And sometimes prequels just cause problems…
Last month, my daughter and I finally got to see Black Widow. In a real movie theater. On a big screen. The way movies, especially Superhero action movies are meant to be seen. We loved it. We are both fans of Black Widow/Natasha Romanov and were delighted that she finally got a movie of her own, one where she does not have to stand off to side and let the big boys of the Marvel Cinematic Universe hog the spotlight (looking at you Tony Stark). We both loved the fact that Natasha’s past, always glossed over in previous movies, is finally filled in.
As we discussed the movie afterwards, my daughter pointed out one big problem. Not with the movie itself so much, but with how it fits in with the rest of the MCU. Or rather, how it not only does not fit in, but, does, in fact, undermines one incredibly important event in Black Widow’s life.
(And here is where I need to put in the Spoiler Warning. I will be discussing key events of both Black Widow and Avengers: Endgame. If you haven’t seen both movies, proceed at your own risk.)
Natasha has always been portrayed as a character essentially alone, lacking the connections others have, but not necessarily by choice. She does have a special bond with the character of Clint Barton/Hawkeye. This connection has grown out of the way Clint and his family have adopted her as their own, giving her the family and connections she lacks, but desires. So has her membership in the Avengers. At the beginning of Avengers: Endgame, we see Natasha holding a lonely vigil in the near empty Avengers headquarters, coordinating the activities of the other remaining heroes in a post-Thanos world that clearly has no need for the Avengers. When one of the other characters asks why she continues in this thankless task, she replies that the Avengers are her family. And then comes that incredibly important event. Natasha and Clint have gone to retrieve one of the Infinity Stones, as part of a desperate bid to undo the damage Thanos did in the first half of the epic. When Clint and Natasha reach the stone they seek, they discover that only way to gain this Infinity Stone is to sacrifice something/someone you love. For Clint and Natasha, that means one of them must die for the other to achieve the stone. They argue over which one will live and which will die. In the end, Natasha sacrifices herself so that Clint can recover the stone, and it is very clear in the scene that her reason is that Clint has a family, a family that Thanos destroyed. A family that can be restored to life if Clint brings back the Infinity Stone. Natasha, on the other hand, does not, and since she is alone, she will sacrifice herself so that Clint will not be.
Natasha’s lack of a family is at the core of why she commits her final act of heroism.
And then comes Black Widow, in which we discover that Natasha did have a family once. True, it was a made up family, mere cover for a Soviet espionage operation, but it felt real to her. And years later, when she reunites all the members of that family – a sister, a mother, a father –they feel like a family, they act like a family, and by the end of the movie, they have become a family. It is a great ending, both for the movie and for Natasha’s story. She finally gets the family she has so long desired.
Except, of course, Black Widow occurs several years before Endgame. Before Natasha sacrifices herself because Clint has a family and she does not. But, now it turns out that she does have a family. She has had a family for years. Her entire motivation for her sacrifice is gone, and the whole sequence is suddenly much weaker for it. The creators of Black Widow got so caught up in giving Natasha a happy ending, that they forgot that this movie was not really the end of Natasha’s story, and so they blithely undermine the whole tragic sacrifice that ultimate defines Natasha as a hero.
And that is my problem with so many prequels – most of the time, the creators are really making a sequel, continuing the character’s story in an innovative fashion, ignoring the fact that, by its nature, the prequel comes before, and so can not further a story that does not exist yet. Sometimes we can try to ignore the awkward spots, but sometimes, like with this movie, the prequel actually undoes key events in the story that was created first, but chronologically comes second.