The Black Widow movie, co-starring Captain America

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been out in Germany for a week and currently sits at the top of the German movie charts (albeit in an exceptionally weak movie week due to the warm spring weather).

This is surprising, because the Avengersverse movies have never been the huge successes in Germany that they are in the US. People who do watch the Avengersverse movies generally end up enjoying them (I recently introduced my Mom to the films – more about that later), but they’re not really household names and are largely viewed as “stupid American action flicks for kids”. For example, The Avengers – the currently reigning highest grossing movie of all time worldwide – didn’t even crack the German top ten in 2012 and was outgrossed even by a fairly small German-made comedy flick like Türkisch für Anfänger* (Turkish for Beginners) let alone the French smash-hit Intouchables, which was the highest grossing movie in Germany and most of Europe in 2012. Yes, the mighty Avengers were beaten in Germany by a bunch of Turkish Germans reenacting Lost as a comedy as well as a French guy in a wheelchair and his caretaker/nurse.

Now I didn’t get around to watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier yet, because I’ve been sick. And since the movie theatre experience isn’t all that wonderful, I’ll probably wait until the film comes out on DVD. So there are no spoilers in the following beyond the identity of the Winter Soldier (and everybody who cares knows about that one anyway).

I did see quite a few trailers for The Winter Soldier on TV. At one point, a Winter Soldier trailer was followed directly by a trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which prompted me to say (much to the confusion of my non-comic reading co-viewers), “Oh my God, Bucky and Gwen Stacy both seen alive within the space of three minutes – that must be one of the signs of the Apocalypse.”

However, the Winter Soldier trailers airing in Germany are quite different from the US trailers that have been online since last fall. I just saw one on TV tonight. It started off with Black Widow flirting with Cap and the Falcon and continued with Black Widow teasing Cap about his lack of a love life. Then we got Black Widow kicking arse, Cap kicking arse, Black Widow and Cap sharing a moment of quiet in the middle of a battle, a big explosion and finally the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier hitting a building. No Nick Fury, no Winter Soldier and very little Cap. What this German trailer was advertising was the Black Widow movie, starring Scarlet Johansson and co-starring Captain America.

Interestingly, this also matches the reporting about the movie in the German media – what little there was. The gossip programs reported about the European premiere in London and only seemed interested in whether Scarlet Johansson’s pregnancy was already showing. One of them at least mentioned that Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson were also in the movie, though the reporter admitted he had no idea what the film was actually about. They also seemed to have missed the fact that the top-billed star of the film is actually Chris Evans. After the third instance of “Scarlet Johansson baby hump watch”, I actually yelled at the TV, “Look, I have zero interest in the lady’s pregnancy beyond the question how it will affect her role in Avengers 2.”

Talking of which, I would really hate to miss out on Black Widow in Avengers 2, especially since the team is already very testosterone heavy. Okay, so Scarlet Witch is supposedly in Avengers 2, but I’d much rather have Black Widow than the spawn of Magneto. Now I for one wouldn’t mind seeing a visibly pregnant Black Widow, especially if we also get Nick Fury yelling at the rest of the Avengers, “Okay, which of you guys did that?” If anything, it would be hilarious. Though considering what Joss Whedon did to real life pregnant Charisma Carpenter in Angel, I’m worried what he’d do to Black Widow.

The gossip media folks weren’t the only ones in Germany who seem to assume that The Winter Soldier is actually a Black Widow movie. Take this review from the newspaper Die Welt, for example. The reviewer mostly focusses on the interplay of Robert Redford and Scarlet Johansson and draws comparisons to The Horse Whisperer, which also starred Redford and a then teenaged Scarlet Johansson. Meanwhile, he finds Cap himself kind of dull and bland – nice and heroic but not very interesting. The headline says it all, “Captain America is no horse.” It’s also kind of telling that the review is illustrated not by a shot or clip from the actual movie, but by a parody video.

This review from the Süddeutsche Zeitung is better. For starters, the reviewer actually seems to have watched and understood** The Winter Soldier and the rest of the Avengersverse movies. And while he certainly mentions Black Widow, this critic actually seems to grasp that the movie is called Captain America and that Cap is the protagonist, not Black Widow. More amazingly, the Süddeutsche critic actually seems to get what the movie is trying to do – at least based on what I’ve seen in the US press. Finally, this reviewer also gets how slyly subversive many of the Avengersverse films are, particularly for popcorn flicks.

It’s interesting that neither review mentions the Winter Soldier character or the fact that his identity is something of a surprise. The reason is probably that the identity of the Winter Soldier is only a big deal, if you’re a comic fan and understand the significance of the character and his reappearance. If you’re a casual viewer, you’ve probably already forgotten the character, even if you saw Captain America 1.

