Why Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow Is Marvel's Best *and* Worst Character
Captain America: Civil War has a lot going for it -- perhaps too much, since at times it feels like there are several movies within it all vying for the spotlight. But at its best points, it highlights how well-oiled a machine Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has become. It's equal parts thrilling and emotional, intimate and bombastic. Yet for everything it nails, the film fails Marvel's best onscreen character: Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow.
The chiseled, kindhearted Captain America, the sly Loki, and the ragtag Guardians of the Galaxy group have all been done justice on screen, no doubt. But peak Marvel is Black Widow, brought to vivid life by Scarlett Johansson and given an uphill battle toward popularity. Over a handful of movies, Johansson found a groove with the character -- so much so that fans have also been incredibly vocal about wanting to see the super-spy lead her own film. Hasn't happened. The reasons why seem to be, conscious or not, by design. Which also makes Black Widow Marvel's worst character. Believe it, and consider this:
Best: She has actual dimension
Superhero morality can often feel as complex as a schoolyard fight. Villains want to end the world (or worlds) for incomprehensible reasons; heroes are good in an uncomplicated way, even if their humor is sharper and their means a bit more dangerous. Time has helped the Marvel heroes accrue life lessons and backstory, but they aren't Chekhov characters.
Black Widow's strongest traits -- layered persona and quicksilver nature -- were present in the comics, and thankfully made it into the films. Since her first appearance in Iron Man 2, Black Widow has been complex in a way that makes the other characters around her seem like cardboard cutouts. Her backstory -- she betrayed the only home and world she ever knew as a Russian/KGB spy -- lends her some humanity, and makes her decisions take on a different edge.
She's a soldier, but she's also been a double agent. She's brutal, but vulnerable. She often uses men underestimating her to her advantage. She's loyal to her friends, but understands that empires may fall. She's a woman who operates best in the shadows, yet she releases S.H.I.E.L.D.'s files and makes the choice to lose her own secret identity at the end of Captain America: Winter Soldier because it's the right thing to do. She exists on ever-shifting ground, and the role of Black Widow isn't one she took on voluntarily but rather one she keeps to help the world, to clear the "red in her ledger." Whenever Black Widow (and Black Panther, for that matter) are the focus in Civil War, the plot is about much more than just brutes duking it out. Their storylines feel like they're from different, more interesting films.
Worst: Who is Black Widow, really?
I often wonder how people who have no knowledge of Black Widow in the comics feel about her on screen. Sometimes Black Widow's moral complexities make her downright opaque and unreadable. While many classic superhero stories retread the same ground (Bruce Wayne, I'm looking at you), Black Widow has the exact opposite problem. Despite the many films she has appeared in, we've learned little on her backstory, or who she truly is. Her heart-to-heart with Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron tries to quick-fix the problem, but the movie's inertia doesn't give it any breathing room. Action heroines who are both tough and vulnerable are always cool to watch. But the way Joss Whedon handles the forced sterilization backstory relies on many of the issues he had with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The stories are always propelling forward.
Best: Her friendship with Captain America is legit
Winter Soldier makes the best use of Black Widow so far. She's shown to be incredibly capable as a fighter and spy. Her allegiances seem to rest on believably shaky ground. And we also get to see her warmth and sense of humor, thanks to her bond with Captain America. There is a fascinating connection between the two, given their different backgrounds and moral compasses. It's hard for me to pick their best moment in Winter Soldier -- Black Widow giving dating suggestions after kicking Jasper Sitwell off the roof, or when they're simply hanging out at Sam Wilson's place, discussing the fallout around S.H.I.E.L.D.
Out of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, this is the relationship I am most eager to see more of. Black Widow and Cap's dynamic gives the film almost as much heart as Captain America's friendship with Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier. It also lets us set aside Black Widow, the ex-KGB spy/headlining Avenger, to instead get a closer look at Natasha Romanoff, a woman who has hopes, dreams, and fears like the rest of us.
Worst: She hasn't really had much of an arc of her own
Black Widow can be whoever the MCU's writers and directors need her to be in a given film, since they haven't given her a clear arc, which is infuriating for such a fascinating character. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we see a dream sequence of sorts that touches on her backstory in the Red Room, where she was trained to become Black Widow.
