Ava Orlova is a teenage orphan living out of the basement of a Brooklyn YMCA and dodging the “help” of S.H.I.E.L.D’s witness protection division. Alex Manor is a hothead from the suburbs who has haunted Ava’s dreams for years before the two finally meet in person at a fencing competition. Before Ava and Alex can begin to understand their strange connection, Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a Black Widow) crashes the tournament on a mission to find Ava before Russian mad scientist, Ivan Somodorov, can. Fiercely self-reliant ever since Natasha rescued her as a child from Ivan’s cruel experiments and then dropped her into S.H.I.E.L.D custody without a backward glance, Ava wants nothing to do with her former hero, but the best chance all three of them have of defeating Ivan is by sticking together.
This is a perfectly adequate and enjoyable, if forgettable, spy adventure novel set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, containing a particularly amusing Tony Stark cameo. The inter-chapter frame story, a mission debriefing with Natasha regarding an unspecified death, adds a nice level of tension.
This is not a Black Widow book.
That’s her name and her image on the cover, her perspective in that first chapter, the one a person might flip through before buying, but this isn’t her story. Natasha plays the aloof mentor to Ava and Alex, with said aloofness acting as her sole defining character trait for much of the book, and taken to extremes which, from our vantage point outside her mind, appear to border on pettiness.
It must be acknowledged, of course, that anything related to movie-verse Black Widow comes with seriously loaded pressure. She’s become the symbol of women in Marvel movies, superhero movies, and blockbusters in general, and the snubbing thereof. The very existence of a Black Widow YA prose novel licensed within the movie-verse does reek a bit of an attempt to placate and/or cash in on the demand for more exploration of the sole original female Avenger, and a review of the book is not the place for an exhaustive discussion of the movies or whether a novel was a wise form of patch for their shortcomings.
What can be said about the book itself is that it thoroughly fails to deliver on its back cover promise to “reveal the untold story of Black Widow.” No advantage is taken of Natasha’s central billing in this story, or of the introspective potential this medium lends itself to, to allow us to know her any better. More superficially, there are also a surprising number of proofing errors for a large publisher’s release, albeit one that doesn’t specialize in prose.
In the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow: Forever Red is a severely unsatisfying bait-and-switch. Viewed in a bubble on its own merits alone, it’s B-minus, three star popcorn.
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