Black Widow Bites


(This article contains major spoilers for the Avengers; minor spoilers for Captain America, Iron Man 2, and Thor; informed speculation for Captain America: the Winter Soldier; and wild speculation for Avengers: Age of Ultron)

Black Widow Crosshairs

I’m sick of the Black Widow.

Heresy, I know: talking smack about everybody’s favorite breakout character of the Avengers –the same character who looks like she’ll be kicking ass in Captain America: the Winter Soldier, and will no doubt kick even more ass in Avengers: Age of Ultron. I know, I know:

What the hell is wrong with me, right?

Let’s get a few things out of the way. First, I consider myself a feminist, and I applaud good representation of women in media. Secondly, I LOVE good storytelling, and I know my way around a script. Like, “have done script coverage for 5 years for major companies and have written several feature scripts” know my scripts. Structure and character are DEEPLY important to me. Thirdly, I enjoy me a good comic book, but if it doesn’t tell a good story, I’m out. Just that fast.

So what’s wrong with Black Widow in the Marvel movies? Nothing, beyond that Marvel seems to be handling her the wrong way.

Black Widow Captain America

1.         Shoehorning Focus

Let’s work our way backwards here, shall we? First, reports that the Black Widow will play a key role in Captain America 2 and in Avengers 2, and might even get her own movie. Cool stuff, huh? Looks like Scarlet Johanssen’s character is going to be a MASSIVE part of the Marvel cinematic universe. Putting aside her stand-alone movie for now, why is she “the key” parts of Captain America 2 AND Avengers 2?

It makes some sense in Captain America 2. By the looks of the trailers, it’s easy to assume that Captain America’s under terrorist attack AND has his suspicions about S.H.I.E.L.D.S.’ goals and motivations. Again in the trailers, Black Widow looks to be his mission partner, so fine: organic reason for her to be a big part of the movie, not to mention the possibility of romantic entanglement. But here’s the thing–

We can reasonably assume from Captain America’s “Winter Soldier” arc in the comics that this is (spoiler only if you follow the link) MAJORLY personal, character driven, and extremely transformative for him. This is THE story that changes his worldview, and in the movie world, will lionize him as the legendary leader of the Avengers that said movie only hinted. That’s a lot to accomplish in a movie that’s also rumored to have WWII flashbacks, the Falcon, at least two major villains, and very likely a love subplot.

It ain’t no Thor: The Dark World, that’s for damn sure.

Less is known about Avengers: Age of Ultron, but from what little we do know and can wildly speculate upon, it’s got its hands full.

First, the villain. Ultron, an omnicidal robot with daddy issues. While in the comics, Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Who-Cares-Man created Ultron, in all likelihood, the movie version will likely have been engineered by Tony Stark, or by S.H.I.E.L.D. If the former, making the Black Widow a key role in this whole thing seems like stretch. If the latter, maybe not so much, unless Captain America and Black Widow decide to quit S.H.I.E.L.D., which after the events suggested in Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s trailers, seems likely.

I mean, I’d quit if I knew I was on the same team as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yahoos.

"Wait, we're supposed to be secret agents?"

“Wait, we’re supposed to be secret agents?”

Just as Captain America’s balancing an insane amount of characters, so promises Avengers: Age of Ultron, which reportedly includes ::takes a deep breath:: Ultron, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, the Falcon, War Machine/Iron Patriot, Nick Fury, Mariah Hill, Baron Von Strucker, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Agent Coulsen showed up.

A single frame from Avengers: Age of Ultron

A single frame from Avengers: Age of Ultron

Dear GOD is that an insane amount of characters, even assuming a 2.5-3 hour run time. And the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and the Vision are deliciously complex and will require a lot of time to establish personalities and motivations.

Besides, the Black Widow already got to be “the key” character in The Avengers.

Black Widow Avengers

2.        Johanssen’s The Avengers

No, seriously, the Black Widow was the MVP of The Avengers and it wasn’t even her movie. She got the third most screen time of the main heroes, and all but stole the show, when she’s all but a glorified background character, even in the comics.

