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The Legacy of Black Widow

Scarlett Johansson has portrayed Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2010.
Scarlett Johansson has portrayed Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2010. By Courtesy of Marvel Studios
By Millie Mae Healy, Crimson Staff Writer

Since her debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2010, Black Widow has been through quite a complicated journey. Portrayed by controversial actress Scarlett Johansson, she was the only female Avenger in the MCU’s first 11 movies, and her motley appearances are best characterized as incohesive.

Over the course of eight Marvel movies, Black Widow has been written as flirty, morally ambiguous, and selfless. On other occasions, she has been taciturn but still sexualized. Other times, she is sensitive and dorky with a wicked sense of humor. While the MCU is leagues better at consistently characterizing their heroes than the DCEU, the various writers who have worked on Black Widow’s character have struggled to come to a satisfying consensus about who she really is.

For example, it’s been hammered home that Natasha Romanoff, the woman behind the moniker, has a checkered past where she did awful things, but for a while it remained unclear what actually makes her a bad person. We never saw any details of her past and were also told very little about it. According to “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” her greatest flaw is not that she’s hurt or killed innocent people — it’s that she can’t have children. The film explicitly uses this to call her a “monster” — and her supposed love interest agrees with her. It would be one thing for a character to believe untrue negative things about themselves, but the narrative very clearly reinforces this view as correct.

Speaking of romance, one is hinted at between Black Widow and Hawkeye in “The Avengers” (and this is a relationship that happens in the comics), but in “Age of Ultron” it’s revealed he suddenly has a secret family. So Black Widow naturally starts a relationship with the Hulk, the guy whose destructive alter-ego is paralleled with Natasha’s infertility. After this, Natasha uses him, then he leaves. This relationship is mentioned in a couple of movies before being dropped in “Infinity War.” Also in the comics, Black Widow had a relationship with the Winter Soldier, but this is only hinted at in the movies. This as an adaptational choice is fine, but it’s interesting that Bucky and Natasha have parallel backgrounds — they were trained in the same place — yet “Captain America: Civil War” makes clear that the Winter Soldier is bad because of what he did whereas the Black Widow is bad because of who she is. The depiction of Black Widow’s romantic history on screen ranges from mildly incompetent to outright offensive, and the lack of care put into this aspect of her character matches her inconsistent characterization.

Fans have been campaigning for a Black Widow movie since her debut in “Iron Man 2,” and yet when it finally happened, the lead actress was allegedly underpaid for it. Whatever your thoughts on Scarlett Johanssen, this lawsuit is important for actors everywhere because if Disney will allegedly screw over the actress who topped Forbes’ 2019 list of highest paid actresses, then how will they treat members of the cast and crew who haven’t built names for themselves yet?

So, after a long, long wait, the “Black Widow” movie is here. Director Cate Shortland and screenwriter Eric Pearson were handed a shoddy patchwork of character moments and created a unified, coherent character — treatment which Black Widow has rarely seen. She was the only one to act like an adult in “Captain America: Civil War,” and she was the only one on Earth to continue leading the Avengers after the blip, a feat which “Black Widow” contextualizes with further insight. Moreover, as an individual, she has always valued the Avengers as a family even though they did not reciprocate; this movie tells us why she’s built that way, and why she stood by Captain America in “Infinity War.” It gives Black Widow’s parents who loved her even though they couldn’t save her, and a sister she can be there for despite failing in the past. A beautifully subtle scene shows how Natasha might have wanted a family of her own, and how she couldn’t have it — a pain her sister Yelena does not share. It allowed her and Yelena to center their trauma around themselves and their growth. It makes the people who taught little girls to become killers the monsters, not the women those children grew up to be. Repeat: The survivors are not the monsters, Joss Whedon.

The film does everything right with her character with minimal retconning. There is a smart sense of humour as well as exciting action scenes. There’s an allegory to human trafficking alongside fantastic directing and cinematography. There’s even a good script — though the audacity of Eric Pearson to think a period joke would be acceptable is shocking, as is the fact that it was the actors who rewrote the joke — it features a great story that centers on saving yourself, sisterhood, and going back for the people you’ve left behind. It depicts how desperate people can do bad things (we finally see Black Widow do an actual bad thing!) and the value of genuine forgiveness over getting a free pass.


All this isn't to say, however, that this film is above reproach. It isn’t the best film ever made. It isn’t even the best Marvel film ever made. But it was a beautiful exit for the character who for a very long time was ‘The Girl’ of the MCU. And it did its best to repair some of the misogyny of “Endgame.”

In “Infinity War,” the only woman in a team of six (Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana) was thrown off a cliff and murdered by her abuser — and the narrative validated that as love. In the sequel, “Endgame,” the only woman in a team of six jumped off a cliff — while this was actually love, the narrative tells us that since Natasha didn’t have children or a family, her life didn’t matter as much. She “deserved to die.” The fact that these two important female characters were killed in exactly the same way, at the same story beat in each movie, without closure or even really being mourned, is deeply depressing.

“Endgame” fails to treat most of its female characters better than this — a bunch of female characters standing next to each other in the finale does not bestow individual importance or replace actual character development or value.

“Black Widow” told us that this was wrong — that you cannot Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V any random female character and call that development. And it said that not only did Natasha Romanoff matter inherently as a person, but that she did have a family.

Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, is certainly not the end-all of female characters. But when the first female-led MCU film was the 21st one, and there have still only been 2.5 (“Ant-Man and the Wasp” counting as co-lead) against 17.5 male led (15.5 of which featured white men incidentally) ones, Marvel is asking this movie to represent “Woman Superhero Movies” — perhaps even “White Woman Superhero Movies,” as Marvel has yet to announce even a plan for a movie led by a woman of color.

I’m not asking for a dozen more “Black Widow” movies — I want to see lots of superhero films about women of color, queer women, and women with different body types. I want to get to the point where a female-led superhero movie is just another entry into the superhero genre instead of the spark of a debate on whether female-led superhero movies are worth making. I want there to be so many that they’re treated just like whenever DC churns out another mediocre film about White Guy #3.

But when in the “Eternals“ trailer the characters wonder who’s going to lead the Avengers “now that Captain Rogers and Iron Man are both gone,” as if Black Widow didn’t do it herself for five years, it’s clear she’s still undervalued even in-universe.

“Black Widow” was the send off Black Widow deserved. Ain’t it a shame that it took them a decade to make it?

Millie Mae Healy can be reached at milliemae.healy@thecrimson.com.

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