In 2010, Scarlett Johansson brought Natasha Romanoff – the Russian assassin turned S.H.I.E.L.D. super spy turned Avenger, the Black Widow – to life in Iron Man 2. Since then, she’s appeared in seven different Marvel movies, more than any other Avenger save Iron Man (nine) and Captain America (eight (and the only reason Cap beats her is because he has cameos in TWO films)). In addition to screen time, I would also argue the Black Widow is more important to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, story-wise, than any other Avenger save Tony or Cap. Despite that, we still have yet to see a Black Widow solo movie. Yet, as one of the MCU’s richest creations, she’s worthy of serious acclaim. This piece has been rolling around in my head for some time. Given Avengers: Infinity War’s release this week has me looking back, getting nostalgic over, and celebrating the MCU, it seemed like the perfect time to finally write it.
To discuss the brilliance of Black Widow we must begin with Scarlett Johansson. I love Scarlett Johansson. Do you know why I love her? Sure, she’s undeniably one of the greatest actresses of her generation. She has an enviable range, playing any role I’ve seen her in brilliantly (and I’ve seen just about all her films). And yes, she kicks some serious ass. But I love her most because she clearly loves all things in the nerdy, weird, sci-fi/fantasy world. Let’s be honest, with her acting skills (so Oscar-worthy in so many films) and her looks (gorgeous), she could be in anything. She could have made a career of serious, tear-inducing Oscar contenders or she could have easily made her money as a romcom queen. But she prefers the weird, wild world of sci-fi and fantasy films – from the Avengers movies to Her to Ghost In The Shell (awkward cultural appropriation issues notwithstanding) to Lucy to Under The Skin to The Island. Yes, of course she does (and is excellent in) other types of movies as well (this is where I tell you Rough Night was the single most underrated comedy of 2017 and it’s one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen and you should see it too and own it as well). But she keeps coming back to the nerd-corner of cinema and I love her for that!
When we look at the landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s not hard to see the centrality and importance of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff either. Tony Stark/Iron Man is the heart of the MCU, standing at its center and pumping blood through its veins since Iron Man exploded in 2008. Steve Rogers/Captain America then is its conscience, the incorruptible moral center and being the ideal to strive for. It’s no surprise Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans are synonymous with the MCU. Their characters deserve their time in the spotlight and their place in our cultural consciousness. But if Tony’s the heart and Cap’s the conscience, then it’s Natasha who is the soul of the MCU. She is the one who carries the weight of sin – both in her life and dealing with the messes they make (think Hydra’s corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D.) – and the one who works to pay the price to right these past wrongs. She embodies the bridge between Tony’s litany of mistakes (which he wrestles with owning given his own hubris) and Steve’s moral perfection (which we all struggle to model). She’s done some horrible things but she wants to be better; she is better. Yet she still won’t excuse her past. She sees “red in her ledger” and she’d “like to wipe it out.”
Black Widow’s character embodies the dual realities of transformation and redemption while reminding us the road to atonement is not easily navigated. To walk it, we must offer our whole heart, our whole soul. Natasha does just that.
Her stories too, are more important to the MCU’s main storyline than any other Avengers – again, save Tony and Cap. I mean, I love the Thor movies, don’t get me wrong. But outside of introducing characters (most importantly Thor and Loki) and the Reality Stone into the mix, what else do the Thor movies give that is essential to where the MCU is heading? The cosmic comings and goings of Asgard are fun…but they aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. You could go into Avengers: Infinity War having only met Thor in The Avengers and Avengers: Age Of Ultron and, while the haircut and one eye thing might be kind of surprising, you’d still get who he is and where he fits in. Asgard is exciting but superfluous.
Hulk is even worse. When the MCU essentially jettisoned The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton, Hulk’s relevance dipped too. His relationship with Betty (something so worthy of development) is gone and you don’t need that film at all to get General Ross is a dick in Captain America: Civil War. Hulk is relevant for his time in the Avengers team films, which Natasha is in too, but nothing more. And Hawkeye…c’mon. I love Jeremy Renner but he’s ONLY in the Avengers movies. He’s a fun part of the team, but that’s it. Also, he’s always sort of felt like the junior member. I mean, the poor guy doesn’t even get a Twitter emoji for Avengers: Infinity War when you hashtag his name! Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Vision are all exciting characters, but they’re too new to have a major foothold in the universe.
