Since I first got a Marvel Unlimited subscription last year, I’ve devoured as much of the Marvel Universe as time and my bleary eyes will allow. I knew the big names from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the stacks of trade volumes I’d gotten from my library. But after I spent a lot of time focused on the Marvel Now! runs, I came to know characters like Daredevil and Ms. Marvel and Luke Cage as well as I knew Captain America and Iron Man and Thor.
This is a happy development, of course, and, I’ve discovered, one of the joys of being a comics reader. No other medium I can think of allows us to dive into – and follow at great depth – the trials and travails of an almost exhausting number of less central characters.
Less central. That’s exactly how I had thought of Natasha Romanov until I picked up Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto’s Black Widow. Yes, Scarlett Johansson has been slowly increasing the visibility of the ex-KGB agent through her presence in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but compared to the rest of the Marvel all-stars, she seemed a little pedestrian. No powers, always on the fringes of other people’s stories, etc. After reading the current run of Black Widow, I can only shake my head at my foolishness. This book is awesome.
The book follows Natasha’s exploits independent of her roles with S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers. Her accountant-slash-manager-slash-dude with a few tricks up his sleeve finds her work – spying, stealing, assassinating, you know, the kind of things she excels at – as a mercenary, making enough money to support the people whose lives she wrecked before she became one of the good guys. Familiar faces like Hawkeye (if there’s a comparison for this book, it’s probably Matt Fraction’s work with Clint Barton’s other life), Punisher, and the Winter Soldier show up occasionally, but what I love so much is how focused this book is on Natasha’s psychology. Even when there’s plenty of action, Black Widow feels intimately focused on not just the what and the where of Natasha’s mission, but the why and the how of her mind and personality. Action sequences and solo missions are punctuated only by occasional scraps of inner monologue, which stacks tension and maintains focus on the gorgeous, delicate art.
The creators of Black Widow have resisted the temptation to populate it with endless cameos from the superstar wing of Marvel’s universe to drum up interest, and the book is better for it. Natasha is the star of the show, and it really feels like Edmondson has figured out that that means a sometimes quieter, more internal, more character-driven book. That’s not to say Black Widow skimps on action, just that it’s well-balanced. G. Willow Wilson and Matt Fraction have pulled off something very similar with their respective work on Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye and have drawn (totally deserved) raves. I don’t know that Black Widow is generating the same level of praise, but I hope it gets the attention it deserves. And if you’re one of the many people who have expressed a desire to see Natasha Romanov star in her own MCU film, then you probably should hope along with me.
Because see, the current run of Black Widow is not just one of the best books Marvel has going, but it’s also the best path toward a stand-alone Black Widow movie. As of now, Marvel has nine films scheduled for release between today and May of 2019, and although Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha will certainly show up in at least a few of those, she isn’t in line for her own feature yet. To me, the only obvious hurdle left is what to do about the story. I imagine that somewhere at Marvel HQ there’s an enormous corkboard covered in pushpins, yarn, and index cards that details exactly how the various elements of the MCU intersect and how they’ll relate to each other as time goes on. I’m sure it’s all very complicated. And that’s exactly why Marvel Now!’s Black Widow would work on screen: it’s almost entirely disconnected from the enormous web – no pun intended – of narrative complexity that has to be carefully maintained for the planned slate of Marvel movies to work.
The film could center, like the book does, on a Natasha working in her time away from the team setting of The Avengers and their plotlines. The MCU has already dropped hints about her haunted past in both The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier, so the odd flashback and a couple of lines of dialogue can quickly cover her backstory and motive, and then we can dive right in to Black Widow doing very Black Widow-y things in the name of salving her bruised conscience.
And if Kevin Feige and co. want to weave Natasha’s story into that of the other characters’ films, so be it. But if not, no worries. Edmondson and Noto have shown that Black Widow is more than capable of carrying her own stories, and in doing so, they’ve shown Marvel the way to give the character the chance to do it on screen.
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