“The Black Widow” - too little too late?
Updated: Mar 14
*Attention: This article includes spoilers from Iron Man 2 and Captain America: Civil War. Read at your own risk! :)
The Avengers franchise brought to us the end of a cycle, in 2019, with the launching of “Avengers: Endgame”. The movie marked the finishing line of the story of this group of superheroes that captivated millions of people worldwide, generated billions of dollars in revenue, and transformed the Avengers into immortal memories in popular culture. With the end of that storyline, Marvel is now investing in exploring the narratives of several recurring characters in the movies that weren’t highlighted as much as the Hulk, Captain America, and the Iron Man, such as Loki, Wanda, the Falcon, and the Winter Soldier. And, of course, the Black Widow could not have been left out of this trend.
First appearing in the cinematic Marvel universe in 2010 (Iron Man 2), the Black Widow quickly gained popularity and praise within the Marvel fanbase. Played by Scarlett Johansson, the red-headed character with a slightly Russian accent was the first woman to be a part of the Avengers - and, needless to say, a very interesting addition. She brought to the superhero group a fresh perspective, characteristic sarcastic humor, and stellar fight scenes. However, while we got to see her once in a few years as a recurring figure in the Avengers masterpieces, the movies depicted her only as a shallow character, basically reinforcing over and over again her image as a ruthless and ironic Russian spy turned American ally, treated as an addition to the group in terms of ballistic power - but not having much to add in the emotional depth of the storyline of the Avengers.
Furthermore, the way the character is treated and developed in the movies, in general, can be considered very sexist. The Black Widow’s reputation became that of a very attractive woman who uses her physical appearance to get what she wants, and who, by the end of her time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was written to have romantic interactions or flirts with almost all of her male counterparts. The first movies in which she appears are especially alarming regarding this: in Iron Man 2, for example, Tony Stark, right after meeting Natasha for the first time, says “I want one”, referring to her not even as a person, but rather as an object. In that same scene, when another character asks her if she has experience with boxing, and she says yes, he answers “What, like the Tae Bo? Booty Boot Camp? Crunch? Something like that?”, clearly doubting the fact that she has abilities with martial arts. In response, she clears her throat, seeming a bit annoyed. In the next moments, she absolutely takes him down in the ring, but, although this scene’s purpose was to show us how strong and amazing Natasha is, it also indicates that she is used to having to deal with that type of behavior coming from men and uses that to her advantage, but shouldn’t have to.
The scene mentioned above, in Iron Man 2. Source: The Insider
In the following years, there were other scenes that came across as unnecessary and inappropriate, contributing to strengthening the view that the character is a very attractive woman through her wardrobe, the lines she has to deliver, and the reactions of her male colleagues to her presence. Regarding that, Scarlett Johansson, the actress interpreting the Black Widow, has already publicly shown discomfort and commented on some of the things she was required to do, say, and wear. In an interview for Collider, in 2021, she said: “You look back at Iron Man 2 and while it was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualized, you know? Really talked about like she's a piece of something, like a possession or a thing...". And, while the situation, fortunately, has improved as the years progressed, it is also worth mentioning that from the original Avengers group (Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and her), Natasha is the last one to have a movie dedicated only to her, while others already have two or three of their own.
In this context, the movie The Black Widow came out in 2021, after tension in the fanbase building up over the way the character was being portrayed, as well as her fate in Endgame and the way that that fact, specifically, was handled (I won’t get into too much detail about this movie because it is fairly recent and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t watched it yet). The Black Widow takes place in the time-space between Civil War (2014) and Infinity War (2016) when the Avengers had been separated and several of them were in jail. Up to this point, the narrative of the Black Widow’s life story had been scattered throughout many movies, as little clues and comments and occasional monologues, giving the audience very little information on Natasha’s past and why she is the way she is. In this movie, however, we get to see her childhood, her grueling conditions growing up, her family situation, her personality traits and their motives, her willingness to sacrifice everything for those she cares about, and a long-awaited deeper understanding of her feelings. Yes, the Black Widow has feelings - who would’ve thought?
The movie, in my opinion, is a great piece: it has a lot of humor, great acting (the Scarlet Johansson and Florence Pugh double is perfect), awesome fight scenes, an interesting plot, and does a good job of trying to repair the neglect of the Black Widow by the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. It brings great depth to the character and ties up all of the loose ends of Natasha Romanoff that were left for the audience’s imagination until now. The Black Widow shows layers to her character, touching on her soul and her flaws, unlike her depiction in other movies (especially the older ones), which was extremely shallow and single-layered.
This piece was the pinnacle of a story that has been built over more than a decade, gradually increasing the protagonism of the Black Widow and slowly shifting her portrayal to one of a person that goes beyond her jumpsuits, a collection of amazing hairstyles, and fighting skills. In this culmination of the Black Widow storyline, she truly is the main character, a position that could have been explored very richly a long time ago. It did not, however, completely neutralize the bitter feeling left for the audience that she was a character that got recognition too late, and it came so slowly that it was painful for most of us to wait for it. And, while I do believe that this movie is absolutely worth watching, it is saddening to realize the potential that was wasted, and it makes me wonder what could have become of the Black Widow had she been properly developed eleven years ago.
Abad-Santos, Alex. “Black Widow Gives the Character a Soul - Several Years Too Late.” Vox, Vox, 9 July 2021, www.vox.com/22555357/black-widow-review-marvel-natasha-romanoff-too-late-disney-plus.
Acuna, Kirsten. “12 Cringeworthy Moments toward Black Widow in the Early Marvel Movies That You Probably Forgot About.” Insider, Insider, 20 July 2021, www.insider.com/cringeworthy-sexist-black-widow-moments-in-marvel-movies.
Lowry, Brian. “Review: 'Black Widow' Feels like Marvel's Version of a Jason Bourne Movie.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 July 2021, edition.cnn.com/2021/07/08/entertainment/black-widow-review/index.html.
“Scarlett Johansson criticises Black Widow's 'hyper-sexualisation' in Iron Man 2.” BBC News, 18 June 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-57524423