Black Widow‘s David Harbour Is Marvel’s First Dad Bod Superhero

<em>Black Widow</em>‘s David Harbour Is Marvel’s First Dad Bod Superhero

Alexei Shostakov, AKA the Red Guardian, once Russia’s favorite son and now a national disgrace locked up in an iron arctic gulag for 2 decades, isn’t the lead in Black Widow, the standalone feature starring Marvel’s first female superhero. The lead is in the title: Natasha Romanoff, a Russian assassin and agile killing machine so haunted by her past that she becomes an Avenger in the hope of lifting years’ worth of bloodstains from her conscience. Shostakov (played by Stranger Things star David Harbour) isn’t even her co-lead. He’s a supporting character and comic relief, the support being dubious and the comedy pointing mostly to the gut spilling out over his super suit. Prison has been unkind to his figure; for every tattoo he’s gained, he appears to have put on twice as many pounds. Shostakov is a has-been and a punchline.

He’s also a refreshing presence in a studio franchise machine that grinds up dudes and spits out men, beefy, purling examples of the male physique developed through months of intense training. Recall Rob McElhenney’s 2018 Instagram post about what it takes to get that kind of body: Lift weights six days a week, don’t drink alcohol, especially don’t eat anything delicious, run like you’re participating in the Boston Marathon. Easy! Anyone can get ripped if they abandon their life and funnel all of their savings into the pursuit of rock hard abs. The men on Marvel’s roster almost uniformly go through this transformation, whether it’s a Chris—be it Hemsworth, Evans, or Pratt—or Paul Rudd, Kumail Nanjiani, Robert Downey Jr., or Anthony Mackie. In the MCU, flab is forbidden.

Black Widow makes an exception for Harbour. He did get jacked for 2019’s Hellboy, so it’s not like he’s a stranger to tasty rock-hard pecs, but here he’s doughier, reduced in the same way as Shostakov but sans brutal incarceration. When Romanoff and her “sister,” Yelena (Florence Pugh), spring Shostakov, their fake dad, from jail and whisk him off to relative safety, he digs up his old costume from his Red Guardian days; he was a symbol of Soviet pride, Russia’s response to Captain America when Captain America was frozen beneath the Arctic. Here it is: A chance to wear his old colors again, to remember what it was like to be his country’s champion, one more time. So the film kicks off Shostakov’s suit up sequence, a superhero picture tradition where viewers watch as the protagonist gets decked out to save the day. But there’s a problem: The suit doesn’t fit.

david harbour red guardian body

Marvel Studios

Nothing’s ever gone right for Shostakov, it seems. He never had a chance to face off with the hero he was engineered to fight. His surrogate “family” was a farce dissolved by his superiors in the 1990s, when his deep cover operation in the United States went tits up and he fled the country with Natasha, Yelena, and his “wife,” Melina (Rachel Weisz). In Black Widow’s present, he struggles, huffs, puffs, and grunts his way into his red leather armor. If Shostakov wasn’t stubbornly resistant to the sting of his personal failures, the scene might be heartbreaking. One look in the mirror, though, and all Shostakov sees is glory, which makes the scene less sad and more bemusing, like watching a handicapable puppy on a skateboard.

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It’s easier to laugh at Harbour’s performance than to consider how meaningful it is for a dad bod to feature prominently into a Marvel movie as major as Black Widow. Again, he isn’t the center of the story, just a fixture within it; not essential but not insignificant. He spends most of his screen time awkwardly giving fatherly advice and praise to the girls he knew, now grown into women capable of remorseless murder, and making speeches he never gets to finish because his audience either can’t hear him or doesn’t stick around to listen. But Shostakov tries. Oh, he tries: To be a good dad, to be a good Russian, to be a hero if not to the world then at least to his family. Despite his bungling, he achieves a modicum of success by the end when he accepts his moral and emotional shortcomings. There is no speech. He knows he’d just screw it up.

david harbour red guardian body

Marvel Studios

But his body isn’t a shortcoming, not just because he refuses to see himself as “less than” for rocking a dad bod, but because the film doesn’t see him that way, either. It’s true that his love handles make up the meat of a few one-liners, particularly after he suits up. But it’s also true that, chub or no, Shostakov is still as strong as a bear, and about as hairy, too; even better, Melina openly thirsts after him over the dinner table and at the expense of Natasha and Yelena’s appetites. Sex and Marvel mix like oil and water. Shostakov and Melina lusting after each other in plain sight may be one of the horniest moments in the MCU’s entirety. But horniness aside, it feels downright revolutionary for Black Widow to even suggest that a guy with Harbour’s physique could be desirable, even “hot.”

Over the last 13 years, Marvel has made a concerted effort to normalize“Marvel bod” as an industry standard and a cultural ideal. Black Widow counters that with Harbour and his stealth abs: They’re there, but they’re hidden from radar detection by a discrete layer of pudge. It’s not that Harbour didn’t train for the movie at all. It’s that his training was meant for strength, not appearance. But Black Widow makes his appearance attractive. Shostakov might be an over the hill bozo and a relic of bygone age, but he’s still hot stuff. He knows it. Now, the rest of us do, too.

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