Of course, the big question is “Why does the German ad campaign as well as the media coverage deemphasise the fact that Captain America. The Winter Soldier is a movie about – well – Captain America?”

The first reason is that for a Non-American viewer in general and a German viewer in particular, Captain America is probably the hardest among all of the Avengers to relate to. Because Captain America is pretty much the embodiment of US patriotism. Which is fine if you’re American, but not so great if you’re not and find the US mode of patriotism rather over-the-top and a tad creepy. Plus, the character of Captain America cannot really be divorced from his WWII origins, unlike Hulk and Iron Man and even Black Widow, all of whom have been thoroughly divorced from their often problematic Cold War origins in the Avengersverse movies. But Cap is still the WWII supersoldier, created to fight the Germans and the Japanese. And if you are German, that doesn’t exactly make you like the character.

Actually it is a testament both to the writing skills of Joss Whedon and the acting skills of Chris Evans that I don’t actually dislike Cap in The Avengers. He’s still recognizably Captain America, but he is no jerk. And whenever Cap appeared in a comic I actually read, he quite often came across as a self-righteous prick. Meanwhile, Cap in the Avengersverse movies is the embodiment of the positive self-image the US has of itself – even if that image no longer is and never was quite accurate. But Cap believes in it and that’s why his character works.

Though it’s still interesting that the German ad campaign and media is trying to sell The Winter Soldier as a Black Widow movie, since they never tried to sell the first one as anything other than a Captain America movie. Now Black Widow is pretty damn awesome and Scarlet Johansson is a much bigger star than Chris Evans. But Black Widow is also the darkest of the Avengers.

Now both Tony Stark and Thor are not the nicest guys at the beginning of their respective arcs – they’re basically privileged arrogant jerks*** who learn responsibility, grow up and find true love and friendship. Hell, Tony even says, “I’m not that guy anymore” at the beginning of Iron Man 3. Hulk is quite literally a big green ball of anger made manifest and someone “you won’t like when he’s angry”. But Black Widow is a former assassin and reformed villainess. Tony, Hulk, Thor, Cap and Hawkeye all kill, but Black Widow is a killer. And the films don’t really gloss over her history either – The Avengers makes it very clear who and what she is. That’s also why the Loki versus Black Widow scene works so very well, because the characters are similar, even though one is the villain and the other one of the good guys.

So it’s interesting that a reformed ex-assassin turned superheroine is apparently considered more palatable for German audiences than an American boy scout who still believes in patriotism. It also raises the question whether audiences in general are ready for a Black Widow film. Now I for one would love to see a Black Widow movie or indeed any superheroine movie at all. But apparently, Hollywood studio bosses still consider female led superhero movies “risky”, as evidenced by the fact that we still have no Wonder Woman movie in spite of umpteen announcements. And indeed I am convinced we will see both a Black Widow movie and a superhero of colour movie (Black Panther would be the obvious choice, though War Machine or the Falcon are a possibility as well) long before we ever see a Wonder Woman movie, since DC seems to lag behind Marvel once more. Maybe even a superheroine of colour – hey, we can dream.

*BTW, if you’ve been intrigued by Turkish for Beginners, don’t bother with the movie and watch the vastly superior TV series instead.

**It’s actually amazing how many German movie critics totally fail to understand Hollywood blockbusters, not just as in “I have no idea why people watch this” but actually as in “I cannot follow the plot of this movie”. “Brainless entertainment” certainly has a lot of our brainy critics stumped.

***They both have reasons for being the way they are – namely distant fathers and inadequate parenting – but they’re still both a bit of a jerk.

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4 Responses to The Black Widow movie, co-starring Captain America

  1. Great commentary, Cora. I’ve never been much of a Marvel fan. As a child I was heavily into D.C. comics instead — particulary Batman and Superman. Nevertheless, I rather enjoy Downing’s wisecracking take on Tony Stark, especially in the first film; and the Spider-Man series because of the character develpment. Alas, the other Marvel films all degenerate into a bizarre cacophony of explosions and silliness.

    • Cora says:

      I was always more of a Marvel than a DC fan (though I started with Franco-Belgian comics, which are completely different). However, I was a huge X-Men and Spider-Man fan and never much of an Avengers/Thor/Iron Man/Captain America fan, which is why I am surprised how much I enjoy the movies. If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d ever voluntarily watch a Thor or an Avengers film, I’d have laughed at you. But the movies work for me and that’s largely because of the actors (Downey is the big stand-out, but they’re all good in their roles) and their take on the characters. I agree that The Avengers is something of a mess – it jumps from place to place, while everybody chases the McGuffin, it has way too many characters, it takes 15 or 20 minutes before any of our heroes even show up, Loki’s plan makes no sense and S.H.I.E.L.D is a bigger menace than Loki and his alien pals. Yet amazingly, the movie works.

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