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GREY MATTERS: Black Widow Spins Webs Around THE AVENGERS

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by Ian Grey
May 11, 2012 9:27 AM
99 Comments
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Avengers--Black Widow

Black Widow is the first hero seen in The Avengers, the latest entry in Joss Whedon's career-long feminist project. She does not immediately display the super powers enjoyed by the other Avengers—Captain America’s unnatural super-strength, The Hulk gamma-ray rage giant, Iron Man’s wearable rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot suit, or Thor’s hammer of the demi-gods. The only visibly super things about Black Widow are the latest in cat suit couture and a striking asymmetrical crimson bob. And yet she’s still able to trash a clutch of Russian scumbags with her hands tied behind her back. With a chair tied to her rear. While talking on her cell phone.

She’s also the sole Avenger that S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) trusts to convince Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to join Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Captain America (Chris Evans) in the fight against Thor’s psychotic brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, having stolen the ultimate source of power in the universe, the Tesseract, plans to use an alien army to devastate the Earth. (The plot ends there.)

As egos collide, Black Widow—street name, Natasha Romanova—is the only character who does not throw a monstrous hissyfit.  The only character to gather actionable intelligence against Loki from Loki. The character who not only literally kicks sense back into the brainwashed Hawkeye, but then absolves him of any sins performed while under the loony god’s spell.

You want fearless? When midtown Manhattan is swarming with thousands of robo-aliens, the dreaded Chitauri, Black Widow commandeers one of their slippery aero-sleds and flies it to steal Loki’s glowing phallic scimitar so as to save the world so Iron Man can blow up the aliens.

Oh—and the Tesseract? It’s female. I know this because everyone calls it by female pronouns—respectfully. How does that work? Well, the way all Whedon works: second viewings reveal not only layer after layer of multiple meanings, jokes piled on jokes, but seemingly random elements that are actual thematic glue. Nothing is never there without a reason.

Anyway, Black Widow! A worthy addition to Whedon’s female action bloodline, right? The flame-haired heir to Buffy, Faith, Kendra, River, Echo, Zoe, Fred, and Illyria, right?

No.

Writing in The Guardian, Henry Barnes noticed Black Widow but could not be bothered to isolate just what she did in the film. The New York Post’s Kyle Smith dreamed of a Black Widow who would perform one errand and and then be gone.

The New York Daily News’ Joe Neimaier admitted that Black Widow “kickstarts” things, but by deleting her from the rest of his coverage, implied that was that. Still, that was a lavishment compared with the treatment by A.O. Scott, who in his New York Times review found it beneath himself to even give Black Widow a job description, while The Globe and Mail went with “token sexy female,” clearly hoping only young boys and people who hadn’t seen the film were reading.

Meanwhile, in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern claimed Black Widow “spends lots of time looking puzzled or confused,” while Steven Rea's Philadelphia Inquirer review dispensed with Black Widow’s name, suggesting we “watch Scarlett Johansson clench her brow” while in “Ninja garb.” The Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez wasn’t as generous—his single sentence also accused Johansson of playing dress-up, but, perhaps mercifully, did not specify what in.

Meanwhile, as if transported from another dimension, Kim Voynar’s Movie City News review both acknowledged Black Widow and lavished almost two paragraphs on Johansson’s terrific performance.

Over at Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg took for granted what the aforementioned critics could or would not see. “The two characters least-well served by their previous incarnations in Marvel movies,” she wrote, “the Hulk and Black Widow, are the ones best served by Whedon’s greatest gifts and strongest tendencies.”

Rosenberg hit key reasons why Black Widow matters:

She never becomes a victim or a lesser member of the team. Her pain and exhaustion after a CG Marvel battles triggers our empathy, and centers us. And while all this superhero battling may look fun, without superhero augmentation, it must be terrifying. Johansson offers a true career-best turn here, easily negotiating splinter-thin spaces separating old pains and a chilly professionalism that hides we’re not sure what—regret? Denial? Lingering rage over the childhood abuse that turned her into Black Widow? It’s all hinted at as the actor works Whedon’s many shades of dark grey beautifully. In short, and despite all the Wagnerian bam-boom-pow, Whedon and his star never lose sight of the fact that Natasha is profoundly vulnerable, with nothing but smarts, heart and a .45 for protection.

