Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A beautiful Russian winds up in a school for seductive spies and assassins. (You can call it the Red Room, or the Sparrow Academy.) She’s trained in the arts of seduction and intrigue, and winds up on the front lines of international espionage. Against all the odds, the woman switches sides, and ultimately works against her old masters.
When the first trailer for Red Sparrow broke, Marvel fans were somewhat amused. That story, and the trailer, a pretty fair summaries of the origin of Black Widow. It also seemed to be a perfect description of the focus of Red Sparrow. But is the film really going to be just Black Widow 2.0?
Note: Since we’ll discuss elements from the book, potential spoilers lie ahead.
Going Back To The Book
Many moviegoers may be unaware that Red Sparrow is based on the first book in an award-winning trilogy of novels by Jason Matthews. Matthews is no stranger to the spy game; in fact, he’s an ex-CIA operative. The Red Sparrow novel was so good that the CIA gave it this glowing review:
“An alternative marketing approach might have been to give it a yellow cover and call it “Tradecraft for Dummies.” The amount of tradecraft, particularly surveillance and countersurveillance, will make the in-house reader wonder how [Matthews] got all this past the Publications Review Board.”
Marvel superheroes live in a fantastical world where hovercars are viewed as retro-tech. In contrast, the spy game in Red Sparrow is rooted in the real world. Although a couple of details are described by the CIA as “a stretch,” they single out the story’s counter-espionage strategies as particularly good. To give a sense of how carefully Matthews has set his story in the real world, the novel actually features a couple of appearances from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sadly, many of these elements have been removed from the film, but hopefully they’re certain to turn up as the trilogy continues.
A Very Different Hero
Meanwhile, the star of the film, Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova, is most definitely no Black Widow. The trailer suggests that her story has been slightly rewritten, and that Dominika’s ill mother has been explicitly threatened, whereas in the book the danger is much more implicit. Still, the basic threads of the character seem to be the same.
Where Black Widow was recruited to espionage when she was only a girl, Dominika is an unwilling adult. In fact, she’s forced to become a Sparrow against her wishes. She’s aware of what is being done to her, but feels she has no choice. When the evil of her superiors finally becomes too evident and a confidante is killed, she loses all confidence in the regime. She decides to become a double-agent.
This is another crucial difference between Black Widow and Red Sparrow. Dominika chooses to stay in the system. This decision costs her; a stumble by her American allies means a brief spell in Lefortovo. But the crucial point is that Dominika continues being a spy, and in fact becomes an increasingly important American asset. The broad brushstrokes may be similar, but the characters and their roles are very different.
This Is No Marvel Movie
Writing in Forbes, critic Jonathan Leaf has suggested Red Sparrow is the kind of spy thriller he thinks Alfred Hitchcock would be making today. He describes the movie as “exceedingly creepy, gory and debased.”
Dominika is trained to seduce. As a result, there are some powerful sex scenes; disturbingly, one ultimately turns into a murder. Red Sparrow uses sex to disturb as well as to titillate. Meanwhile, critics have praised the range and variety of Lawrence’s performance; she has to switch gears effortlessly from brutal and cunning to genuinely fearful and vulnerable. That’s something you’d never see from Black Widow.
So set aside your expectations from the first trailer. Red Sparrow is no Marvel movie, and Dominika Egorova is both far more sensual and far more savage than Natasha Romanova. The concept may seem to be similar at first glance, but the execution and indeed the general direction is very, very different.