This post contains spoilers for Black Widow.
Black Widow has finally hit theaters after years of anticipation and excitement from fans who wanted nothing more than to see their favorite character in a long overdue solo outing. And, with generally solid reviews from critics and audiences alike, I think it’s fair to say that the film has officially met mostly lofty expectations set by that great anticipation. However, while said fans of Natasha Romanoff are elated to be united in the bittersweet joy of getting to see their favorite character kick ass at least one final time, the truth is there’s an underlying sadness beneath this film that makes it, perhaps, the most tragic movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, partially, I’m referring to Agent Romanoff’s ultimate fate from Avengers: Endgame, but rather primarily, more so, the tragedy behind the central relationships in the film’s greatest strength: the Widow family.
Yes, it’s true that Natasha and her faux family, consisting of fake sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), and fake parents, Milena Vostokova (Rachel Weitz) and Alexei Shostakov aka Red Guardian (David Harbour), are reunited and find peace with one another and the past by the film’s end. But, when you truly break down each character and what the false family meant to each of them, it turns Black Widow (and to a degree Nat’s ultimate fate) into something even sadder.
Nat, like the rest of her family and all other products of The Red Room, has suffered greatly in her life. However, unlike the rest of The Red Room victims, Nat escapes and defects to S.H.I.E.L.D., where she forms her second de facto family following the Widow family. Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Phil Coulson, and Clint Barton actively take her in and give her a second chance to redeem herself and the mistakes she’s made. She begins her quest to wipe off the red from her ledger, which leads her to Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Thor, and the formation of her third family, The Avengers. The rest is history. Nat has done well for herself, inadvertently finding herself in the presence of heroes and becoming one as well. Both teams love her and keep her dedicated to a greater noble path to redemption and a sense of inner peace. To borrow a line she says to Proxima Midnight in Avengers: Infinity War, she’s not alone. She actively has people that care about her, even if The Avengers “divorced” for a period of time following Captain America: Civil War The family was divided for seven or eight years, but she always had at least half or all of them at any given time since beginning her days at S.H.I.E.L.D.
The point of all this is to say that, despite the short period of time between the end of Captain America: Civil War and the re-introduction of Yelena and the rest of the Widow family in Black Widow, Nat has consistently had the good fortune of having someone in her life to help her navigate through the darkest parts. This is the very reason why she is more willing to forget about her first “family,” and the reason she so callously admits that none of it was real during the events of Black Widow. She’s had it good. And, she deserves it and is entitled to a bit of good in her life. But, sadly, her good fortune all these years also makes her oblivious to the suffering of each of the others in her “family”, until she learns that the Red Room is still around and became even worse due to her escape). Naturally, none of this is her fault, and she ends up rectifying things by the end. We can’t blame her when she snapped and told the rest of her former family none of it was real. However it does make the statement considerably harsher when you think about why it was and had to be real for the rest of the Widow family members.
Following Nat’s departure, Yelena was one of the victims of The Red Room’s stricter guidelines. Nat’s escape naturally led to the switch from physical and mental conditioning to chemical and pheromonal. Technically, because of her, free will and choice were fully taken away from future Widows, including Yelena. So, on top of the horrors that both she and Nat had to endure as children, Yelena also had to endure everything the remaining Red Room victims had to go through. At no point in her life did she have any semblance of the hope or light Nat experienced with The Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D., apart from the three years she spent posing as part of a fake American family in Ohio with the rest of the Widow family. It wasn’t possible for her to formulate a separate family within the Widow program with the other Red Room victims because they were essentially all puppets, unable to free themselves to band together. She wasn’t in full control of her body until she was sprayed with the antidote in the beginning of the film. And so, Yelena has had to survive mentally and emotionally on the smallest wins - from her memories of Ohio to the purchase of a really cool multi-pocketed surplus vest.
This is why the false family dynamic was so important and felt real to her. Nothing else in her life has been better. Everything, as she said, was predetermined by a sick creep forcing her to carry out orders with murderous intent, including the three -year mission in Ohio. But at least there was the smallest semblance of freedom in those three years. She actually was able to make decisions, and even pretend to be a real girl with a real childhood. She actually wasn’t aware of the mission as she was only three when she was assigned to the family. So, to her, those memories were real until she found out the truth when the mission had ended. Completely vulnerable, Yelena revealed that time with the “family” was real to her. Because it had to be. It was what she needed to survive and the taste of freedom and what she once had motivated her to keep fighting for that chance again. The fantasies of something as simple as having a sister that grew up to become a science teacher kept her sane.