Ultron takes many of its cues for Black Widow from the Richard K. Morgan miniseries "Homecoming," especially when introducing the idea of forced sterilization as essential to assuming the Black Widow identity (which is an incredibly weighty idea that isn't done justice at all). Of course, Ultron doesn't handle her all that well, thanks to the shaky romance she has with Bruce Banner.
Civil War doesn't treat her much better. Her material does have weight: Natasha spends most of the movie torn between Captain America and Iron Man, and undergoes a change of heart in the heat of the airport battle. But after letting Cap off the hook to go chase the villainous Zemo, she disappears. The third-billed actress, the lightning rod for Civil War's questions on loyalty and superheroic service, steps aside so the title heroes can throw down -- a total missed opportunity. Where was Black Widow in that final fight?
Best: Her physicality
The action in superhero epics can often feel so disconnected from the real-world consequences of violence that it does such excellent choreography a disservice. But Black Widow fights with a more awe-inspiring visceral quality that's missing among her more superpowered peers. I'm not only referring to the excellent fight scenes, like the opening Nigeria sequence in Captain America: Civil War, or Black Widow fighting the brainwashed Hawkeye in The Avengers. Scarlett Johansson has a supreme understanding of her physicality -- alternating between commanding a room to a more quiet vulnerability -- lending the role the sort of shapeshifter quality you'd expect from someone trained to be a spy.
Worst: Her hair
This may seem like a petty remark to make in a conversation about Marvel's inability to give a female character enough to do, but hear me out. Black Widow's hair changes for every film, and rarely for the better. So far, the slick, straight do in Captain America: Winter Soldier suited her best. If all the hair changes were helping her to go incognito as a spy, I'd buy it. The weird Farrah Fawcett-esque hairstyle she rocks in Civil War doesn't help her in any way.
The worst version of her hair (or at least the one that outright baffles me) is how it's styled during the hallway fight in Iron Man 2. After a an hour of casual glamour, Black Widow's hair is suddenly curled within an inch of its life. A style like that isn’t quick, it also looks incredibly fake and distracting. What kind of spy has time for that?!
Best: She makes Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye somewhat interesting
Hawkeye may be a spunky, swashbuckling character in the comics (particularly those written by Matt Fraction), but Jeremy Renner can't muster up much personality in the role (don't get me started about his Black Widow thoughts on the Avengers: Age of Ultron press tour). Hawkeye sometimes feels like he doesn't fit into the world he's thrust in. That isn't because he lacks the superpowers of many of his peers, but because the various writers and directors adapting the character are never quite sure what to do with him. Hawkeye comes alive in his interactions with Black Widow, which underscore a history and understanding that seem more nuanced than in their superhero movie contemporaries. They're real people, it turns out, just like us, but with crazier jobs.
Worst: Where is her solo film?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is almost a decade old. Despite its critical and financial success, Marvel's films still play it safe when it comes to diversity. The fact that we haven't had any women or people of color lead these films yet isn't an oversight (Black Panther will start correcting that in 2018). But the lack of a Black Widow sidequel is outright ridiculous. 2014's Lucy, which earned a whopping $463 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, proved Scarlett Johansson is an actress whose name recognition can really sell a film, and she can handle heavy action roles -- a rarity for either gender in modern Hollywood. Plus, Black Widow fans have been outspoken about demanding to see the character headline her own film. So why hasn't it happened yet? Marvel is on a path, with movies lined up through 2019. According to the company's continued claims, there hasn't been room for Black Widow... yet.
"Black Widow: The Name of the Rose" by Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna would be a great inspiration to draw from. I would kill to see her tense showdown with Lady Bullseye come to the screen (even though it's unlikely that character will make it to the big screen). There's no blood shed, no guns drawn; instead, the sequence highlights Black Widow's cunning and resolve. With comic-book movies reaching a zenith in scope, where the entire world must hang in the balance time and time again, a Black Widow movie could scale down without losing any of the energy.
Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige recently said, "Of the characters [in the series], I would say certainly the one creatively and emotionally that we are most committing to doing [a solo film for] is Black Widow." I'll believe it when I see it.
Black Widow is complex, dynamic, kick-ass, and incredibly fascinating. It's time Marvel treats her with the reverence she deserves. Because she's the best.
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Angelica Jade Bastién is a freelance critic and essayist based in Chicago. She's written for Vulture, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and RogerEbert.com. You can find her on Twitter: @angelicabastien.