Note: This article contains spoilers for Black Widow (2021) and references her actions in the other 7 Marvel Films in which she appears. You have been warned.
“Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort. …
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue
The fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”
– T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
Marvel Comics are one of the defining myths of my life and have brought me untold joy and thrills. With our daughters now old enough to watch action movies, we did a series of family pandemic movie nights through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Having finished earlier this year, I was thrilled that at long last, the 24th movie would be released, starring the arch-heroine herself, Black Widow.
I expected a film that would be full of action, fights, and humor, which Black Widow (2021) certainly had in abundance. But, I also encountered richer, haunting themes, as the movie powerfully asserts the dignity and worth of every woman in a world which so seldom seems to recognize this. Further, it tells a story about the fight to bear the incalculable weight of one’s own trauma even while walking with other people through the trauma they bear too.
Part 1: “All that you have done, and been”
It’s hard to understate the importance of Scarlett Johansson’s performance and her character of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow for the films of the Infinity Saga, an ultimate “glue” character that binds a team together. It didn’t quite start out this way, though, as her initial appearance as a femme fatale spy (in Iron Man 2) featured “male gaze” aspects of her presentation so stark (MCU pun intended?) that even longtime series producer/Marvel executive Victoria Alonso would recently lament that “It bothered me then and it bothers me now.” Yet, as the films progressed, they increasingly began to mine the riches of her comics lore and built out a character of tremendous depth. Audiences would learn that she carried the shame of her past life as an assassin, desperate to wipe out “the red from her ledger.” Her motivations were far deeper than guilt. Her long years of injustice, both against and for “the good guys” led to a dogged determination to do the right thing, “whatever it takes.” She fought by Captain America’s side in exposing the corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the world in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and later, would sacrifice much to stand by him when the government turned against him in Captain America: Civil War. She was relentless in the fight against the mad Titan, Thanos, going so far as to sacrifice her life to both gain the Soul Stone and help restore her longtime partner Clint “Hawkeye” Barton back to his family and to the light.Nothing about you is inconsequential.
We learn some of this history as Natasha talks to an imprisoned Loki in The Avengers (2012). The God of Mischief taunts her, “Can you wipe out that much red? Dreykov’s daughter? Sao Paulo? The hospital fire?” Loki knows, having mind-controlled Hawkeye, that Natasha’s ledger is indeed “gushing red” with the lives she has taken. In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, having been enchanted by a mind control spell, Nat is forced into a harrowing waking dream wherein she recalls the horrors of her espionage conditioning in the Red Room. The Red Room took young girls and trained them with balletic precision in dance and murder, turning them into killing machines, body and soul. The “graduation” from this ceremony was forced murder followed by forced sterilization, a gruesome assault on their body and agency, insuring that the Widows would never be able to leave or start a family. The cumulative effect of these horrors sees Natasha call herself a monster.
Black Widow further paints in the background. We learn that Natasha and her “sister” Yelena were raised by Russian spies in America, and after their cover was blown, they were abandoned by their supposed parents and forced into the “family” business. The harrowing and evocative opening credits sequence surreally traces the journey of the girls from childhood to adulthood in the hell of the Red Room, while an eerie cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” plays. This place is both a factory and slaughter house, fed by a steady stream of trafficked victims. We later learn that Yelena and the younger Widows have been conditioned to the point of being organic robots, with only a mysterious red mist able to liberate them from this mind and body control. The sisters are, of course, able to save the day, defeat the villain, and free their fellow Widows from this slavery.
Part 2: “The exasperated spirit proceeds”
Human beings cannot experience the things Natasha and Yelena experience without trauma resulting. The very word “trauma” and “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD), have become common in our vernacular in recent years. This does not mean, though, the people exactly understand what it is, what it does, or what can be done to help people heal from it. Dr. Gabor Maté explains that “Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you, as a result of what happens to you.” I was recently introduced to Dr. Maté through the documentary film, The Wisdom of Trauma, which chronicles the impact of trauma on domestic and sexual abuse survivors, incarcerated murderers, the homeless, seemingly “ordinary people,” and Dr. Maté himself, who survived the Holocaust as a child. Trauma is often the root of addiction and violence, also presenting as depression, anxiety, and auto-immune disease. Trauma is “the disconnection from our true, authentic selves… and the healing is the reconnection.”
Researcher and physician Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has researched this topic and cared for traumatized patients for over 30 years, proving how “the terror and isolation at the core of trauma literally reshape both brain and body.” His magnum opus, The Body Keeps the Score, is that precious rarity: a book born of intensive, scientific research that is also a page-turner, laying out trauma’s destructive impact on the body. It “wreaks havoc with the immune system and the functioning of the body’s organs. Only making it safe for trauma victims to inhabit their bodies, and to tolerate feeling what they feel, and knowing what they know, can lead to lasting healing.” A pivotal finding of the research is that traditional “talk therapy” is not enough. Victims of trauma must learn to physically re-connect to their bodies, including “various forms of trauma processing, neurofeedback, theater, meditation, play, and yoga.”The work required here is not that of “try harder,” but, to quote therapist Aundi Kolber, “try softer.”
