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Black Widow's 'Avengers' problem: Geekly Mailbag

Everyone’s got an opinion about Marvel’s lead female superhero

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Jay Maidment

I didn’t like Avengers: Age of Ultron for a lot of reasons. One of the biggest: The second Avengers movie proves that Marvel doesn’t really know what to do with Black Widow, the most popular female superhero of the decade. Intriguingly, Black Widow seems to be the only major Talking Point anyone has after seeing the movie. Like, Joss Whedon just quit Twitter, which is something all reasonable people should do—agree? disagree? tweet me @DarrenFranich!!!!!!!!!—and those nerds over at E Online think that Whedon quit Twitter specifically because of the “Black Widow Backlash.”

Was there a Black Widow Backlash? Let’s crack open this week’s Geekly Mailbag and find out!

The Answer for Black Widow…

You’re absolutely right that Scarlett Johansson owns/is the Black Widow.  And I suspect you’re right that Marvel doesn’t know what to do with her.  (She certainly wasn’t a large part of Phase 3.)

But, if you really want to harness that Black Widow power: Give her a solo flick. The villain?  Yelena Belova.  While Marvel didn’t do much with her, the idea of the ‘evil Black Widow’ was a great foil for Natasha. Mix in a little Single White Female competitive jealousy, and you have the seed for a great movie.

Aaron B.D., Lt Col, USAF

I’ve been hesitant about supporting a Black Widow spinoff, mainly because I don’t want Black Widow to get a typical Marvel movie. Typical Marvel Movie: Supervillain with a plan that involves huge amount of destruction, story arc focusing on the character’s self-realization, Infinity Stones, probably a drop-in by Maria Hill.

But I love the idea of giving Widow her own Spy-Vs-Spy showdown movie. There are actually a few interesting ideas underlying the Yelena character. On one hand, Yelena is a classic genre trope: The “evil” version of our hero. She’s Black Widow without the moral code—and in the context of the movies, she’s Black Widow who never broke good. But she’s also a younger, more naive version of the hero. So, in a weird way, their interaction is about Black Widow “teaching” Yelena just how messy the espionage world really is. She’s a student and a nemesis.

Now imagine Yelena played by an actress slightly younger than Scarlett Johansson—like, I dunno, Emilia Clarke? Or maybe The Americans‘ Annet Mahendru, doing the comic book version of a character she’s already playing?

Possible problem: Black Widow doesn’t have a huge solo mythology to draw from. Easy solution: Since the Marvel movies have basically ignored everything that made SHIELD cool in Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury, Agents of SHIELD, why not just draw from that classic run of comics? Like, make the whole movie a mystery to hunt down Scorpio, and then it turns out that Scorpio is actually, I dunno, Maria Hill.

Side note:  Maria Hill is just the worst, right?

The Black Widow Conundrum

I can agree with or see your point about everything except this: Black Widow being a mope like the rest of them re: the Scarlet Witch episodes.

Out of all of them, I would say Natasha has had it the worst in terms of childhoods and what she’s been through. But I think she’s done an amazing job of rebuilding herself and moving on from her past; she’s also had to accept that it’s now public information.

But to suddenly be thrown back in that world and have to live it again, that’s going to weaken even the strongest of survivors.

Danielle E.

Well, let’s throw out the whole “public information” thing, because Avengers: Age of Ultron pretty much ignores everything that happened in the Phase 2 movies. Like, remember at the end of Iron Man 3, when Iron Man triumphed over his PTSD and decided that maybe he wouldn’t be Iron Man anymore? Well, thrill to the all-new, all-different drama of Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Iron Man triumphs over his PTSD and decides that maybe we won’t be Iron Man anymore! That same discontinuity lingers around Captain America and Black Widow. Like, at the end of Winter Soldier, they were walking off to be two lone wolves. But by the time the movie starts, they’re back to being happy employees of Avengers Inc, or whatever subsidiary of Stark Industries Tony set up to justify huge expenditures with zero profit margin.

The movie doesn’t really care that Black Widow’s past is “public information” now. More damagingly, Black Widow’s history is presented in the movie in the laziest, most hamhanded fashion imaginable. Like, she’s been a total mystery for three movies. And Age of Ultron reveals that her secret origin…is exactly what happened to Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum. Except with a weird, totally unnecessary cameo by Julie Delpy.

Women Heroes

Hi,

Don’t really know much about the Avengers tales but the Black Widow has opened up another conversation – female heroes in general. (Thanks, Mark Ruffalo)

We are Star Wars fans. My daughter started watching it when she was 4. She at first identified with Luke (Halloween costume) but eventually loved Leia too. But it was really Queen Amidala who was her biggest hero. However, hardly anything was available for her. Lots of Darth Maul underwear and Vadar was all over the place, but no females! No Leia, No Amidala, No Jedi. No lunch boxes, or clothing, or books.

