Black Widow is the most popular female superhero of the decade, right? Who else compares? Scarlett Johansson has played the Widow in four films since 2010—an Iron Man, a Captain America, two Avengers. All those films are/will be gigantic box office successes. You could counterargue that she didn’t topline any of them. You could point out way more challenging, provocative, or just plain interesting female-centric superhero stories in post-2010 comic books: Batwoman, Captain Marvel, the Lady Hawkeye issues of Hawkeye. You could argue that if Black Widow’s a superhero, then so is Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games, or Letty from the Furious films. (You know who actually has superpowers? Bella from Twilight.)
But if we’re being a bit pedantic about the definition of “superhero”—derives from a comic book, has a codename, wears a trademark costume, hangs out with a superteam—then Black Widow reigns supreme. This is either exciting or disappointing. Exciting, because Black Widow has stolen two or three movies from more powerful/more famous/more male teammates. Disappointing, because Black Widow can only steal movies, because Marvel isn’t making a movie called Black Widow.
Black Widow has a key role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which arrives this week. Avengers 2 hits theaters after what turned out to be a very cruel, weird month for the Venn Diagram of Superhero Movies and The Female Gender. Michelle MacLaren left Wonder Woman: Bad news. Marvel officially hired two female writers to script Captain Marvel: Good news! Patty Jenkins signed on to helm Wonder Woman: Good news, albeit a weird reminder of the last time a female director (Jenkins) was creative difference’d off of a superhero movie (Thor: The Dark World.)
It was possible to be optimistic and pessimistic about all of this: To appreciate how the studios were hiring female filmmakers, and to decry how all those female filmmakers were being ghetto-ized into the small corner of Female-Centric Superhero Movies. Wasn’t it Kathryn Bigelow who directed The Hurt Locker, the killer app for Jeremy Renner as an Action Hero? Doesn’t the dinner scene from Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone make the hallway scene from Daredevil look like the Hawkeye scene from any movie?
The very same week as the Wonder Woman swap, beloved Comic-Con profiteer Olivia Munn signed on to play Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse. The X-Men film series has a let’s-call-it-complicated history with female characters. The best-case scenario is Jennifer Lawrence-as-Mystique, a strong-willed independent character who nevertheless has to keep choosing which handsome man she’s going to believe in. The worst-case scenario is dead Wolverine girlfriends, traitorous mind-controlling Delilahs, damsels in distress, or all of the above. Maybe Munn’s Psylocke will be the best possible Psylocke. Or maybe this looks an awful lot like that.
The cherry on top arrived just a few days later. Avengers: Age of Ultron will probably make all the money in the world, so there was something especially off-key about this year’s press tour. Robert Downey Jr. walked out of that interview, which led to everyone else asking him why he walked out of that interview, because nobody really has anything else to ask him about Iron Man. Joss Whedon sounds depressed.
Oh yeah, and Hawkeye called Black Widow a slut, right before Captain America called Black Widow a whore.
Now, Johansson has played Black Widow four times, in four very different ways. Iron Man 2 introduced her, quite explicitly, as eye candy. She walks into Tony Stark’s house; Tony and Happy do a silent-movie double-take. Tony’s been needing a new personal assistant. He Googles her. “Did you model in Tokyo?” he asks Pepper. “Because she modeled in Tokyo.”
Thus, the first meeting between the most popular male superhero of the decade and the most popular female superhero of the decade features the dude zooming his leering mitts onto a shot of the lady in lingerie:
There’s a weird way of reading the Iron Man movies where they’re all about Hollywood. Tony Stark is the playboy producer with a nice house in Malibu, living fast and hedonist with private jets and lunchtime martinis, using all his money to make more easy money. After a crisis of conscience, he decides to use his power for good, just like in Sullivan’s Travels. And the first introduction of Black Widow allegorizes the casting couch origin story: Young, attractive girl shows up to house of powerful man, catches his eye, immediately gets hired as his personal assistant.
Iron Man 2 knows this is the subtext. The movie is dumb about many things, and it doesn’t give Johansson much to do besides be Sultry and then kick people. (In fairness, Iron Man 2 objectifies Johansson’s body less than it objectifies Mickey Rourke’s body. Iron Man 2 is weird, guys.) But the movie etches a central idea of Black Widow’s character: That the whole eye-candy thing is part of her plan. You think you’re in charge? You’re not in charge.
Clearly, Whedon grooved on that idea. He loves to write female characters, especially when he can write those female characters into deconstructive anti-fables about gender roles in modern society. Before Avengers, Whedon’s last major work was Dollhouse. Eliza Dushku played Echo, a blank-slate beautiful woman deployed by a mysterious organization on various top-secret missions. Dollhouse had ambitions wrapped inside ambitions—it’s about prostitution, or the fluid nature of identity in the internet age, or about corporate slavery. It’s definitely about Hollywood: It’s set in a world where everyone is either a functionary wearing a suit or a beautiful actor modeling gym clothes.
