In my last post, I described how both German film critics as well as the official ad campaign seem to assume that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is really the Black Widow movie, co-starring Captain America.
Today now I came across this article by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at The Daily Dot, in which she points out that British and American movie critics seems to have problems viewing Black Widow as anything other than eye-candy and the token woman. She also offers lots of links to reviews in the US and UK mainstream press, who totally seem to miss the fact that Black Widow is not just a leather-clad arsekicker whose only superpower is her sex appeal.
Now to anyone who has actually seen the Avengersverse movies, those reviews are rather puzzling, because Black Widow is actually a nuanced character – as nuanced as her male teammates* – and far more than just a leather-clad arsekicker (and she doesn’t even wear leather in many of her scenes in the three movies we’ve seen her in). Not that there’s anything wrong with kicking arse while dressed in leather – indeed, it annoys me to no end that “kicks arse and looks good in black leather” is now a cause for dismissing a female character.
For supposedly brainless superhero flicks, the Avengersverse movies offer a lot of character development. Pretty much every character in the series has their own arc, down to fairly minor characters like Darcy Lewis from the Thor movies or Happy Hogan from the Iron Man films.
Now Marvel’s superhero comics have only a handful of core stories to tell. There is the story of the jerk who learns responsibility through the life-changing event (Iron Man, Thor, but also Spider-Man). There is the story of the outcast who fights to protect a world that fears and hates him or her (the X-Men, Hulk, the Thing, sometimes also Spider-Man). There is the story of the physically frail person who overcomes their disabilities and becomes a hero (Captain America, Daredevil, Professor X, but also Iron Man with his damaged heart and the Thor comics from the 1960s, where he still turned into Dr. Donald Blake). Finally, there is the story of loners who learn the value of friendship and teamwork (the X-Men, the Avengers, basically every team book ever). In the Avengersverse movies, we mostly get variations on the redemption arc, the development from jerk to hero, from loner to team player.
This can be seen most clearly with Tony Stark, if only because we see a lot more of him (over four movies) than of the others. Tony starts out as something of a jerk, learns responsibility via a life-changing ordeal in the wilderness, becomes a loner hero, realises that he cannot always do everything alone (and note that Tony has massive trust issues and that the Iron Man films would be a lot shorter, if Tony would only talk to people), learns the value of friendship and teamwork, is willing to sacrifice his life for the greater good, finds true love and realises that he doesn’t really need all the things that once seemed so important. Thor undergoes the same development, down to the ordeal in the wilderness, only that the “wilderness” is Earth in this case. It’s also interesting that both Tony Stark and Thor forsake their birthright and their kingdom (Stark Enterprises for Tony and Asgard for Thor) for the sake of true love.
But Tony Stark and Thor are not the only Avengersverse characters who get redemption arcs. Phil Coulson undergoes a very similar development and goes from random S.H.I.E.L.D flunky in a suit to hero who goes up against Loki and sacrifices his life and consequently inspires the Avengers to put aside their differences and work together (and in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Phil Coulson gets a team of his own). Bruce Banner comes to terms with his Hulk side over the course of The Avengers. Hell, even Loki gets his own redemption arc in Thor: The Dark World and he’s the villain.
Black Widow has her own redemption arc that’s even more extreme than that of most other characters, since she literally goes from amoral assassin to superheroine. However, we don’t actually see this arc play out on screen. Instead, we get most of it narrated in flashbacks during The Avengers, most notably in her scenes with Loki and Hawkeye. By the time we first meet Black Widow, she is already well on her way to becoming a heroine, even though she is introduced as a quasi-antagonist. Indeed, when she first walks into Tony Stark’s office in Iron Man 2, the fact that she’s played by Scarlet Johansson is the only way you can tell that this character is going to be important. Indeed, when I first saw the film and didn’t know who the character was supposed to be (and since she operates under an alias, the name isn’t a dead giveaway either), I assumed she was a plant of Justin Hammer’s or Whiplash’s and thus a minor villainess. It was only later that I cottoned on to the fact that this was Black Widow. Indeed, I told my Mom when I watched the films with her recently, “Keep an eye on that woman. Yes, that’s Scarlet Johansson. And there is a lot more to her character than meets the eye.”
Indeed, her underhanded entrance into the Avengersverse movies as just another employee of Stark Enterprises and potentially one of Tony’s disposable lovers shows very clearly just who and what Natasha Romanov a.k.a. the Black Widow is, namely a spy and a master trickster. And she is smart, probably one of the smartest characters in a series of movies that are full of very smart people (and the fact that the Avengersverse movies celebrate intelligence is one of the many things I like about them). Black Widow singlehandedly tricks both Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, clearly the smartest guys of the Avengers and two of the smartest people in the entire Marvel universe, by exploiting their unique weaknesses (Bruce’s desire to help and Tony’s tendency to fall for every smart and attractive woman who throws herself at him**). Later on, in The Avengers, she even outmaneuovres Loki, the trickster god himself and beats him at his own game. Last but not least, she also tricks the audience, because we fall for her ruse in Iron Man 2 just like Tony and to a lesser degree Pepper. In The Avengers, we fall for her ruse again, when she tricks Loki into revealing his plans, because we also believe that Loki has gotten to her emotionally. Even worse, we fall for her ruse again, even though we have previously seen her use the same technique with the Russian mobster in her intro scene (which is marvelous BTW). So here we have a character who outfoxes the three smartest men in the Avengersverse movies as well as the audience and yet critics view her only as a sexy arsekicker in skintight black leather. Honestly, did these people see the same movies I saw? Did they actually watch the movies at all or did they sit around grumbling they hadn’t been assigned to review Lars von Trier’s Nymphomania 1 and 2 instead?
