So we all saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Seriously, we all saw it.) And we’ve all had a good, long, thoughtful conversation about the deeper themes lingering under the surface of the paranoia-inducing, wiki-leaking, surveillance-state-exploding superhero sequel. But there’s a more obvious thing we need to address – a question hovering over the whole movie that remains unanswered. Captain America. Black Widow. Question mark?
To recap, with spoilers. At the start of Winter Soldier, Cap and Widow’s relationship has evolved a little since The Avengers. But only a little. They’re co-workers. Widow’s mildly concerned that Cap doesn’t have any kind of social life. Has he considered asking Kristen from Statistics out on a date? Because Kristen from Statistics would definitely say yes. He is reluctant, perhaps amused. Then Widow goes behind his back on the mission, saving the all-important Information while he saves the less-important Hostages. Need-to-know basis, he didn’t need to know. They’re not really friends. She calls him “Rogers.”
Stuff happens. Widow agrees to go into stealth mode with Cap. They go to the Apple Store and make pretend to be young marrieds. They have to avoid a SHIELD strike team so they kiss on an escalator – further proof that we should never jump to any conclusions about major plot points based on paparazzi set photos. The camera barely even sticks with the kiss for more than a couple of seconds. Notorious this ain’t.
But then in the next scene, Widow and Cap have a conversation. A real conversation – not the plot-heavy exposi-convos that tend to fill time in superhero movies, but just two (super-)people talking. Widow asks Cap playfully if that was his first kiss in seven decades. Cap says no – although he protests a bit much, in a manner that reminds us of the Rule of Three as immortalized in American Pie 2. Cap turns the conversation around, talks about how little he really knows about Widow. “Who do you want me to be?” she asks – a question that seems to be all subtext, insofar as most things at this particular cultural moment of ScarJo feel like subtext. “A friend,” says Captain America, because of course he says that.
The movie doesn’t really pause again after that. Cap saves Widow. They have a scene at Falcon’s house, him in a white tank top and her in a black tank top. She tells Cap that her whole life at SHIELD feels like a lie. (It is.) She asks him if he would trust her to save his life. “I do now,” says Cap. Right about then, in walks Falcon, breaking the tension with breakfast. They do plot stuff. They save the day. At the end of the movie, Widow tells Cap she’s going off on a walkabout. She kisses him – platonically, question mark? She tells him he should definitely call that nice boring SHIELD agent from down the hall. She walks away.
Now: Let’s put aside the whole question of “canon” here. I’m not sure any iteration of Cap and Widow got together in the comics. I do know that some iteration of Cap got together with some iteration of “Sharon” in the comics – and Emily VanCamp’s appearance in the closing montage implies a future role in the franchise. Nothing particularly explicit happens between Cap and Widow – certainly nothing on the level of Marvel Studios’ other onscreen romances. But there was a spark in the movie – a spark that was completely different from those other romances, where the power dynamic is always very clearly tilted more toward Hero than Love Interest.
Black Widow is a weird character. She was introduced as one more bizarre flavor in the Iron Man 2 stew, at a time when it wasn’t totally clear whether Marvel knew what it was doing and also when it wasn’t totally clear whether Johansson had any clear plan for her career. (Her previous three films: final-stage romcom death throe He’s Just Not That Into You, grit-camp travesty The Spirit, and beloved indie fluff Vicky Christina Barcelona.) Avengers Whedonized the character, recasting her terse deadpan as wry deadpan. Or maybe that was Johansson? Winter Soldier is her third outing as a character about whom we all still basically know next to nothing, and you get the vibe that the actress might just be having a blast. You do what you can, when you’re the only lady in a boy’s club.
Which is why it feels weird to take up “Who Will Black Widow Hook Up With?” as a talking point. The answer could totally be “no one,” and that’s fine. But I don’t think I’m the only one who felt the Cap-Widow chemistry in Winter Soldier. There’s a nice bit of mutual dislocation in their characters: He’s a man out of time; she’s a woman without a past. (She’s from Russia, question mark?) He’s pure pre-’60s sincerity, she’s pure post-’90s cynicism. (Evans and Johansson even have an onscreen past: Friends in The Perfect Score, dating in The Nanny Diaries.)
Superhero romance is usually pretty reductive: There’s the hero and the girl. Even the minor confusion of romantic triangles are usually/always avoided. Gwen Stacy was a non-character in Spider-Man 3; Mary Jane was cut out of The Amazing Spider-Man 2; last year’s Marvel sequels briefly touted possible romantic threats (Lady Sif and Extremis Lady) before dismissing them completely; Rachel Dawes had to die so Batman could explore Europe with Catwoman.
You could read the end of Winter Soldier as an indication that the sub-franchise is building forward in a few different directions: To a Black Widow spinoff, to a Cap sequel with more Agent 13, to an Avengers movie already so overstuffed with new kids that it seems highly unlikely that Cap and Widow will get more than a couple of moments to banter witfully about That Time They Kissed. (“You guys kissed?” says Stark. “It was just for a job,” says Cap. “You really know how to butter a girl up, Rogers,” says Widow. “Ha!” chortles Thorsworth.)
But c’mon. “You should call Sharon”? Sharon is BORING. We know Marvel’s got the next couple of decades planned out, but a bit of narrative improv might be at hand. Soldier and Spy, Innocence and Experience, skintight kevlar and skintight leather, bright American colors and jet-black: The Widow/Cap duo has all the makings of the most interesting super-romance since Batman Returns.