If Disney is smart, it will begin to market all the female characters as the new movies come out. They will make a killing — and not one of them will need to have pink clothes or accessories!

Linda

The good news is that I kind of think this is getting better? Or at least it’s not getting worse? Like, there’s a sudden vogue for the “female version of [fill-in-the-franchise]” in Hollywood—female-centric Ghostbusters, female-centric 21 Jump Street—and there’s a Captain Marvel movie awaiting in a few years, right around the release of Wonder Woman. And the first person cast in the Star Wars spinoff was a female Oscar nominee!

The downside is: Even taking all of that with grain-of-salt optimism, the situation is still pretty dire for female characters in whatever you want to call Geek Culture. Like, starting this month, there’s a comic book called A-Force starring only female characters and co-written by two female writers. Whenever something like that happens as a $150 million blockbuster—when, like, Marvel makes Black Widow starring Scarlett Johansson and Emilia Clarke and Cobie Smulders and Michelle Rodriguez as the Chameleon and Patricia Clarkson as Baroness Strucker and Gillian Anderson as the voice of MODOK, all of it directed by Michelle MacLaren and written by Nicole Perlman—when that happens, and every character has an action figure, then we’ll have made some progress.

Also, is anyone making a Michelle MacLaren action figure?

Black Widow

This email is in response to your take on Black Widow’s role in Age of Ultron

I disagree with the idea that her role was not as strong in Age of Ultron.

Through Widow’s vision we see in the film, it is made clear that many choices are being made for her or taken from her. Her past was about being controlled, and now that she is finally out of that it was time for her to allow herself to make personal choices. The decisions she makes in the movie are not just for the sake of her work, but her own personal happiness. So, in the film it seemed to me Banner was more the love interest to Natasha than the other way around. It was moving her character forward.

Now, at the end of the film, during the final battle, she and Bruce could have run away, but we see her make the choice that being an Avenger is more important than something she wanted, which was love. Captain America points out in the beginning of the film that she deserves a win, but instead she chose the greater cause over her own. And I think that is incredibly heroic.

Amanda

But I have to disagree, because the whole end of the movie is another choice being made for her! Banner rescues her, and they agree to run away together. She forces him to Hulk out—which I guess you could argue is her “choosing” heroism over love. But there’s no reason why it has to be a choice! The battle turns out perfectly! There’s no indication that Banner is somehow losing control of the Hulk; he only goes on a ragemonster attack because of Scarlet Witch.

So basically, Banner just leaves Natasha for no reason. Maybe he’s scared of intimacy? Fine, but then doesn’t everything we know about Black Widow imply that she would chase after him? That she would tell him: “Hey, Guy I Adore! Stop making decisions for the both of us! I know who you are and I accept that. Stop being so afraid!”

Black Widow Piece

Hi

I read your Black Widow / Scarjo piece and really enjoyed it. I do, however, think you were remiss in not mentioning Scarlett’s breakout role in Lost in Translation. The movie stands on Bill Murray for sure, but all of the tension, longing, and sadness pours from Johansson. I think it’s easily her best movie. 

Best wishes

Jason

To be clear, I was more focusing on Scarlett Johansson’s career immediately before Iron Man 2—the era of bland romcoms and bland period pieces. I have a ton of respect for the initial phase of Scarlett Johansson, Grown-Up Actress—her turn in Lost in Translation is one of the quietest star-making performances ever; two years later, in Match Point, she’s already a larger-than-life sex symbol.

This initial phase coincided with a lot of other typical tropes of up-and-coming stardom: indie dreck (A Love Song for Bobby Long), Hollywood dreck (In Good Company), and a Michael Bay movie (The Island.) Like, circa 2010, it really did feel like Johansson’s career could go either way.

I want to stress again: HerWinter SoldierUnder the Skin, and Lucy is collectively one of my favorite runs by any contemporary actor. And it’s possible that she could’ve done Her, Under the Skin, and Lucy without ever taking the Black Widow role. Then again, being Black Widow meant a lot of visibility right as ScarJo was entering the second act of her career. This is why I think she’s done the franchise thing right: She found a role that uncannily fits in with her movie star persona; she used that role to get more interesting roles in much better movies which also twisted her movie star persona.

Really?

Darren,

With respect, I don’t buy the logic of your article. To my view, it misses Black Widow completely. Do yourself a favor and watch the films again with this thought in mind: Black Widow is always in control, even when she reveals her past to Banner. And keep watching until the end of this latest movie, so you can see she has moved on as she always does, because her real power is that she has risen above the abuse this world deals out to women, and in the process, has become spectacular.

All the best,

Chris R.

With respect, this is a nice thought which is utterly absent from Age of Ultron. I don’t think the movie really has any perspective on “the abuse this world deals out to women”—what little we get of Black Widow’s origin story is way too abstract to sustain grafting some larger societal point thereupon. (Like, the only person we see in Black Widow’s past is Julie Delpy, for two second: Does this make Age of Ultron a treatise about how women in authority should do more to help younger women?)