To a certain extent, that makes some sense. She’s an ass-kicking sex toy in Iron Man 2 (more on that later), so the audience knows her; she’s a perennial member of the Avengers comics; somebody’s got to put this team of superheroes together, and Nick Fury apparently had to growl at talking heads; she had the awesome gender-subverting scenes; she took on aliens without the aid of super powers; she stopped the alien-space-portal-device-thingie; and let’s face it, the team was a sausage fest up until that point.

The problem? I couldn’t care less about her as a character. Again, don’t get me wrong. For all of the above-described reasons, she’s a badass, and she’s in the movie’s most interesting scenes. However, I didn’t care about Hawkeye (whose character introduction in Thor sucked) and Black Widow because I hadn’t paid to see them. Yes, a movie is supposed to surprise me, but this is the Avengers’ story, not wannabe heroes  S.H.I.E.L.D. agents’  story. It’s flat not their story.

"How... How could you?!"

“How… How could you?!”

I know that’s harsh, but we enter the movie immediately after Captain America, where its titular character very nearly has a mental breakdown when he discovers that New York’s changed a bit since 1943. This is a guy struggling to adjust to the millennium, when he’s asked by Sam Jackson to put together a team of super-powered nuts to fight a kooky space Viking.

If that’s not a fish out of water, I don’t know what is.

From there, it’s mostly organic: Cap learns not to be so trusting of shadowy military organizations; Iron Man learns the meaning of sacrifice; Hulk learns to accept his rage; Thor continues to hit things with hammers; the Avengers themselves learn to work as a team… And Black Widow and Hawkeye give expository dialogue about their dark past. Presumably their arc is triumphing over said past, but I’m not really sure.

"Wait... You mean we could've hashed out our past in a way that was organic to the story? No wonder they didn't give us costumes."

“Or… We could just sit here. Talking. Some more.”

You see, the movie goes out of its way to tell us how important both characters are, when we’ve got no evidence of it. Evidently we’re supposed to care that a military sniper selected a bow over a rifle to maybe shoot Thor’s titular character. In The Avengers, he’s kidnapped from a S.H.I.E.L.D. installation; he stalks around the bad guy’s place; and he nearly takes down the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. Other than the aforementioned expository dialogue with Black Widow about a shadowy past, we know nothing about this guy or why some random archer is a big deal in S.H.I.E.L.D.

Assuming, for a moment, that we came into The Avengers blind, the focus on Black Widow undercuts the role of Nick Fury, whose entire mission is to put together a superhero team to stop Loki. Having Black Widow recruit key members of the Avengers in his stead, in addition to her saving/rehabilitating Hawkeye, directly deprives Nick Fury of the character arc established in the opening scenes, generic as they were.

"Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking Chitauri on this motherfucking planet!"

“Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking Chitauri on this motherfucking planet!”

To be clear about Nick Fury: HIS base was attacked; HIS men were mind-controlled; it’s HIS goal to stop the badguy; HE’S been assembling the team; and it should’ve been HIS coup de grace to stop Loki. What’s more, knowing that he’s been in nearly every Marvel movie, we can also presume that this goal is DEEPLY personal.

As such, insofar as they’re characterized, there’s no reason to care for Black Widow or Hawkeye.

After the critics got through with them.

After the critics got through with them.

3.        Iron Man 2: Missed Opportunity

Iron Man 2 shouldn’t have happened.

Don’t get me wrong, I know why it did. Narratively and financially, it played a major role in solidifying the Marvel universe after Iron Man’s runaway success. That said, it wasn’t as necessary as the Incredible Hulk or Thor for establishing key players in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was a throwaway story, and it was pretty mediocre.

Even its inclusion of Black Widow was at best, tepid. I mentioned earlier that her role in Iron Man 2 was that of a badass sex toy. She’s sexually objectified in her opening scene, but –as will become her calling card- she subverts this by beating people after they patronize her. Still, she fawns all over Stark, because this is still a male fantasy. Her character is one of inconsistencies, rubberbanding between sexual interest and disinterest, objectification and characterization, incompetence and competence so much that it’s hard to get a read on who she is beyond “WHOA! Sexy chick who kicks ass! That’s DEEP!” The “strong female character” is a common cliché, especially if there’s no character depth behind it.

