This article contains spoilers for Black Widow.
After 13 years and two dozen movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers little in the way of surprises, but Black Widow made me feel an emotion I’d never experienced while watching a Marvel movie before: fear. You see it in the eyes of a teenage Natasha Romanoff—not yet the titular Avenger, or even yet played by Scarlett Johansson—as she’s emerging from a shipping container in a dark warehouse, her face streaked with grime. As the harsh light of a flashlight makes her blink, we see that she’s surrounded by dozens of other girls, and though the image, sandwiched between the movie’s opening credits, only lasts for an instant, it hits with a power that, in this world where apocalypses are always averted and even death is not permanent, feels almost jarring. We’re not looking at a group of mutant teenagers bound for a future as X-Men, but at young women who’ve been taken off the streets, soon to be chemically controlled agents of the Soviet secret agency known as the Red Room. The Red Room’s “widows,” including Natasha, are usually depicted as seductive and lethal, killing machines in catsuits, but in that moment, they’re just girls, bound for a horrible fate that looks more like human trafficking than comic-book espionage.
Natasha doesn’t enter Black Widow with much in the way of backstory (nor does her standalone movie provide much—as Slate’s Karen Han points out, it’s more her sister’s origin story than it is hers), but she’s carrying plenty of baggage. What should have been the MCU’s first standalone entry devoted to a female protagonist arrives two years after Captain Marvel beat it to the punch, so late that the movie has to rewind the timeline several years just to find its heroine alive. In particular, it’s saddled with what may be the most controversial scene in the history of the franchise, the speech in Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron in which Natasha tells Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, what the Red Room did to her. (The debate stretched everywhere from the Daily Beast to the Washington Post, merited its own Vox explainer, and was briefly perceived as driving Whedon off Twitter.) There’s romance brewing between then, but Bruce tells her he can’t risk it, because giving into any strong emotion might turn him back into a monster. She understands, she tells him, because as part of the Red Room’s “graduation ceremony,” she was forcibly sterilized. “It’s efficient,” she explains. “One less thing to worry about, the one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier, even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”
I don’t have any interest in re-litigating a six-year-old internet controversy (here’s what I wrote about it at the time), but it’s clear that Black Widow director Cate Shortland and the movie’s screenwriters were well aware of it, and at times seem to have crafted their story specifically in response. That’s most true in a scene in the middle of the film when the adult Natasha (Johansson) and her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), reunite with Alexei (David Harbour), the Soviet superhero known as the Red Guardian. Alexei only briefly served as their father, during a three-year mission in which he, the two girls, and Melina (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who now works directly for the Red Room, went undercover as an American family in order to infiltrate a top-secret lab. But within seconds of being together, they’ve fallen into old patterns, as Alexei, whom Natasha has just punched in the face, asks if the girls are on edge because it’s that time of the month. “I don’t get my period, dipshit,” Yelena responds. “That’s what happens when the Red Room gives you an involuntary hysterectomy. They just go in and rip out all of your reproductive organs—chop them all away.”
What she’s is describing is an utter horror, but instead of mining it for pathos, the movie plays the moment as a grotesque comedy, focusing on Yelena’s desire to make her (former, fake) father squirm. Pugh drags out the word “rip” as if she’s pulling dough, and when she talks about the Red Room removing her internal organs, he hands do a swift chop-chop-chop, like she’s dicing vegetables. If Whedon viewed Natasha’s infertility as a dramatic metaphor, Shortland treats it in material terms. What was taken from her wasn’t her humanity, or her womanhood: It was flesh. In an interview with the Truth & Movies podcast, Shortland explained that the scene was written by an uncredited Nicole Holofcener as a response to Alexei’s period joke from an early draft. Rather than cutting out the offending line, Shortland said, Holofcener suggested throwing it back in his face. “That was fun, and made the film more robust, and made the girls tough,” Shortland said. “If you want to talk about it, let’s talk about it.”
That last line could almost be directed at Joss Whedon himself. Whether or not Age of Ultron’s Natasha believes that a forced hysterectomy makes her a monster—the years of serving as a full-time assassin might have something to do with it—she is saying it makes it impossible for her to be a mother, not just to physically bear a child but to form a bond with one that “might matter more than a mission.” Black Widow responds, in effect: Really? The movie’s core family is not a family in biological or legal terms, just two Soviet secret agents and two orphans on assignment. (We eventually find out that Natasha wasn’t even an orphan; she had a biological mother, one who wouldn’t stop looking for her and got murdered by the Red Room as a result.) But by the end of the story, they’ve formed a bond that’s effectively familial, and Natasha realizes that her fellow Avengers serve the same function for her. “I thought I had no family,” she concludes. “Turns out I have two.”
It’s a bit of a glib conclusion, and it glosses over some of the movie’s darker undercurrents, like the fact that Natasha and Yelena’s “parents” effectively left them for dead, and that Melina has since been the architect of the Red Room program that chemically stripped Yelena’s generation of widows of their free will. But the mandate to end on an up note doesn’t erase everything that’s come before. The first thing we see the adult Yelena do is rip out another woman’s guts with a knife, twisting the blade and slashing sideways to make sure the cut is fatal, and we learn that Natasha willingly sacrificed the life of a young girl in order to secure her own freedom. (This being a comic-book movie, the girl does not in fact die, and is resurrected as the movie’s secondary villain, the Taskmaster.) In a way, all of the movie’s characters are monsters, including Natasha herself. But if she’s a monster, it’s because of what she did, and not because of what was done to her.
That idea comes to a head in the movie’s climactic confrontation, when Natasha comes face to face with the Red Room’s General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the man who brainwashed her, who killed her biological mother, who created and then destroyed the closest thing to a nuclear family she’s ever known. Even now, she discovers, she’s not immune to his control: Due to conditioning so deep there’s no way to undo it, she can’t harm Dreykov as long as she’s in range of his pheromones. As Natasha sits helpless, Dreykov gloats as he shows her his army of widows, composed of “the one natural resource the world has too much of: girls.” They’re disposable to him, just raw material to be used and discarded—bodies, not beings. But Natasha’s body is hers now, even if she has to lose one more part of it to finally be free of him. Unable to break Dreykov’s “pheromonal lock,” she slams her head into his desk so hard that it severs her olfactory nerve, and with that she lays the groundwork not only for her own liberation, but the liberation of every other widow in the world. Cutting off a part of herself hasn’t made her a monster. It’s made her free.