But Natasha showed up all the way back in Iron Man 2. This film is criminally underrated but that’s the story for another post. Here it’s enough to say it was the proto-Avengers, the first SUPERHERO TEAM-UP the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever executed. And it was the Black Widow who was suiting up alongside Tony and Rhodey’s War Machine. She’s the one who recruits Bruce Banner for the Avengers, getting them another big brain and an even bigger Hulk. She helps Steve get reacclimated with the world in the 21st Century, fighting alongside him as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative and, when it turns out S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually a front for Hydra, it’s Natasha who helps Steve burn it all to the ground. Then when someone has to face Congress and the media to explain what happened with Hydra and justify the Avengers continued activity in light of the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. it’s Natasha alone who goes before Congress. There’s no Cap, no Tony. There’s no one but Natasha there to face the public scrutiny, own it, and begin to chart their new path forward. Then, when Tony decides to “retire” from the Avengers after Ultron, she’s the one who stays with Steve to lead the new version of the team. And when the Civil War comes, she has the strength to try and work with the U.N. on the Accords and, when it’s clear Steve and Bucky are in the right, she has the courage to help them anyway, consequences be damned. She’s even the very first character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to talk to T’Challa!!!! Who greets the Black Panther, welcoming him into the MCU? Why it’s Black freaking Widow, that’s who!
Her story beats are more intimately connected to the central plotline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than anyone who isn’t Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. And, while we tend to think of Captain America and Iron Man as being the two leading forces in the Avengers, a closer inspection clearly shows it’s the Black Widow who deserves credit for being the second-in-command and that’s been the case since the beginning. When Maria Hill calls Tony “boss” in Avengers: Age Of Ultron he responds with traditional Stark snark by saying (of Cap), “No, he’s the boss. I just design everything and pay for everything and make everyone look cooler.” This is true in the field too. For all his bravado, Tony knows he isn’t the one who should be leading the Avengers.
During the Chitauri invasion, Cap’s clearly the one calling the shots. (And rightly so! He’s CAPTAIN AMERICA after all.) Tony does his part, securing the perimeter and playing (surprisingly well) as part of the team. But it’s Natasha who tells Cap they need to shut down the Tesseract if they’re going to have a hope of winning. Then, she’s the one who figures out how to shut it down! She’s strategizing and calling the shots, right alongside Cap. As I mentioned above, after the mess with Ultron, it’s a very different sort of Avengers. Bruce is in the wind. Tony and Clint retire to be with their loved ones. Thor goes in search of answers about the Infinity Stones. But Nat and Steve stay on with the new incarnation of the team including Wanda, Vision, Sam, and Rhodey. “They’re good. They’re not a team,” Steve tells her. Natasha replies, “Let’s beat ‘em into shape.”
As a character, she’s a good balance to Steve too. Their demeanors and approaches contrast enough to be interesting yet they balance one another too, each having a bit of what the other lacks. Like Steve, she never takes any downtime. To the best of our knowledge from what we see in the MCU, Natasha and Steve are the only two Avengers who don’t take any time away from the team – always active, always fighting to protect the world – whether it’s with S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Avengers, regardless of the incarnation.
One of my favorite scenes between Natasha and Steve comes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While they’re driving out to an old army base to try and learn what’s on the jump drive Fury gave Steve, they have a brilliant conversation. We see Nat and Cap as real friends, as equals, with no romantic tension sizzling between them. That’s rare, in Hollywood, to see a strong depiction of platonic friendship between a female and male character that isn’t laying the ground work for a love interest down the line. I love their banter and I love how you can see they truly care for each other. In her portrayal, Scarlett Johansson gives us an authentic friend to Steve while also hinting at the pain Natasha carries with her all the time. All that moves in the subtleties of this scene is beautiful and painful all at once.
But I know when romantic love finally enters Natasha’s world in Avengers: Age Of Ultron in the form of her budding relationship with Bruce Banner people were divided. Some claimed it undercut her as a female character, making the romantic relationship a cliché as opposed to letting her remain a strong, independent woman. I also know people were upset with how much her forced sterilization at the hands of those who made her an assassin in the Red Room seemed to affect her. I grant I’m not a woman so I’m responding to these critiques as a man. But, when I watched Age Of Ultron for the first time, neither of these points registered as problematic to me, despite my feminism.
Tony, Cap, Thor, and Clint all have romantic relationships across their films and it wasn’t seen as something that diminished their characters. Plus, romantic love is a defining part of the human experience. To say Natasha should never experience it or that doing so somehow undercuts her character doesn’t make much sense to me. In fact, it seems to deny part of her personhood as a fully fleshed out character. As to her being “too upset” about forced sterilization…I’d be hard pressed to imagine anyone with any semblance of a healthy mental state not being bothered by someone forcing sterilization on them. This isn’t to say a child and motherhood is the only way her character can find fulfillment. But to have such a decision forcibly taken from you would naturally leave a scar. And, relationship or not, when the time comes she does her duty – putting stopping Ultron ahead of her own personal happiness
When it comes to her in action, Black Widow’s unique too. First, she has to get credit for being the toughest of the Avengers. She faces everything right alongside the rest of the team but without any superpowers, flashy suits, or even weirdly elaborate bow and arrow set. It’s her, her cunning, and her physicality. Whether it’s Hammer drones, the Chitauri, Hydra, Ultron (soooo many Ultrons), or a team-divided, when she goes out there it’s only her against her foes. No one else does that. Also, from a cinematic standpoint, I think Black Widow’s the most visually engaging hero when it comes to the battle scenes. She moves and fights with such grace and elegance. Thor and Hulk bludgeon everything. Iron Man blasts and blows everything up. Hawkeye, to a lesser degree with his arrows, does too. He’s also often stationary. Cap comes the closest to her fighting style. But her acrobatic balance between super spy and superhero is so unique. She’s such a badass!
