Every family has its secrets.
Yelena didn’t know what her family’s secrets were, of course—not when she was 6 years old and growing up in Ohio. All she knew was lazy summer evenings and dinners ’round the table; fireflies and skinned knees; love and laughter. She knew that her mother was wise and her dad was funny, and that her older sister would always be around to protect her, no matter what.
But secrets? She never needed to worry about them.
Until that lazy summer evening when Dad came home and announced they all needed to pack. It was time for the adventure he always promised Yelena they’d have.
Yelena was pretty excited. What kid doesn’t love adventure?
But after a frantic ride to a private airport, that adventure took a dark turn—and secrets spilled all over the runway.
Turns out, Yelena’s family wasn’t a family at all; her mom and dad weren’t American suburbanites, but Soviet spies, and the mission was over. Her blue-haired sister, Natasha, wasn’t her real sister, but a pint-sized assassin-in-training. And now Yelena was being sent off to assassin school—the infamous Red Room—herself. Even though Natasha did her best to protect Yelena one last time—grabbing a gun and promising death to anyone who touched her little sis—it was for naught.
Fast-forward a couple decades, and the training clearly took. Yelena’s a full-fledged assassin (called a Widow) now, and a leader at that. In her lethal hands, she has the power to topple leaders and end lives, and she’s done both for years without questioning why.
But after a chance encounter with a former Widow and an unexpected chemical—an antidote to the toxin that chemically keeps Yelena and the other Widows in a state of unblinking obedience—her mind clears. Dreykov, the man whom she thought of as an über-demanding father, was a real jerk. It was time to break up this dysfunctional family once and for all.
Then she remembers her old fake sister, Natasha, who broke with the Widows years before. She’s an Avenger now—or at least she was, before that team kinda broke up, too. With Natasha on the lam from the government and with the planet mercifully free of alien invaders or genocidal robots for the time being, maybe Yelena could send her this antidote, and Natasha could do something with it. Maybe she could take it to her good friend Tony Stark, duplicate it and free the rest of the Widows for good.
Sure, maybe Yelena and Natasha’s family was all a fabrication. Maybe Natasha, like their “parents,” was only playing a part. Maybe people are calling Natasha a hero these days, and maybe she is. But Yelena can’t completely shake the memory of her wide-eyed, blue-haired, ready-for-anything sister always protecting her.
No matter what.
Sometimes, I wonder if Marvel’s superhero movies aren’t really what we think they are at all—that all the larger-than-life villains and explosions and CGI wizardry is just a massive amount of icing on a very different sort of cake. And here, it seems, the cake that Marvel’s baking here is all about family.
Sure, the family that Yelena grew up with was a fabrication. But its members could still like each other. Maybe even love each other. That grows more and more obvious as the film wears on, and the bond between Yelena and her famous sister feels especially strong. Both are willing to make some pretty serious sacrifices to save their black-wardrobed sistren.
That’s especially true of Natasha (who, despite my introduction, is really the focal point of the film). She’s always been one of the most “human” members of the Avengers—blessed with no superpowers beyond her tremendous skill and equally formidable will. She’ll take more than a punch to achieve a noble goal, and Natasha even inflicts damage to herself here to do what she feels is right.
Oh, and let’s give a small shout-out to Rick Mason, Natasha’s long-suffering helpmate, who somehow procures everything from weapons to helicopters on short notice so that Natasha can save the day.
We hear quite a few lines from Don McLean’s “Miss American Pie” (Yelena’s favorite song growing up), including the question, “Do you have faith in God above if the Bible tells you so?” Elsewhere, Yelena calls Thor “the big god from space.” We see pictures of Natasha and Yelena as kids in front of a Christmas tree.
When Yelena and Natasha reunite with their faux father, Alexei, he wonders why they seem so angry at him—asking whether it’s their “time of the month.” Both stress that the Red Room made it impossible for them to even have that time, given that their reproductive organs were completely removed as a part of their transformation into Widows (with Yelena going into specific, painful detail about these procedures).
Alexei talks uncomfortably about how attractive Melina—his pretend wife in Ohio—was and is. And when they reunite, he tells her that she’s “as beautiful and as supple” as the day they first met, and he suggests that he’d be happy to take a roll in the hay with her right now. “I have a lot of energy,” he slyly says. We see Alexei shirtless a couple of times (though these scenes aren’t intended to be erotic), and catch an ample glimpse of his underwear as he tries to fit into an old superhero outfit.
Natasha, Yelena and other women wear fairly form-fitting outfits. Natasha takes off her shirt to reveal the back of her bra—and a bevy of bruises she suffered during a recent fight. Yelena and Natasha argue over Natasha’s apparent penchant for “posing” suggestively during fights.
