Black Widow and the Red Stain of Sin
Editor’s note: This post includes spoilers for Black Widow.
For a movie about a former assassin haunted by her past, Black Widow opens on a surprisingly peaceful note.
As the camera floats through a hazy summer night sky in 1995 suburban Ohio, we see young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her little sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) catching fireflies under the loving watch of their mother Melina (Rachel Weisz). When their father Alexei (David Harbour) returns home from work, the idyll shatters. Alexei and Melina grab the girls and escape to an airfield, forcing Natasha to fight the mysterious agents in pursuit. The quartet escapes to Russia, where we discover that they are not Americans—nor are they even family. Alexei and Melina are Soviet spies, while Natasha and Yelena are trainees in the Black Widow program, which uses brainwashing and physical abuse to turn young girls into government killers.
This façade of peace recontextualizes the Natasha Romanoff we’ve known since her first Marvel Cinematic Universe appearance, in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Played by Scarlett Johansson, Natasha (aka Black Widow) has been defined by guilt. All of her actions, from spying on Tony Stark in Iron Man 2 to sacrificing herself in Avengers: Endgame, have been attempts to cleanse her sins. As she so memorably put it in The Avengers, Natasha believes she has “red in her ledger” and wants desperately to wipe it off. But if even her happy childhood is a lie, what does redemption for Natasha Romanov look like?
Writer Eric Pearson and director Cate Shortland explore that question in Black Widow’s first solo film. Set after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, in which she became a fugitive for defying international regulations on superheroes, Black Widow follows Natasha as she retreats to a safe house in Budapest. She finds there Yelena (Florence Pugh), now grown and on her own mission of redemption: searching for Widow program director Dreykov (Ray Winstone), in order to free the newest Widows from his mind-control techniques. Natasha agrees to join her one-time sister, in part because the plan involves freeing Alexei from a Russian prison and confronting Melina, who has been instrumental in developing Dreykov’s mind-control techniques.
Much of the movie imagines Natasha’s penance in the form of action. In battles featuring Dreykov’s personal assassin Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), an unstoppable killer who can replicate the fighting moves of any opponent, Shortland focuses on the surprisingly brutal damage characters inflict upon one another. But she also catches the determination on Natasha’s face, the desperation as she struggles to recover from one blow after another. Although it’s never said aloud, Johansson’s performance makes Natasha’s motivation clear: she deserves punishment, and maybe the pain will lead to healing.
The film better captures this tension in a more mundane scene. At the end of the second act, all four members of the faux family reunite around a table in Melina's kitchen. The gleefully oblivious Alexei, squeezing his large frame into the tights he once wore as the svelte Soviet superhero Red Guardian, is overjoyed at the girls’ accomplishments as spies. Melina remains focused on her scientific work. Yelena cannot help but be excited about returning to the only family she ever knew. Natasha, however, is consumed with anger. Sharing space with these participants in her wrongdoing only accentuates the guilt she feels.
Much of the movie imagines Natasha’s penance in the form of action.
For Christian viewers, there’s something relatable in Natasha's struggle. We all know the shame of having red in our ledgers. We all feel tempted to define ourselves according to some past failing or shortcoming. In our desire to break free from that definition, we sometimes view punishment as an escape, as if we deserve to be hurt because of the bad person we’ve become. That hurt can become our primary mode of being, driving our interactions with others. In our need to live in the pain we think we deserve, we create more suffering by punishing the people around us.
Much of that suffering comes from an ideal, some vision of perfection to which we measure ourselves. These visions can be mundane (the perfect family vacation photos and job successes disseminated on social media) or they can be profound (the spiritual leader who never seems to stumble).
The truth, however, is that we are all sinners living in a fallen world. Every one of us experiences shortcomings and failures, even the most apparently righteous churchgoer. As a gathering of believers, the church should not exist to impress each other with our goodness. Rather, the church exists for people haunted by sins; the church should provide a place to forgive one another and point each other toward the grace that covers us all. “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed,” James 5 urges. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
No explicit prayers happen in Black Widow, but the movie does feature something like a church service. During that meal in Melina’s kitchen, the four spies begin to break down. Through anger and disappointment and hurt, they slowly reveal to one another that their time together meant something, that they want more for their lives than killing and spying. Natasha and Yelena express to Alexei and Melina the suffering their actions caused; Alexei and Melina reveal the desperate situations that drove them into espionage. And then, for a moment, this group of broken, hurting, guilty people simply sit and share a meal together.
Any Christian who has taken communion knows that there’s grace in a shared meal. When Christ invites us to his table to share in his bread and wine, he does so regardless of the red in our ledgers. With his sacrifice, our ledgers have been forever balanced. And so his invitation to join together is more real and more loving than even the most perfect family watching fireflies in a Midwestern sky.