When Scarlett Johansson was first picked to be Black Widow, I was irritated. I’ve never see her be fierce and action-y in anything. Also, she stays in strange poses in the posters.
I thought she’d be a fluffy piece of lady in Iron Man 2 (and those moments do exist). Over the course of the three films, however, she has exceeded my expectations (though my expectations were never really that high, so congrats Scar Jo?).
When we first see the Natasha Romanoff, she is undercover at Stark Industries. Though she is set up as powerful and smart, she is introduced by the male gaze. We see her first from behind. The camera, Tony, and Happy are focused on how attractive she is. Tony ogles her and tells Pepper “I want one.” From the beginning she is treated as an object. When we finally see her in her official capacity they focus on her butt, so yeah, lots of male gaze involved with her initial appearance in the Marvel world. Though again, she’s portrayed as supremely effective as a Shield agent. But right after one of these moments, we have Happy again ogling her while she’s changing and given him important instructions on how to help her. We really see what she’s capable of when she destroys about nine guys while Happy goes through the one. She moves so fluidly and is so capable; she is exceptional. There are these moments of strength and magnificence, but those are overshadowed by how the other characters see her as an object or just a pretty face.
In The Avengers we first see Natasha tied to a chair, being hit by a bad guy. We know she’s not helpless, but the visual is still damsel tied to chair. I think Whedon tries to subvert that trope, but the film mostly just plays into it. She is seemingly vulnerable and weak, but when she fights them, she is fluid and flawless. She is never at their mercy, and it is never in question that she will win the fight.
It is in her interactions with the Hulk, where she’s not the fierce Black Widow. Whenever she deals with him, there’s genuine fear in her eyes. We don’t see the other heroes react that way to him, though they (with the exception of Thor) are all equally vulnerable to him. I don’t like that of everyone they made her weak in the face of him.
I get it, because he’s the Hulk and could rip her head off. She’s still smart and resourceful, but she’s operating under so much fear that again, damsel. Thor saves her and I hate that moment. She ends up shaking on the ground where she was left. She does get up and saves Barton. She’s tough after that, but still damseled by Captain America during the fight in New York. Instead of finding cover of her own, she’s unnecessarily shielded by Cap. Overall though, there is no ogling of her in this film and the other characters never treat her as weak.
It seems like all it took for Black Widow to become something close to a developed character were three supporting roles, the last of which is in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Maybe she’ll be fully realized by the time she gets her own film. In this appearance we get to see more of Natasha the complete person. She is at turns vulnerable, effective, strong and fierce. Here we first see her when she picks Cap. up like a boss in her hot car.
She is snarky with Cap while flirting with Sam “Falcon.” She is not flirting for information or a mission, it’s for fun. Throughout the film she is given these little moments of completeness. She tries to–kind of persistently–set Cap up (though his heart belongs to someone else – read the fanfic) and is hurt when it’s implied that she’s not trusted. My favorite Black Widow moments in this film are when she’s fighting (followed closely by when she snarks). She is efficient in her kills, but there is still grace in her movements. There are still moments when uncertainty shines through, but again, when she is outmatched she still finds a way to get away or protect herself. There is also an unfortunate lingering butt shot, so the male gaze is still present. Though there’s less damseling. She is set up as a damsel at two points, one which [SPOILERS] ends with Cap dramatically carrying her out of rubble, the other with her sacrificing herself, though only for a bit. For the most part Black Widow is written/treated as a partner in this film (minus the manhandling).
They have almost balanced her vulnerable side, emotional side and hardened SHIELD agent/spy side.
I think we’re so starved for a strong woman superhero that there’s always a lot riding on Black Widow whenever she is on the screen. She has to be everything. If we had Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel and Batwoman and Batgirl and Spiderwoman and Misty Night there could be nuance and strength and even weakness from Natasha’s first appearance, but when she’s on her own she has to be better, such is the charge of the minority.
I’ll leave you with ScarJo’s thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier (she and I are closer now).