I did not intend to give any regard to the MCU following my viewing of Avengers: Endgame, readers. That film was a fine swan song, though I will be the first to admit that I think it could have been done differently and better. Following this film, there was no reason for yours truly to keep up with the franchise. It had ended, the ride was over, and it was time to disembark.
Unfortunately, our modern age does not allow one the luxury of completely ignoring or disconnecting from something. Sooner or later news about whatever it is will travel, reaching the ears of those determined to discount it, and they will end up paying attention anyway. You can probably guess from this introduction that this author’s decision to dispense with the MCU henceforth was an utter failure. What can I say? I am a writer and I love Marvel Comics’ characters and stories. I just do not like the direction in which they have been taken since early in Phase 3.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Captain America: Civil War*. While I wish they had not sex-swapped Ghost, I also liked Ant-Man and the Wasp.* As Declan Finn points out in his post here, Doctor Strange* did not need to have Dormammu as the main villain quite so early in his branch of the franchise. But the finale was clever and Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting was worth the purchase price, so I enjoyed it.
Those, however, are the best films in Phase 3 in my opinion – up to Avengers: Infinity War*. Endgame, as I said, could use some improvement despite its graces. I have come to believe that Phase 3 became a combination of Phase 3 and Phase 4 storytelling, a conclusion which Mr. Finn’s post helped me to reach. As he says, the advent of Thanos was rushed, and his character motivations and arc were altered in ways they would not have needed to be if the writers had taken more time earlier in the series to introduce him to audiences.
Now, I will never complain about flogging the zombified corpse of Malthusian philosophy if it will get people to pay attention to the threat it poses even today. Thus I do not necessarily mind that change to Thanos’ MCU counterpart myself. Personally, I also would not be the least bit surprised if Thanos stretched the truth about how Titan died. It was rumored, after Infinity War’s release, that scenes showing Thanos’ back story were cut. Said back story would have shown him being bullied for being born deformed by Titans’ standards, which to me implies that while Titan may have been a dying world, this does not mean it didn’t have help in the dying.
To solve this minor issue, I think the writers could have had the heroes discover that Thanos’ grand crusade was his way of justifying his vengeance on his own people, whom he had murdered by hastening their homeworld’s destruction. Or they could have made his Malthusian philosophy a cloak to hide his nihilism and worship of death. Why the producers thought these original motivations of his would be incredible to the audience escapes me, but these are ideas that I have had regarding the Mad Titan’s appearance in Infinity War and Endgame for some time.
Said threat in this case could have been Agatha Harkness. Looking at the trauma and pain that are the result of her tutoring Wanda Maximoff in the comics, this is not exactly a leap of logic. In fact, I have to wonder why it was not done earlier; Agatha Harkness is a sketchy character and her motives are questionable. She also channels magic, making her a perfect antagonist for the budding sorceress on the Avengers’ roster.
From here we will go to the Falcon and Winter Soldier series. This could have been its own film, a nice little set piece in between Civil War and Infinity War that would have given both characters room to spread their wings and grow. Much as I enjoy Civil War, the mid-credits scene where Bucky returns to cryostasis should not have happened. Team Cap should have collectively sat on him and told him, “No, you don’t get to punish yourself for what HYDRA made you do,” before proceeding to help him recover.
Hawkeye, as a victim of mind-control himself, should have been the Winter Soldier’s second-strongest supporter after Cap (and possibly Natasha). And by keeping Bucky out of cryo, one could start off a Wanda/Vision film or even a Falcon/Winter Soldier movie with the Scarlet Witch removing the HYDRA programming from his mind, as other fans have suggested. The MCU did substitute her probability manipulation powers for telepathy, telekinesis, and energy manipulation after all. This would also have neatly prevented us from being forced to watch Wanda become a villainess in all but name in WandaVision!
After this we could have a film focusing on Falcon and the Winter Soldier follow the government’s plans to replace Steve Rogers with John Walker to “solve” the Accords’ debacle. Walker could clash with Cap’s best friends while they are on a mission separate from the rest of the Secret Avengers (that name comes from the comics, not me). Whether or not the enemy the trio was chasing was the Flag Smasher (a single individual in the comics) or the Secret Empire wouldn’t matter. You would have three of the heirs to the Captain America name fighting over the legacy – two to preserve it unstained, one trying to figure out what it even means in the first place. (That one, for the curious, would be John Walker/U.S. Agent. Look him up and you will see why I say that he would be confused as to the mantle’s meaning.)
You can see how this would have led us into a Black Widow movie. Good Lord, I am so disappointed in this film – and I haven’t even seen it! I caved into curiosity and read the Wikipedia description. The only moment in the entire story, that I can see, where Natasha Romanoff acts like Natasha Romanoff is when she breaks her own nose in order to enable herself to fight. As Professor Geek and others have said, the filmmakers for this movie completely mishandled her character.
Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that a Black Widow movie should have come earlier in the franchise. I admit that this is true, just as I admit that a Hawkeye movie (for which Renner had a contract) also should have happened and should have occurred earlier. For the sake of argument, let us say that a Black Widow movie could only come out after Civil War and before Infinity War/Endgame. What should it have entailed?
Go back to the excellent scenes in Avengers: Age of Ultron*, where we learn that the Red Room sterilized the girls trained there when they were deemed ready to be deployed on their first mission. That is the crux of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s character: she had her entire life, from her childhood to her potential future, stolen from her by the Soviet Union. And there is no way that she can ever get it back, no way she can ever have a normal life, and no way for her to be a complete woman again.
But there is a way for her to prevent what happened to her from happening to others.