Dreykov’s Widow operation is predicated on human trafficking: kidnapping vulnerable, genetically superior girls and turning them into killers. (He calls girls the one resource the world has too much of.) While Dreykov’s Red Room isn’t predicated on sex, the film intends to remind us of the horrors of human trafficking in our own context.
When Alexei reunites with his faux daughters, he showers praise on them—what with Natasha being an Avenger and Yelena having been one of the Red Room’s most successful child assassins. “Both have killed so many people!” he says. “Your ledgers must be dripping [with blood]. Just gushing. … I couldn’t be more proud of you.”
Alexei would be proud of this movie then, too.
Blood doesn’t gush here—but things can get pretty violent at times. One man suffers a grotesque injury during an arm-wrestling match. A woman falls from a tall building and lies in a puddle on the ground—her foot twisted in an unnatural angle (indicating a broken leg). Yelena cuts into her own leg to remove a tracking device.
And, of course, we see the sorts of fights we’ve come expect in superhero movies. People hit and kick and knock adversaries on their keester. (Alexei’s “daughters” punch him in the face a few times as well.) People fire all manner of weapons—mostly guns, but a few arrows are launched as well. Someone uses a shield as a lethal projectile. Yelena’s stabbed with a syringe, which sticks comically out of her shoulder for a moment. People fight with knives, and sometimes the blade hits home. People are sometimes choked.
Cars crash and careen and fall. A broken car door sends a motorcycle rider flying. People fall from huge heights, sometimes tumbling into objects as they go. Someone’s face is shown to be scarred after a fiery explosion. Massive explosions produce what we’d assume are significant but unseen casualties: One such big boom—the fiery destruction of a guard tower—triggers an avalanche that sweeps toward a Siberian prison and looks capable of wiping it out. We don’t see its ultimate fate, but our heroes don’t spend a single instant worrying about it. (And let’s note that Natasha, being an ex-assassin and all, has never had problems killing her adversaries, unlike some superheroes we could mention.)
A man hits a woman several times in the face (and kicks her as well). Someone smashes her own head into something, breaking her nose and drawing blood. A pig nearly dies from asphyxiation. Surgeons nearly cut open someone’s skull. In a flashback, we see Natasha call for the destruction of a building—one that held both a very bad man and his innocent young daughter.
The s-word is used nine times. We also hear other profanities, including “a–,” “d–n” and “pr–k,” a handful of times each. God’s name is misused twice. The word “douchebag” is also used.
Alexei proposes a toast with vodka as he sits at a table with Melina, Natasha and Yelena. “Family!” he says. “Back together again.” He drinks during the awkward meeting. Natasha opens a bottle of wine. Liquor is used as an antiseptic for open wounds. Another line we hear from “Miss American Pie” references “drinking whiskey and wine.”
After Alexei hugs Yelena, the woman tells him to stay farther away. “You smell really bad.” Alexei tells a story about how his own father urinated on his hands to keep them from getting frostbitten.
Every family has its secrets.
But maybe Yelena’s family—the pretend family, the faux family, the family that wasn’t family at all—has an even bigger secret to share than all of that. For all its secrets, for all its lies, it was a family. And those familial ties, however fabricated they might’ve initially been, and however briefly they lasted, still hold together.
It’s a pretty nice message to find in such a bombastic, frenetic, superhero blockbuster. Not only do the movie’s heroes save the day, but they also save something they came to treasure: a sense of home and belonging.
Few of our families are as weird and as problematic as that of Natasha and Yelena. But we know that our own families have their share of issues, too. Sometimes the people who raise us, or the people we raise, can feel like strangers at times. But yet, hopefully, the memories and the histories and affections we’ve shared unite us more than they divide us.
Black Widow also reminds us that our “real” families may not necessarily be those we’re born into. We can be adopted into new homes. And while those homes are often imperfect, they can be filled with affection and growth.
They say that blood is thicker than water—and yet blood isn’t what binds us together. It’s love.
Black Widow has plenty of both, of course. It’s a violent, often chaotic movie that—because of some grotesque broken bones—might edge into slightly more problematic territory than some of its superhero peers. Likewise its use of the s-words—a word certainly common in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—feels slightly more common. And because MCU fans know where Black Widow’s story is heading in a few short years (the film takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War), this story is tinged with a bit of sadness.
But while Black Widow can be disappointing in some respects, it’s pretty heartening in others. The MCU has always praised the ideal of family and its many manifestations, even as it reminds us how prickly real families can be. Black Widow takes these themes to another level.
Sure, we expected a movie about a couple of highly trained killers would be exciting. We didn’t expect it to be so sweet.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.