The Marvel Cinematic Universe has never asked much of Scarlett Johannson. Since her entry into the franchise in 2010, as the ex-KGB assassin Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), she has essentially played a sidekick to the then all-male Avengers, disarming bad guys in an impractically low-cut, skin-tight catsuit. This is a character who was deemed so insignificant by Marvel’s former CEO that he discontinued Black Widow merchandise from Avengers toy lines in 2014. And why wouldn’t he? Across the film series, Natasha is not afforded the importance she deserves. She is little more than set dressing, the token woman on the team – with minimal agency and screen time – whose storylines are invariably intertwined with those of her male co-stars.
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In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she maintains a lightly flirtatious patter with Cap throughout the movie, then improbably kisses him to evade capture during a chase sequence. For the following year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, she is passed over to the Hulk as a love interest/calming influence, and the wisecracking Tony Stark distastefully mocks their romance in front of the rest of the crew (he genuinely says to her, “You and [Bruce] Banner better not be playing hide the zucchini” with horrible, smug satisfaction). On the whole, these movies are famously sexless – they are designed as family-friendly entertainment, after all – and yet within these child-appeasing parameters Natasha is constantly objectified. Last month, Johansson about her “hypersexualisation” in the early days of the MCU, and bemoaned that her character was treated like “a piece of ass”.
In some respects, Natasha’s long-overdue solo feature does deviate from its identikit predecessors. Under Cate Shortland’s direction, and with Johansson serving as executive producer for the first time, the superhero is finally clothed more appropriately in monochrome leather jackets, jeans and long-sleeved tops, and her latest crime-fighting costume is form-fitting without being quite so revealing. Black Widow passes the Bechdel test for female representation – which is more than can be said of Iron Man, The Avengers or Thor: Ragnarok – and for once Natasha is not set up as anyone’s romantic partner (although there is a male companion who heavily implies he wants to be more than just friends with her). These updates are all welcome improvements, however the film is still plagued by many of the same problems as the wider franchise.
Black Widow is the first movie of Phase Four of the MCU and, as such, one would expect it to mark a slight paradigm shift from what went before, defining itself as more forward- than backward-looking. To some extent, it does. The plot centres on Natasha’s reunion with her Russian family (all newly introduced characters played by Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour) and their mission to prevent Dreykov (Ray Winstone) from chemically brainwashing and mind-controlling young girls, who he shapes into contract killers. Nominally, this is not another Avengers movie but the other heroes’ presence looms large enough that it really does feel like one at times – her male colleagues are frequently mentioned in Black Widow, usually in a way that’s disparaging to the title character.
Her sister Yelena (Pugh) says that Natasha is “not one of the big ones” in the Avengers, and quips “I doubt the god from space [Thor] has to take an Ibuprofen after a fight”. In turn, Natasha’s estranged father Alexei (Harbour) showers her with questions about Captain America and her mother Melina (Weisz) suggests Natasha ask Tony Stark to fix some glitching machinery. Of course, the Avengers’ disparate stories are all interconnected within Marvel’s billion-dollar world-building exercise, therefore some level of intertextuality should be anticipated; but these continual allusions to Black Widow’s male counterparts undermines her importance, strength and problem-solving skills in a movie that is supposed to be about her. Citing the Avengers at such a rate belittles Natasha because it implies that she has no identity outside the group. Even in her own mind, she has not imagined her future separate from them (“I never let myself be alone long enough to think about it,” she tells Yelena). It’s as if, without her ultra-masculine friends, Natasha cannot fathom her very existence.
To its detriment, Black Widow is also structured like an Avengers movie, in the sense that it focuses on a team coming together to complete a mission. For this standalone feature, the team in question is Natasha’s family, which, at face value, is a coup for female representation, since the inclusion of Yelena and Melina means women outnumber men (unheard of in your classic Avengers flick). However, slotting Black Widow into yet another crew of fighters – albeit a more gender-diverse one – does her a disservice. Once again, she is part of a unit, a piece of a greater whole; dispiritingly, she is not trusted to carry her namesake film by herself.
There are multiple instances in the movie where Natasha requires help from her relatives to save the day. In a high-speed car chase through Budapest, Yelena twice criticises her sibling’s “shit plan” to escape their motorcycling pursuer and takes matters into her own hands (kicking the door off their moving car and sending it flying into their enemy). In Black Widow’s final showdown, Natasha convinces her family to let her face off against dozens of advancing attackers alone. Johansson delivers her line with firm determination, her face fixed in concentration, red hair blazing in the sunlight… Then we cut to two weeks later. This was her big moment, and we don’t get to see it: all the rip-roaring hand-to-hand combat happens offscreen. Much like in the Avengers movies, Natasha is denied the chance to stand on her own two feet.
Black Widow is not a bad film – Pugh will almost certainly reach next-level stardom thanks to her scene-stealing performance and there are some fun action set pieces – nevertheless it feels like a wasted opportunity. There is some progression for Johansson’s character, sure, but she is never properly fleshed out. At this point in the MCU, it’s too little, too late. Natasha was killed off in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame – sacrificing herself for a man, no less – so this was Marvel’s last chance to develop her, and instead the mega corporation feeds us more of the same. The end-credits sequence of Black Widow shows Yelena tending to Natasha’s grave, whose tombstone reads “daughter”, “sister”. Even in death, Natasha remains defined in relation to other people and that’s a crying shame.
‘Black Widow’ is released in cinemas on Wednesday, and available to order on Disney+ with Premier Access from Friday.
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