Going even further, Black Widow, as handled in the movies thus far, seems a little patronizing as her entire character revolves around people underestimating her because she’s a girl, as opposed to having talents and a personality not outright dictated by her gender and appearance.

So what could’ve been done with Black Widow? What could’ve made her better than “good enough?”

Well, what if Iron Man 2 didn’t exist? What if Thor’s end -credits stinger wasn’t Nick Fury asking Dr. Selvig to study the cube, but was instead Dr. Selvig warning Fury that the cube had been recovered by a terrorist organization, only for Fury to reply…

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. We’ve got our best woman on the job.”

Black Widow Cover

4.         Damn right I would’ve made a Black Widow movie.

Cracked already beat me to it, but I would’ve made Black Widow into one hell of an espionage movie. I’m talking Casino Royale’s slick action, character, and pacing meets Metal Gear Solid’s antiwar themes and batshit crazy villains. Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, would be a one-woman infiltration machine against the millennium’s iteration of Hydra, lead by Madame Masque. She’d use her wits and wiles to sneak past and outwit Hydra’s super soldiers, and recover the Cosmic Cube before they figure out how to use it… and before a captured Hawkeye gives up its secrets. As the only person without superpowers… one wrong move, and the Black Widow’s dead. The makings of one TENSE movie.

Just like that, we’d care about Black Widow and Hawkeye just as much as the rest of the Avengers. Furthermore, their arc –which would be learning to question S.H.I.E.L.D.’s methods (perhaps they know the truth about Agent Coulsen?)- would actually matter and have weight upon the script. Further, it’d make even more sense for her to destroy the space-portal-device-thingie. Not only would she be the most-underestimated member of the Avengers, but the one who ALWAYS got shit done.

“But Sad Cyborg,” you say, “Nobody would’ve known about Black Widow going in. They wouldn’t have cared.”

Hellboy, Constantine, and Blade” I reply with a smile. “Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen,” I add, anticipating the next question about female protagonists.

The market is there and hungry. You just have to cook for them.

Black Widow Kick

5.         Too Little Too Late?

“So if all this is true,” you might challenge. “Why does everyone care so much about the Black Widow? Looks like Marvel was pretty successful.”

Again, the market was starved for a decent female superhero movie. Anything better than these turds. So what happened when we got a strong female character with great dialogue? We ate her up. Even if she wasn’t unique outside of a subversion and even if she didn’t make a lot of sense in her own universe.

If we’re looking at success and profits of The Avengers and the predicted success of Captain America: the Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, then take this for the fanboy ranting that it certainly is. I’m just not convinced that the movies crafted Black Widow well enough to merit her fandom or integral roles in other peoples’ movies. There’s a far richer and more interesting version of her character out there that we may never see.

So what about Black Widow’s solo movie I mentioned earlier? As this article wonderfully states, nobody knows but Kevin Feige, and he seems to think that she’ll have gotten plenty of exposure playing second fiddle in 3 other movies. For whatever reason, it isn’t as high a priority for Disney/Marvel as making an Ant-Man movie (the weak link of the Avengers).

Black Widow Toys

6.         So am I sick of the Black Widow?

Not exactly.

I like the idea of what she could do for the superhero genre, but her execution just didn’t impress me. It annoys me that she’s relegated to playing the token female character when she could’ve been so much more.

And that goes for all of Marvel’s female characters: their –Rogue, Storm, Jean Grey, Jubilee, the Scarlet Witch, etc.- are all stuck on teams or are sidekicks. They’re rarely, if ever, heroines in their own right.

What few stand-alone female characters Marvel has remain so much untapped potential: there’s a great kung fu movie to be had from Elektra; a detective movie to be had from Jessica Jones; a political thriller to be had from Silver Sable; a superhero movie to be had from Captain Marvel; a jungle adventure to be had from Shanna the She-Devil; a horror movie to be had from Victoria Montesi and so much more.

I grew up a Marvel fanboy, and I can claim an emotional connection to most of their characters. It’s just a shame that their tradition of forcing all their most interesting female characters onto teams or into sidekick roles has followed into their cinematic universe.

But hey, at least Hawkeye isn’t getting shoehorned into everything.

Next time: something not superhero or comic book related.

Official photos owned by Marvel, Disney, and Marvel Comics.


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