Black Widow clearly has trauma in mind. One of its co-writers, Jac Shaeffer, was lead writer and show-runner for WandaVision, a show which explicitly named and explored the trauma that Wanda Maximoff had experienced in her own childhood of horrors. So, let’s consider the mind-body nexus of trauma. As I noted earlier, Yelena is freed from literal mind and body control by the red mist. In one scene, we see how total this control was, as Red Room mastermind Dreykov remote controls a Widow’s very arm movements, forcing her to kill herself rather than divulge information.
Yelena laments to Natasha that she has no idea which of her actions as a Widow were her own and which were a result of the mind control. Natasha was never under mind control, but still grapples with everything that’s happened. What was the Red Room but slavery and institutionalized child abuse? Forced to fight, later to kill; forced to surrender all bodily autonomy. In one scene, we see the dark bruises on Natasha’s body after a fight, but these are the least of her wounds. The body keeps the score. We know from Nat’s journey that the fight for healing and hope would continue for the rest of her life. Black Widow passes the baton to Yelena, who heads into a future in which she is finally able to exercise her own agency. But she will have much work to do to reconnect to herself, body and mind. The red mist immediately freed Yelena from the mind and body control, but it has no power to end the trauma.
Part 3: “Unless restored by that refining fire”
This topic resonates with me deeply, even though I am not a physician, therapist, or any sort of counselor. These are reflections from my own journey which is very much a work in progress. Maybe you’re on a similar journey yourself–either for your own healing or in advocating for the healing of those that you love. Regardless of how you find yourself on this road, I hope to offer a few “traveling mercies” from my own reflection. In The Falcon and the Winter Solider, there’s a scene I come back to often in which Sam Wilson, who is himself a combat veteran and has counseled returned veterans as they process their trauma, admonishes Bucky Barnes to “do the work.” The work required here is not that of “try harder,” but, to quote therapist Aundi Kolber, “try softer.” Writing as a Christian, I cannot help but relate to this in a framework of my faith.
First, your story and your body matter. I find deep hope in the fact that Jesus, God the Son, was not just some spiritual being. We celebrate the Incarnation every Christmas, the reality that God became human. Jesus has a body of flesh and bone. He ate, drank, slept, and wept. In that very same body, he experienced extreme trauma, even the trauma of death on a cross. Even in his resurrection from the dead, he bears the physical scars in his body, showing his friend Thomas the scars in his hand and side. One old hymn puts it beautifully: “Those wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified.” As we work for healing in body and mind, as we process our stories and the stories of those we love, we do so in the knowledge that it truly, deeply matters to God. Nothing about you is inconsequential. You are seen, known, and loved by God.
Second, you cannot do this alone. I cannot stress enough the necessity of working through these issues in safe community: friends who will walk with you, not try to fix you. You need other voices with you in your journey—even as Natasha and Yelena work through their shared yet unique experiences together. This should absolutely include counselors, therapists, and physicians. Especially for people who have experienced severe trauma, like abuse, it is crucial that your caregivers be trauma-informed.
Third and finally, you will need a lot of patience for this journey. I recently revisited James 1 and read these words with new eyes: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas. 1:2-3 NIV) I almost gritted my teeth as I read this. I had always thought of this in terms of spiritual trials, considering its application to my present trials stung. I want perseverance to finish its work now! I don’t want to wait! But, healing from trauma or walking alongside with your friends and loved ones who are healing from trauma is a long road. You cannot hurry down it. Perseverance will finish its work in its own time.
Some of my favorite moments in Black Widow come as Natasha and Yelena talk, be it behind the wheel or over a drink. Yelena is so glad to finally have agency back, proud of the little things like her green tactical vest—the first article of clothing she’s ever purchased and which she gives to her sister in parting. We will absolutely see more of Yelena down the road, probably as soon as this fall in Hawkeye on Disney+. But, I hope it’s not just all action and quips, though she excels at both. I hope we see more of the character’s journey of healing. As for Natasha, it is fitting that this story sets “a crown upon [her] lifetime’s effort,” showing everything the character grew to be, and more. In T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” he imagines a conversation in which the vision of healing is seen as a dance within restorative flame: “you must move in measure, like a dancer.” For a woman whose ballet training came at gunpoint, Natasha Romanoff nevertheless learned to move in measure, finding restoration as she processed her journey along the way. Although the time has come to say goodbye to an incredible character, she left us with her most weighty, yet beautiful, story yet.