Latrodectus: In Defense of Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson gets to reprise her role as superhero/superheroine Agent Natasha Romanoff, also known as “Black Widow”, in a quaint little independent film called Marvel’s The Avengers that made its premier in the United States a couple weeks ago. Agent Romanoff is a reformed freelance assassin who now works for S.H.E.I.L.D., the international espionage and military law-enforcement division that has taken up the task of responding to the fact that life on little, lonely planet Earth is not the only intelligence in the hostile Universe. When the human race is compromised and S.H.E.I.L.D. Director Nick Fury is pushed to the brink of desperation, Black Widow is the first Avenger that he calls to assemble. Spoilers for the movie beyond this point as well as a mild trigger warning. It’s a good movie, go check it out if you haven’t already. Read Katie’s review. You don’t have to take my word for it.
I. There’s No “I” in “Avengers”
Black Widow’s opening scene has her tied to a chair in the attic of a decrepit warehouse, barefoot, wearing a little black dress and dark nylons. An older man stands over her and slaps her face. The man is some kind of corrupt Russian general that Black Widow has run afoul of and he is interrogating her for information.
Watching men take advantage of a woman’s defenselessness in fictional media is a pet peeve of mine. This most likely stems from overexposure to Lifetime Original Movies in my early teens. My middle school’s health class consisted mostly of these made-for-television morality fables about what happens to young people, but mostly young women, who were too careless or too vulnerable in social situations. The slap was something I recognized as a tool used to remind a woman that she should mind her place as a lesser human being. I remember sitting in the dark theater, anger boiling up as I thought oh, this is typical. The one female Avenger is introduced to us when she’s in a moment of vulnerability. She’s going to need somebody to save her.
Then S.H.E.I.L.D. calls the Russian interrogator on his cell phone. The phone is handed to Black Widow and she holds it between her chin and her shoulder. Words are exchanged. A frown crosses her face and her smudged brow wrinkles. The Russian interrogator moves to take the phone back and Black Widow kicks him square in the crotch. They have neglected to tape her ankles to the legs of the chair, so she jumps up and proceeds to beat her captors off as they rush to restrain her. She flips over in the air and lands on her back. I watch as the chair splits into about five pieces, one of which winds up stuck in the gut of the third Russian henchman. When the fighting stops, Black Widow picks up the phone, picks up her pair of black high heels, and walks away, leaving the Russian interrogator helpless and dangling by his leg from a chain suspended in the ceiling.
I’m having a little trouble taking this all in because I can’t really believe what I’m seeing. She wasn’t tied up anymore. She had taken care of the situation. Nothing bad had happened to her. Nothing bad was ever going to happen to her because she was never in danger in the first place.
I had somehow gone into the theater not knowing that this movie was directed by the person responsible for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show. If I had, I would have probably seen the fight scene in the above Youtube video coming. Joss Whedon’s previous work writing shows like Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse shows his strength in balancing large ensemble and depicting strong, well-rounded female characters. Both strengths play out exceptionally well with a superhero movie like The Avengers.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Scarlett Johansson voices her own thoughts about her character’s introduction:
“One of the most exciting thing about [The Avengers] is that in my opening scene the first thing you see is my character getting punched in the face. Everybody’s like, ‘Damn, it’s nice to see a girl get the sh-t kicked out of her—’”
This is a notable role for Johansson in that it has her performing at a highly physical level. Black Widow is a superhero. She can shake off a punch like a dog shakes off rainwater. Her set of skills include an arsenal of martial arts, training in numerous specialized weapons, marksmanship, and ballet. If you blink, you’ll miss when she brandishes her bracelets/gloves in the movie that fire off a debatable 30,000 volts of electricity and uses them to fry some alien brains. She is a force to be reckoned with in one-on-anyone(-except-maybe-the-Hulk) combat.