Finally, AlterNet’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd cut to the chase and celebrated The Avengers’ “stark feminist perspective” and what she saw as fact: that “Johansson’s Black Widow is just as front-and-center as the rest of the cast.”

To which I can only say—exactly! And: isn’t this remarkable? Two parallel realities! Men who see nobody at all and women who see the next Faith (without the crazy, I mean). Don’t tell Disney, or they’ll be marketing the film as 4-D.

Jokes aside, how to explain this blanket amnesia?

If I were to be optimistic, I’d say this brand of blindness is about change happening too fast. Change is weird, scary and disorienting. And TV’s a great place for incremental change because it shows slow transformations occurring over time.

At first, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer was, literally, a joke. A cheerleader fighting the undead! Hilarious! And she’s so unthreateningly cute! But over time, people came to believe in the take-charge slayer, until someone in Season Four’s “A New Man” [sic] episode could remark to Buffy that “You're, like, make the plan, execute the plan, no one giving you orders,” and instead of intimidation, there was a shrug. Because it was true.

And so over time people weren't alarmed when Alias’ Sydney Bristow nicked bits of the 007 crown. Or when a female Starbuck showed Han Solo-level energy in the new Battlestar Galactica.

But The Avengers moves so fast, with so many zingers, tiffs, explosions, turnarounds and implications that I’d like to think reviewers simply didn’t have time to process just how radically and playfully Whedon (whose mother co-founded Equality Now) cedes yards of traditionally male genre property and space to Black Widow. 

Some part of the male unconscious, down there where The Hulk lives, just didn't go for it.

How is there not at least one guy who can figure out how to fly Chitauricraft? Why is Captain America looking to Black Widow for strategic ideas in midtown Manhattan? And the greatest power of the universe is a She? How does that work?

Answer: It works so easily that The Avengers is well on its way to becoming one of the most popular films in human history. Maybe a mess of male critics can’t see a triumphant Black Widow in the malange of superheroes crowding the film. But in this election year defined by demeaning treatment of women, it’s encouraging to know that a whole lot of America can.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

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99 Comments

  • Rik Deckard | October 23, 2012 11:09 AMReply

    The Avengers is a superb super hero film, best film of 2012, what more could you want than Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Hulk. With great city shots of New York and action all day, you can read further information on a cool web site I found at http://www.iemporia.com/BEST-MOVIES/The-Avengers/the-avengers.html

  • ViewingFigures | June 22, 2012 5:22 AMReply

    Great article Ian. There is an MIT study, regarding Political pundits, which demonstrates how people are able to ignore what they do not agree with even when reading it in black & white, so I assume this is the same. Ultimately it says more about the "reader" than the "text".

    Speaking of which @Frank you castigate @Micah for getting the wrong Black Widow. @Micah didn't. You misread a 40 year history as pertaining to the 1940's.

  • deviladvocate | July 26, 2012 1:59 PM

    Please remove my comment below and this one.

  • deviladvocate | July 26, 2012 1:51 PM

    But it's not black and white - it is a story open to interpretation like anything else. It's not "black and white" - witness the Bible where people take the exact same words and interpret them differently to come up with all the various branches of Christianity.

  • Ian Grey | June 14, 2012 3:42 PMReply

    Exactly! The 'catsuit' is a highly useful ready-to-wear armory.

  • Shawn | June 14, 2012 1:59 PMReply

    Visually she is quite de-sexualized from her Iron Man 2 appearance, which I felt went to much in the "sexy stripper" direction. The haircut alone changes everything, but the "catsuit" is more of a uniform, probably thanks to Whedon. In a way, she's "interchangeable" with other SHIELD agents (to the extent that she isn't, of course), because she dresses like them. And Agent Hill kicks ass, too!