Whedon carried some of that spirit forward to Avengers; not for nothing, Black Widow is also a blank-slate beautiful woman deployed by a mysterious organization on various top-secret missions. When we meet Widow in Avengers, she’s pretending to be a damsel in distress so a bunch of dumb Russian guys reveal all their secrets; later, she pretends to be scared and mournful so Loki can reveal all his secrets.
There’s a central idea overriding all the Marvel movies that these characters are somehow damaged—that, say, behind Thor’s proud demeanor and Iron Man’s cocky swagger, there are bruised little boys with daddy issues who just want to do the right thing. The gag is that Black Widow, non-superpowered human person, was the precise opposite: Every time you thought you were seeing her fragile core, it was just another illusion.
Johansson has played Black Widow for Jon Favreau, Whedon, and the brothers Russo. Black Widow was a character for decades in the comic books. Still, the Natasha that greets us in Age of Ultron feels like the creation of one single person. The auteur of Black Widow is Scarlett Johansson.
It’s easy to forget that, before Iron Man 2, Johansson was on a weird trajectory. She was a go-to figure for period blandness like The Other Boleyn Girl and The Black Dahlia, and for pretty-person metro-blandness like The Nanny Diaries and He’s Just Not That Into You. Time served as Woody Allen’s muse produced one great star turn—her first scene in Match Point is what it feels like when a star goes supernova—but in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she’s fourth fiddle to Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Rebecca Hall. In The Spirit, Johansson is one of Frank Miller’s helpessly indulgent femme fatale fantasies—Cigarettes! Glasses! Nazi-ism as a fashion statement!—and, in one of the weird quirks of comic-book movie history, she’s already working for Samuel L. Jackson.
If you’re an actor, you want something very specific from a superhero movie. You want the exposure; you want the money; you want the security of a franchise; you want the ability to take whatever equity you’re getting from the superhero movie and carry that over into something you maybe actually care about. The best case scenario, as my colleague Jeff Labrecque argued, is Hugh Jackman and Jennifer Lawrence: Franchise stars who also star in financially successful awards bait.
To me, though, nobody platformed off a superhero franchise better than Scarlett Johansson. Post-Avengers, she delivered the one-two-three punch of Her, Under the Skin, and Lucy. All those movies depended, specifically, on Johansson’s particular star power; all those movies twisted her star power.
And I mean twisted. In Lucy, she’s an actual superhero—imagine Black Widow holding the Infinity Gauntlet—and it drives her insane. In Under the Skin, she’s an alien being pretending to be a sexy Scarlett Johansson lookalike; her sexiness is just a cover-up, a way to interest the men she’s secretly hunting. (“Did you model in Tokyo?”) In Her, she’s just a voice—and even in Her, there’s the sense that she’s both more and less than human. The particular characters are different, and the movies are up to very different things—Lucy’s a dumb action movie, Under the Skin’s an existential horror movie, Her’s a rom-com for mopey tech hipsters.
But weirdly, if you stitch together all three movies, you get the cinematic equivalent of the Dark Phoenix Saga: Absolute power, threatening to corrupt absolutely. All three films are scary in their own way, but I’m not sure there’s a freakier single scene than the moment in Her when Johansson’s Samantha tells poor Theodore that she’s in love with a few hundred other people. (She’s just not that into you.)
In the middle of that run, Johansson co-headlined The Winter Soldier. And she’s a weird wild-card in the movie. On one hand, you can imagine the movie without her—or you can imagine her role played by Hawkeye, or Maria Hill, the Sidekick Who Helps Cap Be Cap. But Johansson keeps on walking away with the movie. Winter Soldier features one of the single-best dialogue scenes in any of the Marvel movies—a long scene where Cap and Widow just drive, and talk, and talk some more:
WIDOW: The truth is a matter of circumstances. It’s not all things to all people all the time. And neither am I.
CAP: That’s a tough way to live.
WIDOW: It’s a good way not to die, though.
CAP: You know, it’s kind of hard to trust someone when you don’t know who that someone really is.
WIDOW: Yeah. Who do you want me to be?
CAP: How about a friend?
WIDOW: [chuckles] Well, there’s a chance you might be in the wrong business, Rogers.
Every superhero in movies now has an origin story, and every superhero in movies has personal demons that they have to triumph over. The language of self-realization and self-actualization is all over superhero cinema: If Batman can only rise into his best self, then he shall save Gotham!