Not that Black Widow doesn’t kick arse, because she absolutely does in every single one of her appearances. Interestingly, when I rewatched the movies with my Mom recently, I found it quite interesting that she was as worried about Natasha’s safety when infiltrating the bad guys’ lair in Iron Man 2 as Happy Hogan was. “Don’t worry about the lady”, I told my Mom, “Just watch.” Interestingly, she was worried about Natasha’s safety again in her intro scene in The Avengers, even though she knew what Black Widow was capable of. The only other character about whose safety my Mom was similarly worried was Loki’s whenever he got involved in a physical fight. By Thor: The Dark World, I actually told her, “Relax. Loki’s not Thor, but he can handle himself. Hey, you’ve seen him fight before.”
One reason why Black Widow might be less memorable in The Avengers than the rest of team is that she keeps out of the epic (and delightful) bickering sessions between Tony, Bruce, Cap, Thor and Fury. But then bickering isn’t really her style, though she does have a few nice exchanges with Tony in Iron Man 2 and Cap in The Winter Soldier. However, most of the time Black Widow is the person who gets things done, while the boys are busy bickering who has the bigger muscles/powers/dick. And for a character who was apparently treated as a token by US/UK reviewers, Black Widow actually accomplishes a lot in The Avengers. She “persuades” Bruce Banner to join without triggering the Hulk transformation and laying wastes to large swathes of India in the process. She tricks Loki into revealing his plan – well, part of it. She beats Hawkeye into submission and frees him from Loki’s mind control, when pretty much everybody else was fully willing to sacrifice him. And finally, she is the one who closes the portal and keeps even more Chitauri from descending upon New York. All of which is pretty damn awesome for a supposed token sexy woman in black leather.
Which brings us to the sex appeal bit. Now Black Widow, as portrayed on screen, is doubtlessly sexy. And in the comics, the character was very much the sultry femme fatale type, not to mention vying with Mystique for the dubious honour of “woman who slept with the most guys in the Marvel Universe”***. This was very much the image of the character that was stuck in my mind, which makes it easy to overlook that film version isn’t really like that at all. Okay, so she does use sex appeal to insinuate herself into Tony Stark’s inner circle, but then this is Tony Stark who has the tendency to think with his dangly end. And note that the movie leaves it open whether they actually slept with each other, unlike other women we see Tony with. However, it is also notable that – unlike in the comics – there is no indication that Black Widow ever slept with Nick Fury. What is more, she definitely does not try to seduce either Hulk or Loki, probably because it wouldn’t work with either of them.**** As for The Winter Soldier, the way I remember the comic (it’s been a while), it is at least strongly implied that Black Widow had a sexual relationship with both Cap and the Winter Soldier at some point, while neglecting to inform either about the true identity of the other. No idea if the movie kept that aspect or not.There’s also an old Wolverine comic, which has Black Widow interacting (very likely sexually as well) with both Logan and Cap.
Even the exact nature of her relationship with Hawkeye remains unclear. It may well be sexual, but the movies never actually spell it out. Though I always found Black Widow’s response when Loki asks her if she loves Hawkeye very interesting. She basically tells Loki that it’s not love, because love is for little children and that what she and Hawkeye have is so much more than that. That’s definitely not the expected response for the female main character in a summer blockbuster, particularly since romance subplots actually play a pretty big role in the Avengersverse movies.
Actually, it’s a pity that we only get the intriguing backstory of Hawkeye and Black Widow narrated as a flashback in The Avengers. Cause I certainly can’t be the only one who would have loved to see a full movie about an amoral female assassin and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who is sent to take her down… and doesn’t. Never mind that this would have also fleshed out Hawkeye’s character, especially considering he is the least developed of The Avengers. However, a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie would probably have been too risky at that point where it would have fit into the continuity. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean that they can’t make one at some point – after all, the first Captain America movie takes place seventy years before the rest of the Avengersverse movies.
*The only Avenger whose character is underdeveloped is Hawkeye and that’s largely because he spends most of The Avengers as Loki’s puppet. Once he wakes up, he gets a few nice character moments, but it’s still far less than what the others get.
**It’s pretty clear that Tony likes his women smart – over the course of three movies he goes for an investigative journalist, a biologist and of course Natasha and Pepper. And what catches his eye about Natasha is not just her body, but also her impressive, if fake, CV. If anything, it’s the fact that she speaks Latin that closes the deal for Tony (and she does, as she demonstrates only too delightfully, when he calls her out on her ruse). It’s also obvious and quite endearing that if a woman does not throw herself at him, Tony has no idea what to do. For a playboy, he is remarkably clueless about talking to and interacting with women, as his inability to confess his feelings to Pepper attests.
***One huge problem at least with the older Marvel comics is that they were pretty slut-shamy. Good girls were monogamous, if not virgins (though I think Rogue is the only one left at this point) – while bad girls slept with anything that moves. Meanwhile, the more promiscuous male characters were given a free pass. At any rate, no one has ever called out Wolverine, Nick Fury (comic version – the movie version is pretty chaste) or Tony Stark for their sexual appetites.
****Unlike his mythological counterpart, who would literally sleep with anything, movie Loki seems to have no interest in sex at all. At any rate, he shows zero sexual interest in Sif or Jane or Darcy or Black Widow or Hawkeye or the cute blonde one of the Warriors Three, whereas mythological Loki would have banged all of them and probably Hulk and a Chitauri as well for good measure.