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Friday, November 5, 2021

November 5, 2021: Action Figures: Black Widow

[Wednesday would have been Charles Bronson’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Bronson and other action film stars and characters. Share your own thoughts on these and all other action figures and films for a popcorn-popping crowd-sourced weekend blockbuster!]

On how the recent Marvel film echoes a frustrating longstanding trope, and two ways it revises it.

Perhaps more than any other cinematic genre (although horror films are in the conversation), action movies often depend for their success on audience awareness of established tropes. There are thus lots of such tropes, from what Roger Ebert named the “Fallacy of the Talking Villain” to what my favorite current film critic Outlaw Vern has called his “Theory of Badass Juxtaposition.” But one of the most strikingly consistent across decades of action films and multiple cultures/cinema traditions involves female action heroes in particular: the trope of a young girl raised from childhood by an older (almost always male) mentor to become an assassin and/or spy. That hyperlinked list isn’t even overtly about characters who fit that trope (it focuses on female assassin characters overall), yet I would argue that every character on the list does so, whether overtly (ie, we see them as children in the course of the film) or implicitly (ie, we hear about those origins and/or meet older male characters who clearly served as their mentors). Out in theaters as I draft this post is another film that follows this trope closely, The Protégé, starring Maggie Q as the assassin and Samuel L. Jackson as the mentor.

One of the biggest films of the year to date, the Marvel superhero action thriller Black Widow, likewise used and indeed amplified this longstanding trope. Natasha Romanoff, the Russian spy turned Avenger known as Black Widow and played pitch-perfectly in the MCU films by Scarlett Johansson, wasn’t (at least in this cinematic adaptation—I haven’t read any Black Widow comics so can’t speak to them) just raised from childhood to be an individual assassin. She was part of a huge cohort of such youthful female assassins (all apparently known as Widows), raised in a mysterious environment known as the Red Room to become a fearful and formidable fighting force the world over. Even before that period, as we see in the film’s flashback prologue (another scene set when its female action hero is a small child), she was part of a fake family designed to begin her training, this time one featuring not only a male mentor (David Harbour’s Alexei, himself a superhero known as the Red Guardian) but a female one as well (Rachel Weisz’s Melina). That two-part childhood seems only to double down on this well-established trope of the youthful female assassin in training.

But at the same time, it’s possible to see this amplification as a way to comment upon the trope itself, and I’d say that particular details of both those threads in Black Widow (SPOILERS in this paragraph in particular) do serve to critique and ultimately revise the trope. More overtly and centrally, while the mentor characters in these stories and films are generally portrayed as good guys (if complicated ones to be sure), the Red Room’s most explicit mentor figure, Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, is the film’s villain and a truly despicable person, and his role in the lives of the Widows is blatantly portrayed as both child abuse and a form of sexual violence. I’m not suggesting that this shift forces to revisit all the prior mentor figures and consider them in the same way, necessarily—but it makes us ask the question at the very least. Secondly, and more complicatedly, Romanoff’s fake family, including Alexei and Melina but also her faux-sister Yelena (played wonderfully by Florence Pugh), becomes not only the closest thing she has to an actual family, but a unit that by the film’s end functions directly to oppose and take down the Red Room and short-circuit any plans for future child assassins. Natasha and Yelena are still badass assassins at the film’s end to be sure—but ones who operate quite literally counter to the narratives at the heart of this longstanding trope.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,


PS. So one more time: what do you think? Thoughts on these figures and films, or others you’d add to the mix?

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