The Red Guardian, unlike his other Widow family members, was not technically part of The Red Room. He was an experiment in the same way Steve Rogers was, but he was free to make his own decisions. Unlike Milena or Yelena, he chose the path of his life, and ended up making all the wrong decisions by inevitably betraying his fake family – the “boring” bane of his three year fake-father existence in America – to serve his country. As it turns out, karma ended up being a bitch, given that Alexei himself ended up betrayed by his country, his general, and his own ideals, having been arrested and imprisoned for several decades some time following his assignment in Ohio.
Now for Alexei, his situation is completely unique to Yelena, Nat, and Milena’s because he actually wanted to serve his country. He believed in all of the causes of the Soviet Union, and basked in the fame and glory of being the once-famed Red Guardian. And what did all of that get him? A prison sentence. He even complains off-hand to Nat about how his own party couldn’t even come together, and expresses his hatred for Dreykov, the man who sold him down the river. At the time, the Widow family may have been a boring assignment. But now, for Alexei, it’s the only semblance of family that didn’t betray or disappoint him. He realizes it too late, but still comes to realize its value all the same. It was the only thing that he had even the slightest belief in and the last really decent period of his life before it went to shambles. At this point, even his glory days mean nothing given they were in service of a country that would turn its back on him and a party that ended up meaningless. So all he inevitably had, like Yelena, was their fake family. For as much as he complained about it, he still had some sort of affection for all of them. Hence, his reprise of “American Pie” with Yelena. Thus between that affection, and even an irrelevant plea for forgiveness later in the film, it demonstrates how much/how real the Widow family is to a man destroyed by his own beliefs and country.
Milena, unfortunately, does not get as much of a backstory as the other members of the Widow family, but we still get a good picture of what her life was like prior to meeting the rest of the “family”. In a conversation with Nat, she talks about being cycled through The Red Room four times before Nat was even born. When taking into comparison how long Nat and Yelena spent their lives under the torture of Dreykov and The Red Room program, and quadrupling that, we get a fairly grim picture of what Milena’s life was like before becoming the maternal figure of the fake Widow family.
Naturally, she came out of the program a bit more successful than Yelena and Alexei, as Dreykov allowed her to keep a small, simple farm life. However, it’s not out of kindness, but rather necessity to his cause, given Milena is still very much bound to serve The Red Room in the present. Nothing about the instruments of torture she worked on and developed sats right with her, but, like the rest of the Widows, she had no choice. Thus, this simple life is still one plagued by fear and guilt (to a degree – she did seem oblivious that her work was being used on Yelena), which is why she still held onto the lie of her Ohio family. In fact, of all the Widow family members, Milena seems to actually be the most nostalgic, having kept the mementos from the Ohio assignment with her, including The Red Guardian suit and the family scrapbook. For her, these were safety blankets of comfort. Moments that, like Yelena, she could retreat to. However, uniquely from Alexei and Yelena, this lie was clearly a comfort she retreated to in order to help her deal with her fear and guilt. And unlike Natasha, she never had the courage to fight back until her “family” was in danger once more. Given what she was willing to do to finally get into action and help Nat and the team take Dreykov and The Red Room down truly emphasizes how important and real that “family” was to her.
The fact that Yelena, Milena, and Alexei all needed this family to get through the individual traumas of their lives, simply because the three-year lie was better than what their individual realities truly were, speaks volumes about how tragic they ultimately are as characters. Exploring this underlying sadness also makes Natasha’s arc in Black Widow all the more important and personal. By getting this “family” back together and finally acknowledging that it was actually real, in many ways, she’s essentially saving the lives of three people who were defined by horrific duties to their countries while also personally still obtaining a semblance of hope in The Avengers becoming whole again. But completely destroying the optimistic notion of turning this fake family into a real one would be, of course, the impending doom of Thanos and his snap about two years later. While knowing the Widow family having those two final years on good terms with one another is a nice notion, one has to assume half, if not all of them, must have disappeared during the snap, only to find out having come back from the blip that Nat had died. And once more, the family is broken again, this time permanently, just as hope had begun to peek through. The film takes the concept of a fake family built on lies and treason, and turns it into a legitimate one born of love and freedom, then takes it all away with the knowledge and understanding that it will never be whole again. And as such, this officially makes Black Widow perhaps the most tragic movie of the entire MCU cannon.
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