When it comes to Marvel's newest film, Black Widow, you have to dig a little to describe its laudable "firsts." It isn't the first female-directed superhero movie (Wonder Woman), or the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first female-fronted film (Captain Marvel). It wasn't even going to be the first female-fronted superhero movie to come out in 2020, since both Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 beat it to the draw (Black Widow's Friday release date reflects its many pandemic-related delays). Still, you can find ways to make the movie novel if you extend yourself: Black Widow technically holds the distinction of being "the first ever mainstream, big-budget Hollywood summer movie with Jewish women" as its star and producer, director, and supporting actress, The Times of Israel points out.
It is safe to say the era of the female-fronted, women-directed action movie is definitely here when there is nothing especially noteworthy about Black Widow's existence. And thus relieved of the burden of proving that girls can also kick the butts of thinly-written CGI villains, Black Widow actually has some room to breathe. More importantly, we — the female audiences who've spent years being pandered to by studios that think a "Lady Avengers, unite!" scene counts as feminism — do too.
There was a long, frustrating journey to reach the point of Black Widow, though. With a few noteworthy exceptions, female-led superhero movies have been cringe-worthy affairs. They've offered chances for the studios — acutely aware of their historic hostility toward their own female IP — to overcorrect with dumbed-down ideas of what counts as "empowering." Women were simply asking for equal representation, not eye-roll-inducing moments like the one in Dark Phoenix when Raven says, "by the way, the women are always saving the men around here — you might want to think about changing the name to X-Women." (Groan). Having the opportunity to watch something that isn't actively regressive because it's trying so hard to put its female characters on a pedestal shouldn't be a big ask.
There is a certain poetic justice, then, to Black Widow being the movie to pull this balance off, in part because its titular superhero has received some of the worst treatment by Marvel over the years. Introduced 11 years ago in Iron Man 2 (2010), Natasha Romanoff (AKA the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson), was long the lone female hero in the blockbuster franchise — and the "ogling" of her by the male members of the audience was all but invited. In her introductory scene, Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, asks Pepper Potts who Natasha is. "Potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit," Pepper replies. Tony then Googles pictures of Natasha in her underwear and announces: "I want one."
By 2015's release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the treatment of Black Window wasn't improving. Marvel neglected to sell Black Widow merchandise when there were abundant T-shirts and toys available for the other male Avengers. Though the studio kept promising a stand-alone Black Widow movie was on the way, it would take another half a decade to materialize. Then, in one Age of Ultron interview, actors Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner, who play Captain America and Hawkeye respectively, joked that Natasha Romanoff was a "slut" and a "whore." As if that wasn't bad enough, Natasha's emotional struggle in the movie centered tactlessly on how her inability to ever become a biological mother makes her a "monster." Her arc's definitive conclusion in Avengers: Endgame in 2019 was widely considered a further disappointment.
The Endgame prequel Black Widow, though, isn't desperate to right the studio's wrongs, nor is it a tokenized version of marketable girl power, meant to sell Halloween costumes to kids who've outgrown Elsa. Without the burden of having to direct what is functionally a statement for the studio, director Cate Shortland has made an absolutely delightful film that is fun not because it's a "female-fronted action movie," but simply because it's a really good action movie. The story is set in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War (though having seen that movie isn't necessary for enjoyment) and follows Natasha back through her past as she tries to destroy the Red Room, a Soviet-era spy program that produces brainwashed female killers. And if that vaguely Cold War plot sounds James Bond-y, well, Shortland is aware; Natasha, it turns out, knows all the words to Moonraker.
The movie's purpose as an object of entertainment rather than a declaration of female superherohood is reinforced by the appearance of Natasha's little sister, Yelena (played by Florence Pugh with a healthy channeling of Jodie Comer). A fellow Red Room-trained killer, Yelena has no patience for the Avengers — and you get the sense she'd hate movies like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, too. In one of the best comedic scenes in the movie, Yelena mocks Natasha for her "fighting pose," the sexy-if-totally-impractical move she strikes in those ra-ra-girl power moments. There are no skintight suits to be seen either; Yelena wears a vest with pockets that Natasha teases her looks like it's from an Army surplus store (later, during an all-female fight scene, everyone has on practical footwear). Neither Yelena nor Natasha has a romantic interest in the course of the movie either. As far as manifestations of obvious feminism go, there is only the fact that menstrual periods are an unblushing on-screen topic.
It is a different moment, though, that stands out most: when Yelena shakes off the chance of being merchandised by the Marvel apparatus. "I'm not the killer little girls call their hero," Yelena tells her sister. And more to the point, it's actually true; she doesn't have a distinctive costume, and I'm not sure many parents would be rushing out to buy one anyway for a character who throws back beers and calls her sister a "b--ch" in Russian. When superhero films like Wonder Woman all but exist to sell toys and T-shirts, that's a curious choice — one that seems to acknowledge the messy personhood of Yelena's character, and allows her to be more than just a walking, talking motivational poster.
Perhaps Marvel was simply content to let Yelena's character go. After all, in their pipeline already is Lady Thor and rumors of a female Black Panther, both of whom will no doubt continue the trend of female superhero characters saddled with the responsibility of being Disneyfied role models for young girls — thereby wiping them of any chance to be actually interesting or complex people. But without needing to be the "first" of anything this time around, Black Widow became something else: the first superhero movie I've loved in years — no "female" qualifier needed.