so, i work in the children’s department of a public library and a few months back when i was going through a book catalogue, i saw black widow joins the mighty avengers and got really excited because HEY! a black widow book for kids! AWESOME! i ordered it even though it was paperback and i never order those since they don’t hold up well, and it’s been steadily checked out since we got it on the shelves, which is also AWESOME.
but then i read it myself and i’m not too hot on the backstory? they’ve given her a younger brother, alexei, who is also trained by the red room, and her whole reason for going to the avengers is to rescue her brother from having his mind erased.
it just bothers me that they rewrote her backstory and motives to be about a male character, and it seems they’ve created this character just for that purpose (at least, i can’t find anything online about her having a brother.) i mean, i know a lot of her history is tied up with ivan, her former husband alexi, clint, and bucky, (and most of this i know from wikis, since i’m new to marvel and have only read the more recent books about her so maybe i’m totally off here) but it just feel different having her motive for breaking free from the kgb’s control being about someone else’s freedom rather than her own. i’m also wondering if this is the backstory they have planned for the movies, since this is part of a children’s series meant to tie in with them.
ANYWHO. just wanted to know what your thoughts on this might be.
This got long!!
Natasha’s story has always been about sacrifice, about giving up some part of yourself so that others may survive, to better serve your country, the nobility of that sacrifice and the dangers it brings to your own sense of self. She could never join up with the KGB because it was what she wanted, she could only convince herself it was something someone else needed.
When critics complain about superheroines and how their backstorys wind up spinning around men at the cost of themselves, it’s generally because so many of the biggest heroines depend directly on some bigger male character. She-Hulk and Carol Danvers owe their powers and codenames to other male superheroes, and they are the rule and not the exception. But most superheroes aren’t really self-made, they’re borne from accident and trauma and sometimes the kindness of others. Batman is nothing without his mother’s death, but that doesn’t mean his story revolves around a woman. He still stands at the forefront of his own mythology. Natasha has always been driven onward by the ghosts of men, but characters like Ivan and Alexei were added to give her story depth— that they exist doesn’t take away from it being her story. When JMS rebooted Wonder Woman and had Diana decide to take up superheroing after seeing Superman doing it, that was a mistake. But Diana rescuing an American soldier and escorting him back to Man’s World, that’s a part of her mythology.
I’ve said that superhero origins usually come in two parts: a circumstance and a decision. Peter Parker gets bitten by radioactive spider: circumstance. But it’s Uncle Ben’s death that makes him realize he needs to be Spider-man. Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered, and that’s a tragic circumstance, but what Bruce decides to do after is what makes him Batman. For Natasha, her skills and espionage training are her circumstance. Maybe not as wholly coincidental as being bitten by a spider or being born on another planet, but not something she wanted, either. It was something that happened to her, as much as something she made happen— she was a gun to be fired, but someone else had the trigger. What Natasha did with that circumstance, what she decided to do, was free herself and use her skills to heroic ends. And that’s when she became Black Widow: superhero and not Black Widow: Red Room project.
I think men can have a lot to do with her circumstance (and indeed they always have), but Natasha’s decision should always be about her. Introducing a brother character doesn’t bother me, but making that her whole reason to free herself is a bit more dubious. Still, a lot hinges on how it’s framed in the story: is Alexei used as some moment of circumstance that finally forces her to think for herself, or is the whole moment of self-determination avoided in favor of just saving her brother? Would she still want to fight with the Avengers after this one mission is done? Those are the questions I would ask. I’d really have to read it for myself, and now I plan to.
I do agree, it’s awesome that they’ve made a Black Widow book for kids and that kids are interested in checking it out! It sounds to me that they changed Alexei from her husband to her brother to suit the target agegroup of the audience, who don’t have husbands but might very well have brothers. So I doubt this is a sign of where they are going for the MCU.
For bonus continuity trivia: there was a short story in late 90s that dealt with the possibility of Natasha having a brother that survived the housefire that orphaned her. Per comics, he came back as a white loyalist cyborg and attacked Natasha as a traitor, dying before Natasha could determine if he was really who he claimed to be.