  • Black Widow Costume | June 9, 2012 4:51 AMReply

    Such a nice post to share love that costume.


    http://www.angeljackets.com/products/Black-Widow-The-Avengers-Leather-Jacket.html

  • The Avenger Jacket | June 9, 2012 2:18 AMReply

    http://www.celebswear.com/products/The-Avengers-Black-Widow-Costume.html


    i like this member from the avengers team

  • Ian Grey | June 7, 2012 2:33 AMReply

    "in her past", I meant. :)

  • Ian Grey | June 7, 2012 2:32 AMReply

    I think that Joss would heartily disagree with you, Cyl. Black Widow is most certainly *not* interchangeable because part of her power comes froms her being both sexualized by a 'hot outfit' (which in certain male minds wrongly implies weakness) and the reality of being spiritually injured in her part--which males sense but she again uses against them because she's triumphed over her injuries enough to flip them against people like Loki.

    Admittedly, some of this isn't in the film, but the references to Budapest--which some audiences of course assume are about romance--hint at this hard backstory.

    The deal is, Black Widow is all about flipping people's perceptions of what you are about and what your weaknesses might be and using them ruthlessly against you, rather like the people who initially hurt you did. Which, you know, is classic Whedon.

    Looked at this way, Black Widow is utterly *not* interchangeable--and people are responding, I believe, to the power of her example.

  • Cyl | July 27, 2012 10:03 AM

    I would like to extend a sincere apology to everyone here. I have resurrected a long dead horse that just wants to rest in peace. Please ignore my idiocy displayed here.

  • cyl | July 27, 2012 2:47 AM

    Apologies for the multiple posts, feel free to remove all of them.

  • Cyl | July 26, 2012 1:47 PM

    But as has been correctly pointed out below, her being sexualized is in all characters - it's a comic book movie, everyone wears skintight clothing. It's not a special characteristic. And I could read far too much about the Budapest comment, but as you pointed out, the backstory is not there. And yes, I get that flipping perceptions is her schtick - in fact I say as much, but I don't believe it was handled by Whedon well. I feel she is interchangeable because he does not showcase her talents well. Her shining moments in the movie come from other people dropping the ball (not recognising Hulk on helicarrier is bad) as opposed to the treatment of some of the other heroes where they fill a needed role that is not the result of a mistake and no one else can do.
    I'm not arguing that Widow is a strong character, as is the point in your article, I am arguing that her portrayal is not well done to the point where she feels interchangeable.

  • Cyl | July 26, 2012 1:47 PM

    But as has been correctly pointed out below, her being sexualized is in all characters - it's a comic book movie, everyone wears skintight clothing. It's not a special characteristic. And I could read far too much about the Budapest comment, but as you pointed out, the backstory is not there. And yes, I get that flipping perceptions is her schtick - in fact I say as much, but I don't believe it was handled by Whedon well. I feel she is interchangeable because he does not showcase her talents well. Her shining moments in the movie come from other people dropping the ball (not recognising Hulk on helicarrier is bad) as opposed to the treatment of some of the other heroes where they fill a needed role that is not the result of a mistake and no one else can do.
    I'm not arguing that Widow is a strong character, as is the point in your article, I am arguing that her portrayal is not well done to the point where she feels interchangeable.

  • Cyl | July 26, 2012 1:47 PM

    But as has been correctly pointed out below, her being sexualized is in all characters - it's a comic book movie, everyone wears skintight clothing. It's not a special characteristic. And I could read far too much about the Budapest comment, but as you pointed out, the backstory is not there. And yes, I get that flipping perceptions is her schtick - in fact I say as much, but I don't believe it was handled by Whedon well. I feel she is interchangeable because he does not showcase her talents well. Her shining moments in the movie come from other people dropping the ball (not recognising Hulk on helicarrier is bad) as opposed to the treatment of some of the other heroes where they fill a needed role that is not the result of a mistake and no one else can do.
    I'm not arguing that Widow is a strong character, as is the point in your article, I am arguing that her portrayal is not well done to the point where she feels interchangeable.

  • Kettch | May 23, 2012 8:35 AMReply

    It's established early on (during her interrogation scene where it turns out SHE's the one milking that Russian general for intelligence) that The Black Widow is a master of the mindf**k and that talent is what makes her valuable to S.H.I.E.L.D. How good is she? She manages to trick the effing Trickster God!