Black Widow, in her first three outings, seemed to offer a counterargument. Maybe it doesn’t matter what your origin story is; maybe you really are in the wrong business, Rogers. I’m starting to think that the only way to really understand the Marvel films is to read each movie as several different movies stacked on top of each other—and Black Widow’s movie always seemed much smarter than the actual movie around her.
It was worth asking, this time last year: Who the hell is Black Widow? Well, who do you want her to be? You could argue that the Marvel films implicitly set her up as a vague love interest for Iron Man and for Hawkeye in Iron Man 2 and Avengers. Last year, I didn’t think there was anything implicit about how Winter Soldier sets up Widow and Cap. Maybe this was unintentional, or maybe it was always part of the joke. Somehow, accidentally or on purpose, Marvel had coughed up a great female superhero who was also endearingly old-fashioned. Black Widow had a shady past, and she didn’t like talking about it, and she didn’t have a cry about her daddy issues. (Even James Bond seems to have daddy issues, nowadays.)
Winter Soldier backpedals on that “wrong business” stuff, of course. So does Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the context of what happens in Winter Soldier, you’d think that Black Widow would be questioning everything about her life, every choice she ever made. The top-secret organization she was working for turned out to be a pretty evil organization: Shades of Echo in Dollhouse, shades of the Operative in Serenity!
Instead—spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron ahead—Whedon decides to finally give Black Widow a clear-cut, explicit love story. As a result, he turns Age of Ultron into the closest thing we might ever get to a Black Widow movie. The weirdness starts early, when Captain America tells the Hulk that Black Widow is definitely into him. Captain America knows what it looks like when she’s just pretending to flirt; he’s seen it up close. Like a lot of the meta-jokes in Age of Ultron, this is less funny than just sour—it retroactively reduces whatever happened between Cap and Widow in Winter Soldier into a punchline.
The central revelation of Age of Ultron is that Black Widow doesn’t really want to be Black Widow anymore: She’d be happy going away somewhere, living some kind of normal life. We also finally get the Black Widow origin story, which is basically the Jason Bourne origin story combined with sterilization. This is both A) fascinating in the context of a superhero movie that features a scene where two amorphous hologram robo-blobs have an argument, and B) vaguely depressing, in the context of everything Black Widow has been so far.
Whedon has talked about a three and a half hour director’s cut. Given everything we know about him, you have to imagine he has a bottle episode’s worth of material just from that single Hulk-Widow conversation. But Age of Ultron is full of weird character-arc shortcuts; this is a movie where characters have to confront their internal fears because the Scarlet Witch uses her magical red non-mutant-but-actually-mutant powers to make all of the characters confront their internal fears. So the weird cumulative effect of Ultron’s Act 2 is to take away much of what made Black Widow interesting. Pre-Ultron, she was the person who wasn’t afraid of her dark past; post-Ultron, she’s a mope like the rest of them.
Am I reading too much into Ultron? Maybe. But isn’t it weird that, by the final action sequence, Black Widow’s main role is the same role as Pepper Potts in Iron Man, or Jane Foster in Thor: The lady who helps her man become a hero? “I adore you,” she tells Bruce Banner, right before she forces him to Hulk out and save the day. He also saves her life, and then makes the executive decision to disappear—To protect her, I guess? Even though the last time they talked, she made it pretty clear that she didn’t need to be protected?
Marvel clearly doesn’t really know what to do with Black Widow. Agent Carter retroactively argued that Natasha is just the latest result of a Black Widow program going back decades. (You think of Johansson at the start of Under the Skin, stripping the clothes off another woman’s dead body.) The Big Idea of Age of Ultron was giving her a love story—but the Hulk thing doesn’t really make as much sense as the movie thinks. There’s an angle where Black Widow loves Bruce Banner because, not despite, the Hulk: Where Widow recognizes that all the other Avengers are nice guys at their core, whereas Bruce Banner’s core is dark and weird and Freudian. But that’s not the movie’s angle: They’re both freaks, or monsters, or something, and she loves him because he’s a peaceful guy, even though he has a raging id that occasionally transforms him into a green monstrosity.
The character will appear in next year’s Captain America: Civil War, as part of a pile-up that also includes Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, maybe-probably Hawkeye and probably-definitely Spider-Man. Johansson is lining up a busy schedule exploring the outer reaches of humanity: She’ll play a cyborg-cop in Ghost in the Shell, and possibly star opposite another green guy in The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It could be that we’ve seen the best of her as Black Widow—that the character only really made sense as an undefined Rorschach test, that her superpower was that she was never who you thought she was.
Which makes Black Widow’s role in Age of Ultron even more of a bummer. Black Widow is the most popular female superhero of the decade, and it turns out she doesn’t even want to be a superhero anymore.
Agree? Disagree? Think Black Widow/Hulk is the new Buffy/Angel? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly mailbag.