



There is no obvious tokenism, and although Johansson and Pugh are quite beautiful, they aren’t (at least from my perspective) overly sexualized. As a man, making such a statement is dangerous … so I present it with humility. Perhaps, my perceptions have been adversely colored by decades of viewing the world through male eyes, and I apologize if so. But I think most would agree, this is a step up from the skimpy costuming of Wonder Woman and the ever-present onslaught of films where women are shown primarily as bikini models.


Natasha and Yelena wear well-designed costumes that do hug their bodies but also seem believable as combat apparel, in that they aren’t showing off as much skin as possible. Rather the outfits offer protection against a constant onslaught of shrapnel, yet seem flexible enough to allow the sisters to perform stunning feats of athleticism. This is a welcome choice because it encourages viewers to see these characters as more than eye candy, while also requiring a less-dramatic suspension of disbelief. I mean who hasn’t questioned why Wonder Woman would go into combat wearing the equivalent of a one-piece bathing suit, impenetrable skin notwithstanding?


As with all MCU films, you want to stick around for a post-credits sequence. It’s a good one that presumably plants seeds for future movies, while also sticking to the theme of female empowerment. 


Perhaps the most striking thing about Black Widow is that it’s good enough that a sequel is an appealing concept. The architects of the MCU made that possibility more difficult than one would hope in the last Avengers movie, but I’ll hold out hope. These characters inhabit a comic book world, and movie producers have a way of milking them for as much as they can. If Black Widow is the hit I suspect it to be, I’m sure cinematic life will find a way.  


Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a longtime entertainment journalist who teaches at the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at California State University, Chico.


For Highbrow Magazine


not popular
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider