Slight spoilers are ahead.
It doesn’t take long for Cate Shoreland’s Black Widow to establish itself as distinct from previous portrayals of its eponymous assassin. Ever since she was first introduced in Iron Man 2, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been the sexy Avenger, one who, as her sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) so comically points out, strikes a pose when she fights. That joke — expertly delivered by Pugh — is a perfect example of how the movie deftly uses comedy to undermine the tropes we’ve come to expect, all while exposing a dark truth: Even in the heat of battle, Natasha is there to be seen, and she knows it.
Yelena’s no-nonsense approach to the misogyny her older sister has had to absorb comes up again a little later, in a scene that serves as a useful prism through which to view the stark shift between a Black Widow shaped by the male gaze, and the one we hopefully will be looking to as the future of the franchise.
Leading up to the moment in question, Yelena and Natasha have just rescued their long-lost father figure, Alexei (David Harbour) from a Russian prison. He’s expressing his pride in these two women he once helped raise, but is drowned out by the engine of the plane they’re using to fly to safety. When Yelena does finally hear what he has to say though, she’s not impressed, which leads Alexei to use an expression beloved by sitcom bros through the ages: “Why the aggression, huh? It is your time of the month?”
As Yelena promptly reminds him, the answer is: *Eyeroll* no. She, like other Black Widow assassins created by the dreaded Red Room, was subjected to a forced hysterectomy during training, and therefore cannot menstruate. But Black Widow doesn’t let Yelena become the butt of a joke. Seeing that Alexei is visibly uncomfortable, she forges on, describing the procedure in graphic detail. “Yeah, that’s what happens when the Red Room gives you an involuntary hysterectomy. They kind of just go in [raises arms as if reaching up inside a woman] and they rip out all of your reproductive organs. [Gestures the act of ripping out with a deadpan look.] They just get right in there [continues to mime ripping and reaching up] and they chop them all away, everything out, so you can’t have babies.”
“You don’t have to get so clinical and nasty,” a queasy-looking Alexei says.
“Oh, well I was about to talk about Fallopian tubes, but okay,” Yelena quips back nonplussed, turning her gaze to the task at hand: maneuvering a clunky, out-of-date helicopter through the skies without being detected by their many enemies. She’s not there to make men feel comfortable. In an interview with The Truth and Movies podcast, Shoreland confirmed that the scene was actually written by an uncredited Nicole Holofcener as a response to stereotypically sexist jokes.
The fact that Black Widow assassins were forcibly sterilized isn’t in itself surprising — Natasha memorably shared the information with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, written and directed by Joss Whedon. In that film, though Natasha was made to belittle her traumatic experience as one that turned her into a “monster” who cannot have children, a line that was, and continues to be, met with justified outrage.
It’s hard not to read the scene in Black Widow as a cinematic subtweet of Whedon’s Age of Ultron script, especially given the tone that Johansson and Pugh have struck during the press tour leading up to the new movie’s release. Shoreland’s film is being openly positioned as a reframing of the Black Widow narrative, placing that character back in control of her own narrative — however bare-bones it may have been to begin with.
“You look at Iron Man 2, and while it was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualized, you know?” Johansson told Hello Beautiful in June. “Really talked about like she’s a piece of something, like a possession or a thing or whatever — like a piece of ass, really. And [Tony Stark] even refers to her as something like that at one point…and calls her a piece of meat.”
“This film is about the abuse of women,” Pugh told GamesRadar about Black Widow’s narrative pivot. “It’s about how they get involuntary hysterectomies by the age of eight. It’s about girls who are stolen from around the world. It’s so painful, and it’s so important.”
“The best thing about that is, it’s not layered with this colour of grey,” she added. “You’ll see these women strive and be strong, and they’re assassins – and yet they still need to discuss how they were abused. It’s an incredibly powerful piece.”
Black Widow finally gives Natasha justice, both by providing her with a backstory that finally feels like it’s there to serve her, instead of offering support to other (male) characters in the franchise, and also ret-conning some of the past injustices against her. Where Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) once saw a potentially “very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit,” we now see a daughter, a sister, and a lethal opponent. But that change can only take us so far, given that anyone who has seen Avengers: Endgame knows that Natasha isn’t long for this world. Her fate is to die so that Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) can retrieve the Soul Stone in order to help the Avengers defeat Thanos (Josh Brolin) once and for all. In that sense, Black Widow’s true power lies with Yelena, a character who isn’t burdened with the baggage of nine prior MCU appearances as a sex symbol.
Unlike Natasha, who has clawed back her agency after more than a decade, Yelena has a bank slate. She is only what we’ve seen so far: A fierce, funny, and determined woman. Certainly she has her own trauma to confront, not to mention a chip on her shoulder. But she has a story, she has a background, she has emotions, and aspirations. With her, Shoreland has given us a new Black Widow, with a different trajectory — one perhaps, without so much posing.