Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Marvel is back at the movies. After several pandemic delays, Black Widow finally opened in theaters and on Disney+ over a year after its original release date of May 2020. While some friends of mine rejoiced in what they called “a year without Marvel,” for me it was one more thing that COVID took away—a joy and a “rhythm” that went missing in a year of so many other (and greater) disappointments. When I sat down to see Black Widow in the theater, I felt a sort of exhausted relief that I was vaccinated and able to regain this little bit of happy normalcy. And I was curious because Marvel has a poor track record—to say the least!—when it comes to featuring their female heroes. Of 24 films, this is only the second to star a woman. What would they do with Scarlett Johansson’s character?
We are so much more than sex, and women’s stories are just as nuanced and complex as men’s.Black Widow is not an origin story—it’s a story told in medias res. Taking place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow finds Natasha Romanoff in a dark corner of her past that she thought she had buried long ago. Compelled to go searching for answers, her hunt draws her back into companionship with members of a Russian sleeper cell—a group of people who posed as her family when she was only a child. Reunited with the only parents and sister she’s ever known, she must take down the Red Room where she was trained to be a spy, save the other Widows from a life of torture and mind control, and learn how to make amends with the sister she left behind.
With its focus on relationships—particularly the relationship between Natasha and Yelena (her sister, played by Florence Pugh)—the intense action sequences, and the spy thriller nature of the story, Black Widow feels like a Bond film on steroids, except unlike a Bond film, it doesn’t objectify any of its women. In fact, it stands as a sort of statement that it is possible to make a spy-esque superhero movie filled with female assassins (clad in black leather and combat gear) that doesn’t focus on their sexuality as a weapon. Considering Scarlett Johansson’s introduction to the MCU as the Black Widow, this is saying something.
I’ve always gotten the idea that Black Widow was one of the few characters Marvel execs didn’t have a clear narrative plan for. I could be wrong, of course, but when she first came on the scene, she didn’t exactly fit with the rest of the cast of heroes. It kind of seemed as though she was there to be not so much a hero as eye candy, and (speaking as a woman), that was disappointing. Rather than choosing one of the (myriad) superpowered female heroes in the Marvel Universe to include on the team—which was a real boy’s club for a long time—Marvel chose to start with Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow. Rather than going with one of the most powerful women, they chose one of the sexiest.
First depicted in 2010’s Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was a character designed for the male gaze, and little else. Introduced in the film to Tony Stark via an internet history that included a lingerie spread and with her sexuality dialed up to ten throughout the movie, she played a “straight man” to Tony’s quippy humor and seemed destined for the B-list among A-list superheroes. She had no powers aside from spying, mixed martial arts, and the ability to resist Tony Stark’s relentless witticisms and sexist, narcissistic come-ons. In a world of iron suits, super soldiers, and flying gods, Natasha Romanoff just didn’t seem on par with the rest.
But Black Widow had staying power. She stuck around, and that meant Scarlett Johansson reprised the role eight times over the course of nearly a decade. What happened over the course of that decade, though, is that the world and the entertainment industry shifted—pretty significantly. In Natasha Romanoff, we see a character who was introduced before #MeToo, but who has exited the franchise in a world transformed by stories of abuse of women—notably within the entertainment industry itself. I can’t help but think about how changes in the industry have perhaps altered the trajectory of Natasha’s narrative, the way Scarlett Johansson portrays her, costuming and camera angles, and so much more. The Natasha Romanoff of Black Widow is not the Natasha Romanoff of Iron Man 2, or any of the earlier films. Black Widow is not a film that would (or could) have been made in 2010.
Post #MeToo, we look at women differently on the screen. We want better and more representation of and for women, because we recognize these things as being important at shaping the cultural gaze. I want my boys to see strong women in shows and movies, women who aren’t strong because they’re sexy but who are strong because they are fully embodied people—just like men. I think this sort of representation honors God, even in something “silly” like a superhero film. These are small steps toward training ourselves and our youth to view women with more respect.
In Black Widow, I see this sort of representation at its finest, particularly through the interactions Natasha has with her sister. Florence Pugh is a breath of fresh air as Yelena Belova, and while she steals a lot of the laughs in the film, she’s there for far more than comic relief. Yelena serves the important role of resetting our expectations for what a Black Widow character is supposed to be and do. When Scarlett Johansson was introduced to us, she was this femme fatale, and she maintained much of that characterization through several films. If the world had never changed, I’m not sure she would have either—in fact, I’m not sure Black Widow would ever have been made (it certainly would have been a different sort of movie). So the writers gave Pugh as Yelena the job of mocking Natasha for her “sexy” stylizings as Black Widow. The idea is that Yelena has seen Natasha on TV as an Avenger, so she has some things to say to her big sis about how she looks when she’s fighting. It’s funny, hysterical sometimes, and heartwarming.
But it’s also important, because the Black Widow was the first female hero introduced into this cinematic universe that so many people love so much. And she was the only woman on the screen who wasn’t a love interest character for a long time, so she set the precedent of feminine heroism. She was what there was for little girls to look up to, and for female fans to admire. But her characterization was deeply flawed. And not because she was sexy—women are obviously allowed to be sexy—but because she used her sexuality to get what she needed, even when she was strong enough and smart enough to succeed through other means. And we weren’t given any other female heroes on the screen in these movies to look up to. In a world of male superheroes, she was it for a long time.
Johansson’s characterization of Black Widow changed before Black Widow came out, but the world changed about halfway through her character’s arc, too. By the time Natasha sacrificed herself to save the world in Avengers: End Game, she was no longer a femme fatale, but a fully embodied character with agency to equal her male counterparts. I wouldn’t have thought, looking back on those first movies, that Black Widow would have been around for so long—would have ended up such an integral part of, well, the end game. But that’s what happens to a character, to a person, when you reduce them to their sexuality—you reduce them. She was such a thin character at first, lacking narrative importance.
When Black Widow was allowed to step out of the shadows of an overly sexified characterization, she became elevated. She gained agency she had never been given. We are so much more than sex, and women’s stories are just as nuanced and complex as men’s. Natasha’s multi-movie spanning arc—culminating in Avengers: End Game, but of which Black Widow is now an integral part—is a good reminder of that.
It’s not that every single hero in the MCU needs a standalone film, but so many women are denied complete stories where their male counterparts are given space to have their stories told. When it takes Marvel 21 movies to give us a standalone, female-starring film (2019’s Captain Marvel), and when Scarlett Johansson has to play Black Widow eight times before she’s given her film, it does make viewers like me think about the importance of female representation in the entertainment I love—and the general lack of it. But maybe Natasha’s story wasn’t one that could be best told until now.
We’ve come a long way from 2010 Scarlett Johansson changing into her catsuit in the back of Happy Hogan’s car in Iron Man 2—giving the audience a peepshow of her black bra, just in case we forgot that she’s there to be a sexy character. And maybe, just maybe, Florence Pugh will be our next Black Widow. Or maybe she has some other role to play in the MCU, but she’s now one of many women in the franchise that are opening up possibilities and changing the way female hero stories are told.