Three Movies Equals a Complete Character: A Look at Black Widow

Masetsaba Woodland April 8, 2014 4

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.

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Get it the hell together studio execs

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?).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).  

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 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).

 

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gif from http://hello-shellhead.tumblr.com

  • Mase

    Yup, I get your points, esp. the missile, and yet he was literally carrying her, literally. It just hits a nerve when that imagery pops up, esp. for one of our heroes.

    With the Avengers, I think it’s a vast improvement of her portrayal in Iron Man 2, but still she’s treated by the script as less. I never got that she really cared about Bruce, just that she was scared of him. Her feelings about him seemed to fall in line with Fury’s feelings. She seems very much to tow the company line with him. I think it was something about the level of fear from their very first interaction in India. No one else had that with him on screen at least. Didn’t sit right with me. I def liked her the most here. I really think she’ll be phenomenal when she gets her own film.

    • arielletje

      Yeah, it was very Pieta – while watching it, I had to actually remind myself that yes, the normal human reaction to having a missile dropped about 10 feet away is to be knocked unconscious, if not immediately expire by scattering oneself over a wide area.

      Agreed about IM 2. She was not treated well in that movie. From hot secretary object to femme fatale object, like flicking a switch.

      I admit I had to watch Avengers a few times before I started picking up on character nuances beyond “Why are they all so ferociously attractive?” – next time you watch, check out Nat and Bruce’s interactions. I’d venture to say it’s one of the best character-interaction arcs throughout the course of the film.

      • Mase

        Didn’t Cap. cover her body while they were in that hidey hole? Maybe that’s why she was ok.

        I watched Avengers recently before writing this and to prepare for Winter Soldier, and I just don’t see it. The interactions are there, but she goes from I’m scared of what you might become, to I’m sacred of what you are, to don’t worry about the trying to kill me thing we need that fighting spirit. I just don’t get what you do. But I do like the progression in Winter Soldier, and I think she’ll be awesome in her own pic.

  • arielletje

    Hm, gotta say that I actually like how in Avengers, the single thing that genuinely shakes Natasha up is the Hulk. She’s is not (visibly) phased by anything else at all, and I think that her character ran the risk of falling into a two-dimensional, emotionless boobs-with-a-gun trope, save for her interactions with Bruce Banner and the Hulk. She genuinely cares for Bruce, despite the fact that she is super uncomfortable with the idea that he could Hulk out at any time. If she’d been unafraid, I think I probably would not have identified with her character as much.

    Oh wait, Avengers fridge logic – wasn’t her leg broken, because she was pinned under rubble when Bruce started Hulking out? That’s why I wasn’t too ruffled with her being saved by Thor – she genuinely needed saving in that situation, it didn’t seem contrived to me. Yet then later on she’s walking fine? Halp.

    Regarding in Winter Soldier Cap carrying her out of the rubble – they were just hit with a freaking missile. By rights she should have been mostly dead – she’s insanely talented and acrobatic, but not augmented like Cap. I chalk her survival up to titanium shield + comic book logic. That said, I’ll prolly need to see Bucky’s butt Winter Soldier again to process it all, so we’ll see if my opinion changes.