Captain Comics: Red Sparrow, Black Widow sipping from the same wellspring

Andrew A. Smith, Tribune News Service on

Published in Comic Books

Marvel Films has finally put a "Black Widow" movie on its schedule, tentatively for 2020. Some would argue 20th Century Fox has beaten them to it.

Fox's movie is "Red Sparrow," which premieres March 2 and features Jeremy Irons, Jennifer Lawrence, Mary-Louise Parker, Charlotte Rampling and Matthias Schoenaerts. J-Law plays Dominka Egorova, a ballerina who is recruited by Russian intelligence into "Sparrow School" in order to learn how to seduce Western men.

Quick digression: I am a Western man, and have met quite a few Western men. And let me tell you: Seducing Western men is not a skill most women need to be taught. Frankly, it's embarrassingly easy, even if you're not Jennifer Lawrence.

But the purpose of the Sparrow program isn't sex, it's gathering intelligence from Western sources. So Sparrows are assigned to seduce men who are trained to spot agents just like them, and fool those men into thinking the women aren't agents, and then seduce them. That's a much more difficult job, requiring considerably more than three beers, a tight shirt and a feigned interest in football.

In the movie, Egorova's ballet career ends due to an injury, and it is then she joins the Sparrow School. It turns out she's the best recruit they've ever had -- ballet dancing must make you extra sexy, or duplicitous, or something -- and she is sent on assignment. Her target is a CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), who tries to break her conditioning and convince her he's the only one she can trust.

Spy-jinks ensue. (Which include enough torture and graphic nudity to be assigned an R rating, so leave the kids at home.)

At first blush, this summary does bear more than a little resemblance to Marvel's Black Widow. And I don't just mean the nomenclature (color+creature=headliner).

Natalia Alianovna Romanova first appeared in Marvel Comics as international jet-setter Natasha Romanoff in a 1964 Iron Man story. Something that was obvious to everyone but Tony Stark (one of those Western men alluded to above), she had come to A) assassinate a defector, and B) seduce Stark and learn all she could about the Iron Man armor for her Soviet masters.

This was called a "honey trap" back in those Cold War days, and Romanoff was supposed to be the epitome of an attractive woman -- well, at least for the 1940s and '50s, when writer/editor Stan Lee and artist Don Heck came of age. Her opera gloves, pillbox hat, tight evening gown, strategically placed mole and gossamer veil were obviously glam enough for the smitten Stark, although the youngsters of the time probably wondered why she was dressing like their grandmothers.

Romanoff failed with Stark, but hooked up with a supervillain who was on the wrong side of the law through no fault of his own: Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye the Marksman. As Clint moved closer and closer to the side of the angels -- eventually becoming an Avenger, as we all know -- he dragged Natasha with him.

In the long run, their romance didn't last. But her defection did. She became a superhero, a trusted agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and later an Avenger herself.

And when Marvel eventually got around to giving her an origin, it turned out she was -- wait for it -- a ballerina. She was recruited by the KGB when her husband, a cosmonaut, appeared to die in a launch-pad explosion.

But that's not all! In the 2004 miniseries "Black Widow: Homecoming," we learned that Natasha had been trained from a very young age in the "Red Room." This was an espionage school for girls, and from all indications, a pretty vicious one that resembles the cinematic Sparrow School. In addition to brutal conditioning, she was physically and psychologically augmented, accounting for her long life span (her parents died in the Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-43).

The good news here, at least from a "Red Sparrow" perspective, is that the Red Room planted false memories in their students to make them more effective liars. Natasha's past as a ballerina, it turns out, was one of those.

This new origin has not only upgraded the Black Widow for a new century, but has had repercussions far beyond the original character. In Marvel Comics, we have seen other Red Room graduates, one of them a rival named Yelena Belova, who earned the title Black Widow in Russia after Natasha defected. At Marvel Films, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) described her Red Room torture to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." At Marvel Television, we saw flashbacks to the (unnamed) Red Room, and one of its graduates take on the star of "Agent Carter" (Hayley Atwell).

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So yes, there are some similarities between Red Sparrow and Marvel's Black Widow. But both are simply sampling from the same wellspring.

"Black Widow" arose from the depictions of Cold War espionage in books and movies by the likes of John le Carre, John Condon, Ian Fleming and, later, Tom Clancy. "Red Sparrow" is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by a former CIA operative named Jason Matthews.

"This is not pulled from ("Black Widow")," director Francis Lawrence ("Hunger Games") recently told screenrant.com. "I think it's a really unique film. This is a thriller, it's not action ... it's not gadgetry. It's a hard-R. There's violence, it's a bit perverse, its suspenseful, a lot of intrigue. It's a very different kind of spy film."

And although you'd expect a director to say that sort of thing, comics themselves point to projects with similar origins that end up being different kinds of beasts.

For example, take the origin of The Shadow. He was a World War I aviator who went to a secret city in Tibet to learn mystic secrets of the East. He also learned some morality, so he applied those secrets to battling the bitter fruit of crime in the West.

That's a pretty good origin. So good, in fact, that it has been re-used in part or spirit by a lot of familiar characters like Dr. Doom, Dr. Strange, Iron Fist and Mandrake the Magician. It's also been used for a lot of unfamiliar ones, like Amazing Man, Deadman, Dr. Druid, Dr. Occult, Green Lama, Peter Cannon (Thunderbolt), and Wonderman.

And all of them probably owe a debt to Rudyard Kipling's 1901 novel "Kim."

So "Red Sparrow" and "Black Widow" will have some similarities, as they are both products of the same genre roots. What it will come to, then, is execution.

Fortunately, both of them are really good at that.

(Contact Captain Comics at capncomics@aol.com. For more comics news, reviews and commentary, visit his website: comicsroundtable.com.)

(c)2018 Andrew A. Smith

Visit his website at comicsroundtable.com.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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