23 January 2017

Book Review: Marvel's Black Widow

Title: Marvel's Black Widow: from Spy to Superhero
Author: Sherry Ginn (editor)
Expected publication: April 1st 2017
Publisher: McFarland & Company

Source: I requested an advanced reader's copy of this book on NetGalley in exchange for a honest review. 

First appearing in Marvel Comics in the 1960s, Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, was introduced to movie audiences in Iron Man 2 (2010). Her character has grown in popularity with subsequent Marvel films, and fans have been vocal about wanting to see Black Widow in a titular role. Romanoff has potent appeal: a strong female character who is not defined by her looks or her romantic relationships, with the skill set of a veteran spy first for the KGB, then for S.H.I.E.L.D. This collection of new essays is the first to examine Black Widow and her development, from Cold War era comics to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Getting to know Natasha Romanoff 

Black Widow was "born" in 1964, in the Tales of Suspense #52. I first found out about her in 2010, when John Favreau's Iron Man 2 was coming out. My knowledge about Marvel Comics was non-existent back then, and being a die-hard fan of DC's Catwoman, I at first dismissed Black Widow as a rip-off of one of my childhood icons (a quick Google search showed that that was not the case).

Meanwhile, the Marvel Cinematic Universe kept expanding, and Scarlett Johansson's portrayal of the Russian-American spy was undergoing quite an evolution from the kickass hot chick in IM2 to a more complex and nuanced character in Joss Whedon's Avengers movies and in the Captain America sequels

With each movie, Romanoff's backstory was revealed a little more, and she herself was showing more emotional depth, while her story arc revolved around such issues as morality, redemption, and identity. 

Black Widow is a character that has grown on me. Plus, there's the shared experience of being born in the Soviet and leaving your homeland at a young age that makes her more relatable to me than most other comic book characters. 

So, when I saw this anthology, edited by Sherry Ginn, in the "read now" section on NetGalley, I got interested. The anthology, which consists of nine essays with a varying degree of substance, has left me wanting more, and I'm not sure if it's a good thing.

The essays that I find the most interesting here are the ones that deal with a specific aspect of Black Widow's character, and take a closer look at the MCU fandom. For instance, in Red Rooms, Conditioning Chairs and Needles in the Brain, Ginn analyses the way that brainwashing and mind control are used in the MCU and in Joss Whedon's previous works, and compares them to the real-life cases of brainwashing, like CIA: s Project MKUltra.

 "A Very Specific Skill Set", Malgorzata Drewniok analyses Romanoff's language and how she uses it in her most pivotal scenes in The Avengers.

And authors Samira Nadkarni and Tanya R. Cochran dedicate their individual essays to dissecting fanmade Black Widow movie trailers while trying to figure out why Marvel and Disney are so adamant about not making a standalone movie about Romanoff, despite the massive outcry from the fans. 

But most of the essays look at Black Widow from a feminist perspective, discussing her role as third wave feminist icon as well dissecting her characterisation in the early years of Marvel Comics.

It's not always about girl power

In Joss Whedon's Radical Icon of Third Wave Feminism, Lewis Call argues that Whedon turned Black Widow into something more than a strong female character - namely, an icon.

Heather M. Porter explains what a Complete Female Character is, and discusses how the MCU ladies fit in this category. 

And Jillian Coleman Benjamin gives a rather generic and fuelled discussion about how women are presented in popular culture. 

Discussions about feminism and strong female characters in movies are not just a running theme in this anthology, but also a dominating one, taking up a large part of the discourse. 

On their own, most of these essays are interesting and play an important part in the discussion of women's roles in pop culture. Considering that Black Widow is one of the only two female Avengers, and that her standalone movie remains a pipe dream, it's important that we talk about how women are presented and perceived on the silver screen. 

Still from a fan trailer
It isn't the individual essays that I find problematic, it's how they work together. Or rather, how they don't work. All three essays that focus solely on the subject of feminism, cover the same exact grounds – Widow’s not very empowering role in the comic books, and how Whedon turned her into Buffy 2.0 in The Avengers, as well as her relationship with Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron

All three authors make the same basic arguments, the only difference is how well they make them. Putting them in the same collection, makes them seem repetitive. All three voices melt into one, which makes it hard to find a unique idea.

There is more to Black Widow than just her gender. Essays like Red Rooms and A Very Specific Skill Set show that the character of Black Widow can be seen, analysed, and discussed from more than just one perspective, but if you insist on confining her to the feminist discourse, you run the risk of missing some of the most interesting sides of her character. 

For instance, What Nadkarni and Call discuss, among other things, is questions about world politics, ethics, morality, redemption, and identity – a discussion that stems from Black Widow’s background as a former Soviet spy and defectée who came to work for the American government, until the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier. These are the topics that take Romanoff out of the "girl power" discourse, and help us see her as the interesting and complex character that she is.  

A discussion about identity - specifically about ethnic identity is one of the things that I miss in this anthology. Call touches upon it, but only in the context of third wave feminism, and that is not enough. 

Black Widow is many things, one of them being a first-generation immigrant who is trying to find her place in a new country. The political system she was raised to believe in collapsed, and she had to find her life a new purpose. 

Instead of solely focusing on her role as a female superhero, a much broader discussion can be made about what it means to be a woman and an immigrant. 

Now, it's possible that I'm projecting some of my own feelings here, given the shared experiences I mentioned earlier, but this example just illustrates how much depth and potential Black Widow has. Not just as a strong female character, but as a strong person.   

I think that Ginn started a very interesting a poignant conversation in this anthology, and I can honestly say that I did learn a lot about Black Widow, and about the behind-the-scenes of the Hollywood industry. But there is still a lot to more be said about Marvel's best multi-ethnic female spy turned superhero. 

My rating: 3 stars

I also want to thank the publisher and NetGalley for this advanced reader's copy. 

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