This is not Natasha Romanoff: The Movie, though. It’s not even Tony Stark: A Portrait of Genius or Bruce Banner: We’re Trying Really Hard Not to Mess Him Up This Time, but those two are more recognizable characters. When the camera pans around the Avengers to do its commercial-ready 360 shot, a casual viewer can be forgiven for glancing right over the two short, small humans in the group who wear mostly black and have yet to star in their own feature films. The Hulk is big and green. Captain America wears patriotic spandex. Thor is a god with flowing blond locks and a red cape. Iron Man’s entire body is powered by the nuclear night light he uses to plug up the gaping hole in his chest. Black Widow made a cameo to introduce the concept of S.H.E.I.L.D. in Iron Man 2 and Clint Barton/Hawkeye pointed his bow and arrow at Thor, in Thor, for all of two-and-a-half minutes. The Avengers is the first time that Black Widow and Hawkeye really get to shine in their own scenes. Romanoff, along with Steve Rogers, plays straight and sensible to Bruce Banner, Thor, and Tony Stark’s weird characters and Barton provides the empathetic eyes that the audience looks through to watch Loki’s schemes. During the movie’s climax, both Black Widow and Hawkeye take their share of combat and civilian-wrangling duty.
Let’s make a quick list of the things that Black Widow contributes to the plot:
1. Confronts Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk, and convinces him to return with her to S.H.E.I.L.D. headquarters. At this point, all that is known about Banner is that he turns into a near-indestructible monster when subjected to the slightest amount of stress or provocation.
2. Provides back-up for Captain America, with Iron Man, in his first confrontation with Loki that also results in Loki’s capture.
3. Deceives an imprisoned Loki, you know, the Norse god of deceit, and tricks him into letting a key element of his plan slip. She also gains some insight on the hypnotized Hawkeye’s current condition.
4. Confronts Hawkeye in the middle of his assault on S.H.E.I.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier (that Wikipedia tells me is called a Helicarrier) and punches him in the face enough times to break Loki’s mind control spell, taking away one of Loki’s most powerful pawns and bringing him back to S.H.E.I.L.D.’s side.
5. Gives Hawkeye emotional support during his hypnosis detoxification, allowing him to jump back into battle against Loki as an Avenger less than twelve hours later.
6. Abducts a S.H.E.I.L.D. jet with Captain America and Hawkeye.
7. Stands with Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Hawkeye on the streets of New York City and battles the waves of alien monsters that are pouring down from the Tesseract’s gaping dimension portal above Stark Tower. She holds her own against the aliens by using her pistols, the built-in tasers on her gloves, stealing and using the aliens’ own weapons against them, and breaking their necks. She also lends some witty banter to her fellow fighters and helps rescue civilians.
8. Decides to switch focus from combat melee on the ground to closing the portal above Stark Tower. She figures out a way to reach the Tesseract, without an aerial assist from either Iron Man or Thor, by hijacking an alien sky-bike. Her efforts also draw Loki’s attention, allowing for Hawkeye to shoot Loki with an exploding arrow and send him hurtling into Stark Tower, where the Hulk is waiting to fight him.
9. Uses Loki’s staff to close the Tesseract portal and has just the right timing to allow Iron Man to fall back through after he guides a nuke into the alien mother ship. The day is saved. When the post-victory Avengers confront an exhausted Loki, Black Widow is the one who mocks him by holding his staff.
Did I say a quick list? What I meant to say is that Black Widow carries about 17% of the plot in this movie. She constitutes a solid one-sixth of the Avengers team. She even picks up some of the slack left by Hawkeye while he’s serving Loki.
At IndieWire, writer Ian Grey has a detailed roundup of movie reviews that suffer from what he calls a “blanket amnesia” of Black Widow’s character, or even presence, in the movie. It’s odd that reviewers are quick to sticker her as a prop, or “token sexy female” as Grey states in the words of The Globe and Mail‘s review, when she breaks the mold by appearing as an equal to each male character in terms of her presence and representation.
“You ever have one of those days when you just don’t feel appreciated?”
(image from IMDb.com)
Let’s look at the definition of “teamwork”:
: work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole
The Avengers are a team. Each member contributes something to the pot and one character’s talent makes up for another character’s weakness. Tony Stark might be an ordinary human being whose strength is directly proportional to the weapons he creates, but that’s okay because the Hulk has enough brute force to make up for everyone’s more-or-less human statures. Nick Fury emphasizes this point more than once. He’s probably got a small presentation about it somewhere. He’s studied Romanoff and Barton just as carefully as he has Rogers, Banner, Thor, and Stark. Each character has a tiny nugget of greatness nestled deep inside them that leads them to accomplish great things when given the right push. Black Widow, with her strength, intelligence, and creativity, is no exception.