I definitely agree that what makes Black Widow interesting is how she “rises above” everything. But again, that’s where Age of Ultron lets her down. In her three previous appearances, Black Widow was as close as these movies have ever come to an old-fashioned John Wayne hero: She does the right thing because it’s her job, and maybe because she’s got some darkness in her past. But she doesn’t dwell on that darkness, because what’s the point? Age of Ultron argues that, far from rising above whatever she’s experienced, Black Widow has a secret sadness (cue violins) that can only be solved by living happily ever after with her secretly sad boyfriend (cue violins) maybe on an island somewhere.

Look: If she loves Hulk, why doesn’t she chase after him? Corollary argument: Why can’t the movie give her just a bit of agency in the end? Like, why can’t the point of the ending be that she doesn’t want Hulk anymore—because he clearly so undervalues her as a human being that he can just take off FOR NO REASON without saying goodbye.

Now, a long one from Sam S.

RE: The Black Widow Conundrum

In the final acts of both Avenger movies, this is what happens: a hostile army shows up and is as ineffectual as it is inexhaustible. The Avengers declare to one another the vital importance of working together as they attempt to usher civilians to safety and drown the advancing army in fists, hammers, bullets, arrows and vibranium. The heroes appear to be in no danger of either winning or dying. A new threat, essentially distinct from the threat of the hostile army, emerges. Tony Stark uses his intelligence to identify the solution and risks his life to effect it. We see that he succeeds and that he lives, always in that order.

Here’s the problem with all that. These films are the tentpole to end all tentpoles. They require stars from not one franchise, but stars from many different franchises to show up and strike a pose. But striking a pose is all they can really do at the end of the day because giving their actions weight, allowing all of them to individually impact the plot…that’s too big an ask.

This matters because it doesn’t allow for a character like Black Widow to do very much at all. Yes, she performs death-defying stunts and fires her twin glocks impotently at enemies that don’t die, but to what end? When she’s finished doing these things, hardly anything has changed because she did them. Yes, she and Hawkeye pull off the aerial stunt with the quinjet and the cradle, but in the context of the film, that was one of the twelve impossible things they did before breakfast. It successfully concludes the mission they’re on, but they aren’t the ones choosing to go on the mission. Making a pass at Bruce Banner is easily the more consequential act if the measure of consequentiality is how the characters are changed by the end of the film. Also if you consider it in the context of how difficult a decision it was to make. Risk life to save world? That’s not a hard choice for Black Widow. There’s literally no plausible reason why she would decide not to. Take a chance on a colleague she has feelings for? That’s something she could have either done or not done, but chose to do. By comparison, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner can easily decide or not decide to create a second, potentially even more apocalyptic Artificial Intelligence. It’s a decision with global implications, the sort of decision Black Widow never has to make because she’s never in a position to make it.

There are characters in the Avengers whose intellectual power is geopolitically transformative. There are characters whose physical power is viscerally compelling. There are characters whose powers make no damn sense at all, but at least have the sense to invoke the Chewbacca Defense. And then there are characters whose powers would be formidable if they lived in a world where handguns, jiujitsu, and spycraft were enough to take care of business. That world isn’t the Marvel Universe, or at least not the Avengers Universe. If Black Widow were a character in the Bourne or Bond series she’d be a force to be reckoned with. All but unstoppable physically, technologically savvy enough to engage with sophisticated technical obstacles and intellectually on par with most conceivable adversaries. In the Avengers, she doesn’t have the raw power or the know-how to pose a serious threat to the bad guys. And it’s not as though the film tries especially hard to pretend otherwise.

This doesn’t have to be an insurmountable problem, of course. There’s no shortage of ways that Black Widow *could* have impacted the plot of the movie. But in addition to lacking a magic hammer, power armor or super-strength, Black Widow lacks primacy as a character. The Avengers franchise has proven that at the end of the day it’s the Tony Stark show, and there isn’t room on the rudder for anyone else’s hands except the villains’.

This isn’t a fatal flaw for the films, of course. But asserting that the films must have a straightforward plot, that a certain number of new characters must be introduced, that the climax must be melée of explosions and fists and that the conflict must solved with a technological or magical hand wave…that essentially forgives the film for pushing characters like the Black Widow to the margins.

And I know this isn’t what Joss Whedon wants. I believe he genuinely cares about the depiction of women in his super-powered cinematic romps. But I think his version of caring is giving Scarlett Johansson cooler stunts, snappier one-liners, more chances to one-up the male characters who think they’re above her and a few relatable moments of vulnerability. It doesn’t extend as far as letting the Black Widow impact the plot of what is essentially Iron Man 2.5 and 4.

-Sam S

Maybe the whole Marvel universe has just been Iron Man sequels. Like, the best Marvel Studios movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And now Captain America 3…is going to be an Iron Man movie!