Now say that, on her journey to join Steve Rogers and the rest of the Secret Avengers after Civil War, Natasha comes upon a kidnapping. Although it will blow her cover, she rescues their prey, a young girl in her early tweens. In the process she learns that one of the kidnappers has Black Widow style training and fights using equipment like her own. When Natasha questions the girl she saved some time later, the child reveals that she escaped from a facility where there were many other girls her age and that they were all being trained. “They made us dance,” she adds miserably. “All the time until we – we –”
“Collapsed,” Natasha finishes, flashing back to the ballet lessons in the Red Room. Staying with the girl, she manages to contact Cap and several of the other Secret Avengers, which would certainly include Hawkeye and likely consist of Sharon Carter, Falcon, and Bucky. We’ll add Scott Lang to the team just to keep the humor present. Once they arrive Natasha reports what the girl told her, explains how she found her, and that one of the kidnappers had her training.
This would be news to everyone but Hawkeye (who already knows her past) and the Winter Soldier, who would reveal that he was sent to train the young Widows every few years. “Now you recognize me!” Natasha might huff, smiling a little. The team then forms a plan to get the girl to safety while tracking the kidnappers, whereupon Natasha’s worst fears are confirmed: the Red Room has been rebuilt, and new girls are having their lives stolen in the same manner that hers was taken.
Whether the new Widow Natasha encountered in the original confrontation was Yelena Belova or Iron Maiden really doesn’t matter. I would go with Yelena simply to maintain cohesion with the comics, but Iron Maiden is an option as well. You could even make Iron Maiden the head of the revitalized Red Room project rather than Dreykov (the character chosen for the 2021 film). In the process of tracking down the new Red Room operatives, the Secret Avengers would encounter the Red Guardian, the mysterious Soviet equivalent to Captain America. During the fight his helmet is removed, and Natasha receives a similar shock to the one Cap did in The Winter Soldier*: The Red Guardian is not a faceless stranger but her ex-husband, Alexei Shostakov!
Alexei Shostakov: The Red Guardian
Lest you think I am making that or any of the other suggestions regarding a Black Widow film up out of thin air, readers, allow me to assure you that I am not. These ideas are all straight from the comics. The Red Guardian was originally Natasha Romanoff’s husband, and she was ready to quit her career due to her love for him. But he wanted to be the Red Guardian, and so he married Natasha to acquire the government’s attention. Once he had that, he struck a deal with the Soviet regime: they could have their prized spy back if they gave him the position he desired.
Naturally, they gave him what he wanted. The Soviets faked his death in a training accident to convince Natasha to throw herself into the Soviet cause and return to the Red Room. (Using this incident from the comics for the films would also explain why Natasha is never shown to pilot a plane in the movies – in the comics, Alexei “died” while testing an experimental aircraft.) Putting this story on film and having Natasha face the man she thought she had loved and lost, only to learn he never loved her in the first place and was still alive, would make a great movie.
But as with Black Panther and the third Thor* film, we didn’t get that. I will let you read Declan Finn’s suggestions for a third Thor installment, and David Breitenbeck already did a stunning job of re-writing Black Panther. Suffice it to say, this is how the MCU might have gone if the studios had been more imaginative with the time they had. They utilized it poorly, and now the rest of us have our “writer brains” trying to adjust and adapt the series in our heads so that it will make more sense.
If you have a series of your own in mind, future authors, try to avoid the pitfalls to which the MCU succumbed. You do not necessarily have to make every story big and impressive, or to have a world-ending threat in each tale. Smaller “side stories” like those outlined above will please the audience just as much.
That is the point of serial storytelling; yes, the characters should not remain static. They should grow in experience and become stronger in order to face the next apocalyptic threat which comes knocking. But a man does not practice for a marathon by running more marathons – he practices by jogging a set number of miles every day, pushing his limits where appropriate, all while keeping in shape at the same time.
Your characters will need to do that, too, future authors. Don’t make them face ever-escalating threats in every book. Leave them some room to breathe – and to find out what they are truly made of, when the chips are down, and the stakes are not astronomical. Both your protagonists and your audience will thank you for it. 😉
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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!
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3 thoughts on “A Study in Black – Thoughts on Marvel’s Black Widow and the MCU in General”
Nice run down, and thanks for the shout out!
I especially like the point at the end of ‘don’t always have world ending threats’. That was one of the reasons I liked the ‘Ant-Man’ films so much: they’re both pretty low-key films where the threats are mostly personal, or only world-threatening as a side-effect. It’s wonderfully refreshing to have a superhero story where the main issue is ‘what’s going to happen to this particular group of people?’
The need to ‘up the stakes’ seems to me another instance of writers being told a rule, then interpreting it in the most simplistic manner possible. “We need high stakes. So…the world will be destroyed! Millions dead! The universe destroyed!!” Rather than “Make the audience invested in these characters, then threaten them with disaster.”
(It reminds me of a joke from MST3k:
Movie character: “They say it could blow up the universe.”
Tom Servo: “Or worse!”)
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Thank *you*! I’m glad you enjoyed it – and you earned that shout out! 😀
That’s a good point regarding the Ant-Man films – they were a nice break from apocalyptic threats. To a degree, so were the Captain America films (I have serious issues with IM 2 and three). Thor: The Dark World at least had a right to have a world-ending threat. Even if they did waste Malekith, the danger was real enough and we were following Thor’s adventure. If he didn’t have to contend with threats on a planetary scale, we probably would have been disappointed.
For the rest, smaller would have been better. Something with high personal stakes for them, or for a specific group of people, with possible repercussions beyond that. No need to “go big or go home” *all* the time….
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