II. Notes From the Wardrobe Department
Something caught my attention while I was doing research for this article. I wanted to go back and refresh my memory of Scarlett Johanssen’s performance in Iron Man 2, so I browsed the internet for photos and clips. I was surprised to find that there’s a notable difference between how Black Widow is presented in the promotional material for Iron Man 2 and how she is presented in promotional material for The Avengers.
The most blatant example of this can be seen by comparing the choices in portraits used for Black Widow’s biography on Marvel’s official websites for Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, as shown in Figure 1. Black Widow takes a semi-relaxing stance in her portrait for Iron Man 2 with her hips and shoulders tilted at an angle and long, lush hair falling in her face. Her breasts have been highlighted to emphasize their outline and prevent them from blending in with the fabric covering her arms. In her portrait for The Avengers, Black Widow faces the camera square on, with hips parallel to her shoulders, and her hair is blown back as if she is opposing a strong wind.
Two screenshots of Black Widow from the image galleries on Marvel’s official websites for Iron Man 2 and The Avengers are compared in Figure 2. In the shot of Black Widow from Iron Man 2 walking down a hallway, she is sauntering towards the camera with her head tilted at an angle. A hint of smugness is apparent in her expression and she could just as easily be trying to seduce the viewer as she could be switching gears to focus on her next target. In the screenshot from The Avengers, Black Widow stands with her feet firmly planted and her crossed arms put a barrier between herself and the viewer. Her demeanor is professional and she is paying rapt attention to something or someone.
I’m cherry picking official images from Marvel’s websites, but you can browse the Iron Man 2 gallery yourself and try to find pictures of Scarlett Johansson that match the strength and weight of the poses she takes in the images showcased on The Avengers website. In Iron Man 2, Black Widow’s soft, feminine characteristics are played up, even in scenes when she is battling other characters or otherwise on the offense. In The Avengers, Black Widow is still feminine, but she is also allowed to have messy hair and a furrowed brow. Her Avengers body suit has a lot more heft and support as a functioning, yet lightweight, protective suit and her hair is cut shorter, a more practical style for someone who will be moving around a lot in dangerous situations and combat. Black Widow’s visual representation in the marketing for The Avengers has by no means been perfect, but this is a significant improvement. In The Avengers, Black Widow is treated with dignity and respect as a full-fledged superhero character. She has thoughts and feelings that go with her form-fitting bodysuit and ballerina muscles. We worry about her when the Hulk rips out of Bruce Banner. We empathize with her when she visits Hawkeye recovering in the infirmary. We wonder about her past when Loki picks her brain and if we’re being baited for a prequel that might include a scene set in Budapest.
III. End Credits
After watching The Avengers for the first time, a friend and I overheard a conversation between a young girl and her mother as they were leaving.
“The movie was great,” the girl said. “But I didn’t like how the girl was the only one without any special powers.”
“She does have special powers!” my friend yelled after them.
I don’t think they heard her over the noise in the crowd. So, Black Widow’s lack of distinguishable weapons did not go unnoticed on the thirteen-year-old female audience. I don’t know if Black Widow has a memorable enough personality to make a notable mark in superhero history from her performances in this movie and Iron Man 2 alone. Maybe she could have used a bigger gun or made her special gloves a more prominent part of the ongoing action. What she really needs is her own movie. Hawkeye suffers from this problem as well where the audience just isn’t given the courtesy of hammering out the finer character details with a back story. This might also be true for the Hulk, but his story is more well known and there have already been two films made in recent years outside of The Avengers movie canon. That being said, the little nuances between the actors make all the difference in a movie like this and The Avengers delivers. I kind of like how Black Widow takes her place at the Avengers’ table, holding her own alongside a god and a technology-enhanced billionaire with just her strength and her wits.