Natasha is the first Avenger we see in action in The Avengers (which is so important! the movie was such a big deal! (and no, I’m not forgetting about Hawkeye…but I wouldn’t really call getting mind-controlled in the first few minutes and then shooting Nick Fury and driving a car “action”)) and SHE FACES THE FREAKING HULK ON HER OWN when Bruce Hulks out on the helicarrier. Oh, let’s not forget SHE TOTALLY PLAYS LOKI TOO. Nat is the first person we see who can trick the trickster…something that won’t happen again until Thor: Ragnarök. Plus, the woman’s nigh unflappable.
However, the Black Widow isn’t just a kick ass fighter. She carries a lot. Of all the Avengers, she has the darkest past. She’s always haunted by who she was and what she’s done but she doesn’t let it control her. In The Avengers Loki taunts Natasha, “Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Drakov’s daughter, Sao Paulo, the hospital fire? Barton told me everything. Your ledger is dripping, it’s gushing red and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything?! This is the basest sentimentality. This is a child’s prayer. PATHETIC! You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors but they are a part of you, and they will never go away.”
Yet, haunted by who she was and all she’s done or not, when the time comes she still dumps everything S.H.I.E.L.D. had on the internet to take down Hydra. She willingly drops all the walls she’s worked so hard to build and maintain in the name of protecting the world. This isn’t just the matter of a secret identity. This is taking the worst face of yourself, your darkest and most private sins, and putting them on display for the world to see and then testifying before Congress about them as the media picks you apart too. As a character, Natasha wears so many faces, in part, because she’s looking for her own. Yet she lays it all bare when the time comes, without hesitation.
Natasha Romanoff is nothing if not a picture of resiliency. The Red Room made her a killer. She worked for the KGB and when given a second chance, goes “straight” with S.H.I.E.L.D. Then, when it turns out it’s really Hydra, she takes them down and moves on. In Avengers: Age Of Ultron, after Wanda lets the most painful parts of her psyche play freely in her mind, she tells Bruce, “I had this dream. The kind that seems normal but when you wake… I dreamed I was an Avenger. That I was anything more than the assassin they made me.” She begs Bruce to run away with her and yet, when the decision comes, she refuses his offer and triggers his transformation so she and the Hulk could join the fight against Ultron. And when the Hulk leaves with no way for her to find him, she picks herself up and goes right back to leading the new team with Cap.
All this is to say Black Widow is important. I’ll say it again, outside of Iron Man and Captain America, there’s no character more important to shaping the main story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than Black Widow. AND she carried the weight of being the only female superhero in the MCU from 2010 until Gamora showed up in 2014.
Sadly, despite her importance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow still has yet to receive her own solo movie. It’s completely unjustifiable and an embarrassing sign of how – for all its brilliance – Marvel Studios doesn’t see the importance of their female characters. They’re starting to change…slowly. We have Captain Marvel (FINALLY) coming next year. But there’s no reason Scarlett Johansson shouldn’t have been headlining her own Black Widow series of films too for at least six years. It’s something she’s always said she was game for too! Yet here we are.
Marvel keeps Natasha Romanoff from the solo film she’s deserved for years. Her merchandise is a fraction of what exists for her male counterparts (of the eighty-eight “official” Age Of Ultron products, she was on six (for real)). She was infamously replaced from one of her most badass scenes in Age Of Ultron (riding her motorcycle through South Korea) in the Hasbro toy with Captain America. The list of goes on an on. Marvel’s getting better…but we still have to hold them accountable. Personally, back around the release of Avengers: Age Of Ultron I stopped buying any Avengers t-shirts that featured the team without her. As sad as it is unsurprising, this greatly limits the Avengers t-shirts I can buy.
Buying options aside, as long as Marvel keeps minimizing/overlooking all Scarlett Johansson has brought to their Cinematic Universe as Black Widow, it’s up to us – as fans – to celebrate what an incredible part of the team she is. She was Marvel’s first female cinematic superhero. She’s more important to their story than anyone who isn’t Captain American or Iron Man. And she’s a complex character, seeking atonement while owning her past, who also happens to be a badass fighter and second-in-command to Captain America himself. So here’s to you Black Widow! Even if patriarchal corporate marketing bullshit doesn’t understand how important you are or how much we love you, we, as fans, certainly do.