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Black Widow shows Hollywood can handle a dark female superhero (finally)

From the original Avengers lineup, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk have all had their own spin off movies (many of which have had more than one) — and naturally, their female counterpart, Black Widow (played by Scarlet Johansson), is getting her big screen solo debut last. She also must revamp the character in what is a prequel to her own death that has already played out in Avengers: Endgame (if you're mad about me spoiling a two-year-old movie, I can't help you.)

But that doesn't mean the film packs any less of a punch (forgive the pun). Yes, we've seen the female superhero belatedly start to emerge in blockbuster hits like Captain Marvel and flops like Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984. But where those movies gave us traditional comic book gloss and Marvel/DC cosmic wow, Black Widow gives us a more Kill Bill meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith kind of a treatment to the superhero genre, and lets the film engage with more than violence and fighting aliens with boobs in breast plates.

Most superhero movies at some point are about a search for identity. The question of where the protagonist belongs in this world with this power, mutation, or lack of aging respectively always tinges the films with a sort of fun mirror of identity politics, as the characters also face backlash from regular humans (because why not dress up social justice concepts in superhero costumes so no one can recognize it!?).

But Black Widow takes the concept of finding out who you are and where you belong and moves backwards. The characters are already at the pinnacle we usually see superheroes work up to, and they must deconstruct from there. Natasha and Yelena Romanoff are somewhat of the villains, and they must go through the classic superhero shenanigans to take back their moral high ground.

The film introduces the magnetic and compulsively watchable Florence Pugh as little sister Yelena. As Natasha (Black Widow) is on the run having quit her assassin and Avenger days, Yelena is still working for evil. She immediately gets "woken up" from her brainwashing to be an assassin by a magical red gas, thus beginning her quest to wake up the others and reunite her family. Pugh told Variety, "Natasha and Yelena forge 'a sister story that really hones in on grief, on pain, on abuse, on being a victim — and living with being a victim.'"

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And that's where Black Widow truly succeeds. It's not afraid to be dark, just like the superhero films about Black Widow's male counterparts. Where of course Thor is probably the most slapstick and silly as they play with his hot but un-smart disposition, there is a darkness to Iron Man, Captain America and The Hulk. On the flip side, part of why the Wonder Woman films were so nauseating to watch is because they were drunk on their own purity — as though just by being a woman, Wonder Woman is not allowed to have any complexity or depth. Captain Marvel didn't have the same purity trip, but it seemed to be high on its status as a first, and from there lost its ability to truly grip people into a character (I say this while also needing to mention that Brie Larson's performance was incredible, and Gal Gadot is really hot and fun to watch).

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Black Widow conversely is tipsy on its own darkness. It's the girl at the bar whose had two old fashioneds, and is getting a little weird, but also knows it's time to call it without having to be told. The film is about being a broken woman, not a superhero, but also that a broken woman can still be a superhero if she wants to be — and that's what sets the film apart from its glossier counterparts. Hollywood will hopefully pay attention to this new formula considering that Black Widow raked in $13.2 million in its first night pre-debuting on Disney+ for $30 a viewing, ahead of its October 6th theatrical release.