Clearing the Ledger: How Scarlett Johansson pulled Black Widow out of a moral red zone
"For me, it's just a lot of fighting."
That's what Scarlett Johansson told EW in 2011 during the making of the original Avengers, when the special-ops agent Black Widow was trying her best to corral a thuder god, a cocky metal man, a revived super-soldier and giant green monster into a disciplined fighting force.
"It's a lot of big sequences, fight sequences, and that's challenging of course because of my character and Jeremy [Renner's] character in particular, we don't have any superpowers," she said. "Our superpowers are all our skill set."
Natasha Romanoff's other superpower may be regret. With Avengers: Endgame promising resolution for the classic heroes, the redemption she has sought for herself as a former Russian assassin may finally erase the red from her moral ledger.
What were those past wrongs? We can only imagine — based on the level of heroism and self-sacrifice she has displayed to tip the scales back.
Off screen, much of what Johansson's character has undergone is scrutinized through the lens of gender politics. As one of the few female protagonists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (until recently) her individual character often carried the weight as a representative for all womankind.
That's heavy lifting even for a superhero.
"Occasionally it does come up where I'm like, 'Oh my God, I'm the only girl in a group of 15 stuntmen and seven cast,' but I'm hanging in there, it's fun," Johansson told EW in 2011.
The women warriors
"Well, we do have Cobie [Smulders], who is our other girl. I'm not totally alone, although I never see her," Johansson added. "Agent Hill, she's new. She spends a lot of time at SHIELD headquarters, agenting it up or whatever."
Now there's also Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Evangeline Lilly as the Wasp, Brie Larson headlining her own film as Captain Marvel, Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, Danai Gurira's Okoye, and an increasing number of female heroes. Black Widow herself has a solo film in development at Marvel, to be directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland.
From the start, Johansson zeroed in on Natasha's appeal: "She's a warrior, and what I love so much about the character is there's no smoke and mirrors, she's a total badass. She's a killing machine."
In many ways, she was more vicious than the male characters. Less likely to make the wisecrack — but when she did, the sting went deep.
The actress did have her uncertainties, though. "The other day we were doing this big reveal shot of all the Avengers. Thor has got his hammer, Cap's got his shield, Hawkeye has his bow and arrow, and Hulk is huge. Then it pans over to me and I've got guns," she said. "Iron Man's like, hovering above all of us, ready to go. I was like, 'Joss [Whedon]… um… do I look okay holding these guns?' He said, 'Yeah, Black Widow is a badass. She's awesome.'"
Over time, she proved herself just as deadly a weapon as a firearm — mastering martial arts and able to turn any solid object into something that could lay out a roomful of thugs or monsters.
The actress is self-critical of the character, too. She describes her first appearance in Iron Man 2 as "a sexy secretary," although Natasha Romanoff evolved into a woman reclaiming her own will and identity.
"That is such a powerful journey to see anybody take, but certainly to see a woman on screen represented in that way: a flawed superhero with a gray moral compass coming to terms with what's happened to her," Johansson told EW recently. "It's definitely shown some sort of path for these other female superheroes to be able to walk down. I certainly don't take credit for that, though."
"A lot of the female superhero movies just suck really badly. They are really not well made, and already you're fighting against the tide," she told EW in 2012, as The Avengers was about to open. "I think they're always fighting in a bra, so while it might be exciting for a still photo, it's ridiculous. One of the most exciting things about [The Avengers], is 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— kicked out of her."
For Johansson, Widow's ability to take a hit and get back up and hit twice as hard was a sign of resilience and strength. There was nothing soft about her, even though the character yearned for the tenderness she was denied as a young woman when she was conscripted into the Russian Red Room assassin program.
There were accusations that her story arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron was stereotyped and offensive. Some accused writer-director Joss Whedon of sexism for a story line that involved Widow developing romantic feelings for Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner in the comic book version of the Beauty and the Beast folktale.
Others were outraged that Widow expressed regret over the juvenile assassin program that forced her to be sterilized. Still others took offense at that complaint, saying the desire to have a family doesn't mean a woman can't have a career (beating the hell out of evildoers, or otherwise).
Today, Widow stands as a character who has taken hits both on screen and off — but is still standing nonetheless.
"No time for romance…"
While there has been occasional flirtation, she has never had a love story, unless you count the love that exists between friends. "There's no time for romance," Johansson said in 2011. "The Widow has no time for romance. She's a lover of all things. She has a love/hate relationship with, I think, everyone she meets in some way. She's very divisive, so it leaves little room for true love."
The actress said that's a piece of what makes Black Widow so alluring. "Part of what makes her sexy is she takes no prisoners," Johansson said during the making of the first Avengers. "You wouldn't grab her for a big old bear hug."
One of her most powerful performances was in Captain America: Civil War, with Natasha having to choose a side as the heroes clashed over who had control of how they used their powers.
She starts out on the side of order, aligning — at least for a while — with Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man in trying to get Chris Evans' Captain America to honor the global Sokovia Accords that force "enhanced individuals" to operate under government control.
Even in that story, she bristled at the idea of loyalty for loyalty's sake. That's why she left the Russian assassin program, breaking with everything she knew. She didn't do that just to follow orders without question for another group.
"You know, I don't think she's ever aspired to become an Avenger," Johansson told EW in 2015. "That's not really a choice that she made. It's kind of like the events in her life led her to that point, and when we see her [in Civil War], she's finally capable of making a choice for herself. Which is kind of a milestone in someone's life when they've not really participated in the decisions that were made for them. She's finally at a place where she's going, 'Okay, I actually kind of know what I want. And I think I kind of deserve it.'"
Yet in that same movie, she shows Widow is capable of hitting people with affection that's as powerful as one of her punches. She finds Cap at the funeral for the aged Peggy Carter, his true love, left behind decades ago — and now gone forever.
He tells her she is wasting her time; he isn't going to sign the accords.
"I know," she tells him.
"Then what are you doing here?" he asks.
"I didn't want you to be alone."
Black Widow repeatedly shows not just that she does love, but that she will do anything for the people she cares about.
Including, sometimes, a bear hug.
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