Black Widow Forever Red Plot Summary:
Eight years ago, Natasha Romanoff went to Odessa to kill the man who turned her into a super spy in the first place, Ivan Somodorov. In the process, she saved a young girl, Ava. Now 17 and recently escaped from a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, Ava wants nothing to do with her former savior. But when she starts dreaming of a boy named Alex she’s never met, Ava is forced to question whether she and Natasha are closer than either of them would like to admit.
Fans of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character have been begging for a standalone movie for what feels like decades. Instead, Marvel has given them a YA novel featuring Natasha Romanoff leaving her fellow Avengers behind to hang out with a couple of horny teenagers.
Written by author Margaret Stohl (who penned the popular fantasy romance series Beautiful Creatures), Black Widow: Forever Red is just as much about Natasha’s difficulty with emotional connection as it is about the romance between a girl and boy. The girl, Ava, is a Ukrainian expatriate who’s painted as a foil for the Black Widow, the younger version of herself that Natasha gets to save. Except her help only goes so far and after years of neglect, Ava doesn’t just have Natasha’s red hair but the same chip on her shoulder.
Considering how much flack Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron script received for making Natasha’s first major non-superhero plot line a love/motherhood story, it’s a shame this novel covers similar territory. However, Stohl’s character work is much stronger. There’s a very spoiler-y plot reason for why the Widow and Ava are so connected, but suffice to say it allows Stohl to explore Natasha’s motivations and emotional hang ups in a way the movies never have. When Ava spitefully throws one of the birthday gifts Natasha has anonymously given to her over the years, the latter’s unwillingness to admit she gave it in the first place tells us just as much about her as the revelation itself.
Unfortunately, this character work keeps getting disrupted by the teenage love story. The male half of that story is Alex, an obnoxious New Jersey-ite with a knack for fencing and propensity for getting into fights. He falls madly in love with Ava at first sight and while his constant, desperate attempts to ingratiate himself with her are realistic of a lovestruck teenage boy, it doesn’t make him any less annoying. He’s meant to be the comic relief, but he mostly comes off as an attempt by Stohl to make a goofy hero as lovable as, say, Tony Stark. Iron Man himself even shows up to declare how much he loves the kid, though not even Robert Downey Jr. could make some of Alex’s supposedly funny lines work. Like the moment when he interrupts one of Ava and Natasha’s arguments to correct their use of English idioms. It’s meant to break the tension, but it makes him seem like a child too stupid to realize how serious the situation is. The Alex character has more serious problems too. There are spoiler-y plot reasons for why his romance with Ava has a slightly awkward edge, but let’s just say that his affection feels creepily like a misplaced love of Natasha considering how much the two women look and act alike.
Still, Alex would be easier to ignore or even forgive if the book weren’t periodically told from his perspective. Granted, alternating the POV amongst the three main characters is the book’s smartest technique. All three narrators are unreliable, often keeping vital information from the others and the reader until it makes the most dramatic impact and the constantly changing perspective leaves the reader grasping for footing. The way Stohl slowly doles out information is impressive in any genre.
However, well-constructed as the plot ultimately is (even if it occasionally drags in the first two-thirds), it’s difficult to fully recommend Black Widow: Forever Red. It’s impossible to read the book without constantly thinking about its relationship to the MCU. The ending could allow some characters to join that universe, but it’s hard to imagine a teenaged ScarJo look alike suddenly showing up in Civil War. And more importantly, why isn’t this story a movie? Young adult films have dominated the box office for nearly a decade, so this story seems particularly ripe for the big screen. Are the powers that be at Marvel really that afraid of a female superhero-led story? Considering they couldn’t even let a well-established and well-liked character be the star of her own story without forcing in a teenage romance, the answer is probably “yes.”