  • CYL | May 20, 2012 5:10 PMReply

    I agree with your interpretation that Black Widow is there to humanize the movie, but she is not actually an integral part of the film in that she is completely interchangeable with any other SHIELD character. Her role is important (and world saving) but anyone else could have filled it. None of her actions in the film required her specific skill set - any other kickass SHIELD soldier (of which there are many) could have done the same. Arguably the only specifically "Black Widow" moment was the "interrogation" of Loki, which wasn't really necessary. Looking at the big picture, it's a pretty easy guess for how one could go about completely destroying the airship via Hulk smash. And dismissing her is pretty easy given her costume and once again, interchangeable role. A skintight leather suit zipped down as far as a PG rating would allow screams "I'm only here for the cleavage", especially since nothing about her role requires anything beyond kickass, loyal SHIELD agent, which again, comes in droves.

  • Red Admiral | July 13, 2012 4:41 PM

    "Only here for the cleavage"? One, the zipper may not be all the way up, but we hardly ever see any cleavage. Two, Hawkeye shows more skin, and Captain America's outfit was tighter than hers - Rogers who, by the way, we get a loving close up of his muscular backside.

    Three, "not integral"? In the beginning of the movie, she finds and lures Banner to a remote location using her (admittedly creepy in retrospect) child actress and recruits him. She then extracts information from a /Trickster God/ - information which, though you say is an easy guess, did not occur to anyone else on the team - and puts a stop to Hawkeye's brainwashed rampage despite being recently slapped down by the Hulk.

    She then helps Clint get his act back together, and THEN figures out that the only way to stop the fight is to close the portal - AND THEN jumps on a Chituari back to DO IT HERSELF.

    Yes, Black Widow is a SHIELD agent ; yes, she's loyal and very, very kickass. But if you think she didn't play as an integral role as the rest of the Avengers did, I don't think we watched the same movie.

  • Frank | May 19, 2012 2:03 PMReply

    @Micah That Black Widow isn't remotely the same. Two different characters with the same name (Something that happens in comics).

    If you followed the Mini-Series "The Twelve" you'd have a greater grasp on that concept but Russian Spy =/= Satanic Enchantress. The Black Widown from Timely's 40's is not even remotely close to Marvel's Black Widow.

  • Historicaly Correct | May 18, 2012 10:30 PMReply

    Black Widow isn't an Avenger, really. She wasn't in the founding group, nor was she in the core. She was just tacked on very recently in the Avenger's lifespan.

    Unlike DC's Justice League, that has a Woman who is not only a founding member, and part of the core, she's actually a superhero who can beat down any other member of the League.

    Black Widow (Much like Ultimate Nick Fury) are token characters to avoid cries of "sexism" and "racism".

  • Shawn | June 14, 2012 2:05 PM

    BW first appeared in an Iron Man Comic in 1964, and was in Avengers #29 (as a villain, but they soon sorted her out) in 1966; I have hard time seeing that as "tacked-on" or "recent." She's got as much status as anyone after Cap's Kooky Quartet who appeared in the first 100 (Roy Thomas) issues.

  • Micah | May 19, 2012 1:15 PM

    The Avengers have almost had a female member in their ever changing ranks starting with the Wasp since the beginning of the group. In fact if you check publication history of the Avengers ,The Wasp was part of the team before Captain America. The Black Widow is a more popular character and and easier to bring to the big screen then the Wasp in terms of production, storytelling and non comic book audience reaction. In the Avengers almost 50 years of existence the Black Widow has been a part for 40 yrs. To put this into perspective Wolverine, Storm, Colossus and Nightcrawler only joined the X-men comics after they had already been around 12yrs. Since Black Widow's inception in the comic books she has been tied to Ironman. Her first appearance in Ironman before she was an Avenger has her seducing Tony Stark. So no the the Black Widow who fits seamlessly into the movie is not a token. LEARN your comic history before you start 'running off at the mouth'.

  • Anne | May 18, 2012 3:33 PMReply

    Ian, I actually started crying reading this piece. From all kinds of things - the way you describe Natasha's beautiful merging of strength and vulnerability and more strength, the parallels to other women who have shaped my life (Starbuck and Faith ftw!), and finally the heartbreaking way she is swept under the rug by men. Crying! It really took me by surprise. Natasha, and Joss and Scarlett's exquisite portrayal of her, deserves all the accolades in the world, and I too am glad that the movie viewing public is voting for her over and over with their wallets. I hope that this, combined with the success of the Hunger Games, will make kickass females less of a taboo subject in Hollywood, though the response of the male critics isn't terribly encouraging.

