Today, Patrick and Spencer are discussing Black Widow 3, originally released May 4th, 2016.
Patrick: You wanna hear my theory for why we haven’t had a Black Widow solo movie yet? I don’t think filmmakers or movie audiences are prepared to sit through Natasha’s origin story. Given the global political climate, it’s bound to be difficult to mine adventure and romance out of what is essentially kidnapping young girls and turning them into child soldiers. That’s the source of Nat’s power – she’s frighteningly competent because she literally had to develop those competencies or die in the process. As Black Widow 3 drifts between the past and the present, Chris Samnee and Mark Waid make a point to keep us in the dark about how Nat pulls off any of her numerous remarkable feats. It’s a confident, unnerving read.
We start in New York City; we know because there’s a supertitle telling us as much on page one. But even that amount of spelled-out information is uncharacteristic of the rest of the issue. Nat walks down a crowded street, under the watchful eye of… someone… peering through a sniper scope. For as little as there is going on in this page, it’s sort of incredible.
First off – Samnee has Black Widow’s insignia baked right into the layout of the panels. And it’s not as though the paneling here is arbitrary – in fact, it’s almost the opposite: nearly every panel divide is a physical object in the world of the characters. Samnee places his cameras high, so the lines of the street and the lines of the window frame create a natural hourglass shape. In the center of the page is the view through the scope – check it out, you can even see the same people around Natasha’s telltale red hair in the panel before.
Now, I mentioned that I’m not entirely sure who this character is that’s watching her, but I’ll posit that — whoever it is — we are witnessing a lot of this story from their perspective. Or at the very least, we share a lot of the same voyeuristic tendencies. The sniper here views Nat through a scope, through a window, both of which constitute the panels that we are viewing her through. Throughout the rest of the issue, we are frequently pushed away to a comfortable distance, so Nat can work her magic. The first trick that she pulls to lose her tailing S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent is a simple trip-line; even Samnee’s visual vocabulary only hints at what she’s planning until she finally deploys it. Similarly, Nat steals an outfit between the panels (and over a page turn), and you’d be forgiven for not noticing that she pulled it off (let alone how).
I’ve numbered the sequence of events here, because the story mostly plays out in the background, even though it’s something our hero is actively doing. First, she spots the outfit on a manikin in the window. The next time we see that manikin, we’re on the other side of the glass, and Natasha’s nowhere to be found. Letterer Joe Caramagna emphasizes the side of the glass that we’re on by having one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent’s speech balloons partially obscured by the window jam. In this second part, we see the manikin, but that prominently-featured green jacket / blue scarf combo is missing – and the manikin is missing an arm, as though undressed in a hurry. And then on the next page, we have these great panels of Nat in disguise, wearing the exact same clothes. That panel is packed with great detail – a business man on his phone, a young family expecting their third, a couple in the background Instagramming their experience. Nat’s outfit could easily be lost in that sea of detail. Samnee’s using the same kind of misdirection that Natasha is – how cool is that?
This continues once Nat reaches her destination. We don’t actually see her take out the first three enemy soldiers, but rather witness the evidence of her having taken them out. We see their distressed cries in one wide shot, and their unconscious (…dead?) bodies in another, with nothing but a discarded knife in between to indicate what happened. This isn’t Daredevil, where Waid and Samnee are careful to illustrate exactly how Matt Murdock perceives the world around him and then acts within it, this is Black Widow and we don’t get to be that close to Natasha Romanoff.
That does start to break down as she approaches the Red Room, and the flashbacks start to creep in. Spencer, what do you make of Nat’s minuscule fuck ups later in the issue? She’s spotted and shot at before reaching the Red Room, and then relies on a weapon that she mistakenly thinks will be there for her. It’s all tied up with the anxiety of being a kid in this kill-or-be-killed environment. She’s rattled by her own history, it’s no wonder creators keep it at arms’ length.
Spencer: It is a pretty horrific history, one where the few, pathetic moments of “kindness” offered by the Red Room Headmistress start to look appealing simply because the alternative is so much bleaker. Just to put things in perspective, the flashback tells the tale of a time when a young Natasha sneaks out at night to kill a man in order to make up for her failing to during her training — how screwed up is that?! Not only has the poor girl been forced into a life of murder, but she’s been so indoctrinated that she feels the need to run out and prove herself at it when she fails.
