Black Widow #5 ushers in the end of the “The Ties That Bind” arc — one that has seen Natasha Romanoff’s quaint nuclear family given and taken away. The premise of the plot has always felt…well, a bit Joss Whedony. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, director Joss Whedon framed Romanoff as some sort of deviant for not having children. This misogynistic take was heavily criticized, and has now aged incredibly poorly, (or well, depending on how you look at it), in light of the revelations surrounding Whedon’s abuse.
SPOILERS AHEAD for Black Widow #5!
Needless to say, I was surprised when writer Kelly Thompson decided to start her Black Widow run on the idea that Romanoff could have a husband and a child, and was, in fact, happier for it. It all felt quite like something from a bygone era — in the same vein as that god-awful Carol Danvers pregnancy plot that we no longer talk about (CW: mentions of sexual assault in the link). However, I gave Thompson the benefit of the doubt, hoping that she would eventually subvert the narrative she was presenting to the reader, in some sort of deconstruction of how women are treated in comics…
Well, at issue #5, I can confidently say that this is not the case. Am I surprised? Absolutely not. Am I disappointed? Yes.
The issue begins with memories of Natasha and her nondescript heterosexual fiancé, as they visit the zoo with their little baby Stevie. Flash forward to now, and nondescript heterosexual fiancé and little baby Stevie have seemingly exploded to smithereens. Everyone is very upset and distraught, except for maybe the reader, who at this point has little emotional attachment to the two characters. Widow’s enemies could have targeted her beautiful bay window and I would have probably felt more.
What follows is, in all honesty, a fantastic action scene. A lot of credit needs to be given to Elena Casagrande, whose artwork is simply phenomenal. Casagrande is one of the best action artists out there, and is no doubt going to be one of the greats in the industry. Honestly, Black Widow #5 is worth buying for the visuals alone — Thompson’s script almost feels like background noise. The fight scene mainly consists of Widow, Hawkeye and Yelena going up against some Hydra goons, along with the Red Guardian, Snapdragon and Weeping Lion. Casagrande is able to capture the unique fighting-styles of each character perfectly. This is added to by Jordie Bellaire’s distinctive red and black color palette, which gives each punch and shot fired guttural physicality.
My one, minor qualm about the action sequence is how Hawkeye appears to blow up a building full of people. Whilst Clint has certainly upped the brutality of his violence as of late, he is not a full-out murderer. This exists as part of a wider problem with Black Widow #5: how it treats Hawkeye and Winter Soldier as simple plot progressors, and not realized characters. The pair is delightful, and Thompson writes their brand of banter pretty well. However, very little new is done with them. A lot of the sentiment conveyed between the two heroes and Natasha in Black Widow #5 is a repeat of what readers saw in Mathew Rosenberg’s Tales of Suspense limited-run. Indeed, the relationship dynamic between the three in this series was very interesting — but to simply rehash the same narrative beats again feels lazy, and it ignores how both Clint and Bucky have since transformed as characters.
In all fairness, this is not just Thompson’s problem — Clint’s fall from grace in Hawkeye: Freefall has not been acknowledged by any Marvel ongoing since the series ended. However, the purely functional use of Clint, along with Bucky, stands out so much in Black Widow #5 because they are at the center of its plot. To have both men do whatever Natasha asks without question — and then split them into soft-approach-good-boy Hawkeye/pragmatic-approach-bad-boy Winter Soldier respectively — feels a bit reductive.
Finally, onto Natasha’s arc. In the final quarter of Black Widow #5, we discover that nondescript heterosexual fiancé and little baby Stevie are not dead, but have been secretly transferred to another lifeless suburb, where they can go hiking on Saturdays, or do whatever middle-class American families do. Natasha cannot see them, and she is sad. Queue the lament about how there is a hole where her family used to be. That with nondescript heterosexual fiancé and little baby Stevie, she felt things she had never felt before. At this point in the issue, I was looking into the distance, The Office style, because Natasha is once again being used to suggest that women would be a whole lot happier if they could just hold a man and spit out a dang baby.
I know that I am sounding harsh here, but between Thompson’s Black Widow and Whedon’s Age of Ultron, there is a lot to be said about how women in ‘superhero’ roles are often framed in direct opposition to their assumed normative responsibilities as caregivers. The character of Natasha is a particularly poignant vehicle for this message, as much of her identity is built upon her status as a “lady killer” that cannot have children. What both Thompson and Whedon have done in their respective portrayals of the character is suggest that her redemption and personal closure ultimately comes at the point that she embraces the motherly domestic life for herself. Saving the world is not enough — she must fill the space that was left by her deeds as a villain.
At the end of Black Widow #5, Natasha is not enraged that her bodily autonomy was taken away from her. She does not feel conflicted that most of the memories and emotional history of her fake family were entirely fabricated. There is no sense of injustice over how she was taken out the hero game and forced to become a mother against her will. In fact, she seems to long for all these things. I know Thompson wants me to long for them too, but as a female reader, I feel nothing but dissonance for this narrative.
Black Widow #5 completes an outdated and ultimately misogynistic arc by Kelly Thompson, that leaves a lot to be deconstructed. If you are going to buy this issue, buy it for the standout action sequences.
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