Even more disturbing is the fact that young Nat decided to keep the knife her victim stabbed her with as a trophy of some sort!
Or, at least, that’s what I’m assuming is happening here. I did briefly consider the possibility that perhaps Natasha had stolen the knife to make it look like she killed her target (by stabbing herself), but that’s based on the slimmest of evidence (how fearful Nat looks when she hides the knife, the Headmistress’ certainty that Nat succeeded being based on her unique stab wound, the fact that she hides the knife in the catacombs, a place the Headmistress just declared Natasha would never be allowed again), and is an awfully complicated scheme. Considering the pride in her eyes in that first panel, it seems more likely that Natasha wants to keep this knife as a reminder of what she can accomplish, or perhaps even of what the Yugoslavian did to her, in harmony with the Headmistress’ speech about scars. Either way, it again shows just how brainwashed and abused this poor young girl is.
That kind of childhood and these kind of scars don’t go away easily, as highlighted in Black Widow 3‘s most dazzling sequence.
In almost all fashions, Natasha Romanoff has transcended her past. She’s worked for the good guys, even been a hero and an Avenger, but all the skills she uses in these endeavors were learned in the Red Room, as Samnee and Wilson so expertly illustrate in the above image; her childhood Red Room ballet lessons directly translate to the choreography she now uses to beat the tar out of goons. Even if she’s managed to use them for good purpose, the skills she learned in the Red Room are a part of her, and that’s something’s that not gonna change.
So yeah, I can certainly understand why Black Widow might be slightly off her game as she enters the Red Room (although I don’t necessarily think that even the remarkably-competent Widow needs to be “off her game” to be taken by surprise by a skilled sniper); the bad memories this place brings back would be enough to distract anyone. That’s another feeling that Samnee and Wilson perfectly bring to life on the page — while much of the flashbacks are contained in their own segments (differentiated from the present-day scenes by white gutters and a reddish color), there’s more than a few occasions where the flashbacks bleed into the present-day happenings.
The “memory” of the Headmistress here reminds me of a ghost, which is likely an apt comparison considering the way the memories of Natasha’s past start haunting her as soon as she arrives at the remains of the Red Room. They’re not something she can escape, and it doesn’t seem coincidental that, the moment Widow tries to take advantage of those memories, she ends up with a knife in her gut.
Speaking of which: what do we think the deal is with Natasha’s young attacker? I’m assuming that the sniper following Nat throughout the issue is, if not Weeping Lion themselves, then one of their agents, but do we think that the girl is the sniper, or a new figure on the scene? Answers will no doubt start to reveal themselves in next month’s issue, but until then, what’s most pertinent about this character is how similar she is to the young version of Natasha Romanoff presented in the flashbacks. She’s clearly meant to be a reminder to the audience — and likely to Natasha, as well — of the young, brainwashed assassin Natasha once was. It even seems possible that she’s been sent (perhaps by Weeping Lion) exactly to throw Natasha off her game because of what she represents. Again, I suppose time will tell soon enough.
So I can’t blame Natasha for being caught by surprise under such fraught circumstances (even if her uniform really should be stab-proof — c’mon, Nat), but I appreciate how competent she is up to this point, even after first being taken by surprise by the sniper. In fact, it’s to her credit that she immediately turns the sniper to her advantage.
Natasha gets shot at? Unfortunate, but she’s skilled enough to then trick the sniper into taking out another one of her enemies. This actually might be the most impressive moment for Natasha as a soldier in this issue, at least to me; it demonstrates her intelligence and ruthlessness in equal measure, and all without a word from Natasha herself.
There’s another element of this scene I love, as well: it’s the designs of the two thugs chasing Natasha. The thug on the right especially stands out to me — that’s a unique, eye-catching design, especially for a character who dies literally two panels later. Putting that much thought into the design of a throwaway character was not at all necessary, but it’s indicative of the kind of care Samnee puts into his work. Really, it’s indicative of the care that the entire creative team (Samnee, Waid, Wilson, Caramanga, etc.) put into their work, and that’s what makes Black Widow such a joy to read, even when it’s tackling such dark subject matter.
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