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Andrrew meawasin | May 18, 2012 11:25 AMReply

    The black widow's ass is fatter than mandingo's nigga dick. I would tear that ass up into multiple pieces and then enjoy my work. Too bad the bitch probably has some type of herpes or something cause all gingers are like that. I think that this movie should just be turned into a hardcore gangrape porno between hulk thor and the black widow. I would turn the black widow into the black guy swallower.

  • Mel | June 3, 2012 9:38 PM

    Someone please tell me that this site has a comment policy, and graphic rape fantasies are against it. Please.

  • Peter G. | May 18, 2012 1:14 AMReply

    Seems like this would have been a good place to mention the original catsuited heroine of The Avengers-- Emma Peel, of course.

  • Ian Grey | May 18, 2012 2:25 AM

    Hi Peter G. I'm pretty certain that Whedon--is there a bigger Anglophile?--would totally agree with you. Well, not *totally*. :)

  • Doctor Science | May 17, 2012 4:28 PMReply

    Ian: I just linked to you in my post about reviewers who can't see Black Widow. I think it's an actual cognitive illusion of some sort, because way too many highly-experienced movie reviewers are making egregious errors about what's actually showing up on the screen.

    As you say, they *must* have seen her, but when it's time to remember what they saw and write it down, the info isn't there. So they leave her out or "paste in" her image from the comics to cover the gap in their memories.

  • Ian Grey | May 17, 2012 5:39 PM

    Thanks, Doctor Science! Yeah, maybe they can add it to the next DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Black Widow-Related Amnesia Syndrome and Cognitive Dissonance Disorder.' Maybe it'll be come to just be called Scarlet fever. :)

  • Doctor Science | May 17, 2012 4:29 PM

    The link didn't come through in my previous comment, it's: http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2012/05/the-superhero-men-dont-see-evidence.html

  • Ian Grey | May 17, 2012 2:36 AMReply

    So it's official: "We were aware that Robert Downey Jr. got paid way more than his Avengers co-stars, despite the fact that — by Vulture's stopwatch — he's onscreen 41 seconds less than Chris Evans's Captain America and just three and a half minutes more than Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. What we were unaware of is that Downey is fixing to rake in an athletelike $50 million..."



    http://www.avclub.com/articles/why-the-avengers-is-the-best-tv-show-in-movie-thea,75212/

  • Ian Grey | May 15, 2012 4:42 PMReply

    Betty-- I totally know the tradition you're talking about, where men will call a trusty sea-going vessel a 'she' or even a trusty fire arm a 'she'. But I believe this is another situation entirely.

    The Tesseract isn'y being fondly nicknamed--Nick Fury and the S.H.I.E.L.D. people are working in a super high-tech context devoid of that discourse. They're calling the Tesseract a "she" because there is something intrinsically female about it--or, er, 'her'. It may be in metaphorical terms or it may be something we don't know about yet. But I find it really a stretch that Joss Whedon would suddenly lavish some patriarchal power dynamics for te heck of it, you know?

  • Nick | May 15, 2012 1:40 PMReply

    I also liked that her outfit wasn't over-sexualised. I mean, sure it's a catsuit, but it wasn't zipped down to the navel and there were few, if any (I didn't notice any anyway) fanservice style shots. A trend that will hopefully continue with Nolan's Catwoman (also sporting a fully zipped up suit)

  • Nick | May 15, 2012 1:36 PMReply

    I thought Black Widow was excellent in this movie. One reviewer, I forget who, commented how she frequently plays on and subverts the male perceptions of her, most clearly in the scene in Russia and with Loki, where she lets them believe she's on the ropes, but she's always in complete control. It was much more nuanced than her disappointing turn in Iron Man 2. Black Widow has never been one of my favourite heroes, but in Avengers, she was one of the most enjoyable parts to watch.

  • Betty | May 15, 2012 11:12 AMReply

    While I agree with the rest of the review, I'm not so sure the Tesseract being female was that much of a step forward. Men have traditionally called all objects they control or seek to control - cars, ships, planes, countries - by female pronouns, so the fact that they would of course call the object they're fighting to gain control of the entire movie "she" fits perfectly within a classic patriarchal mode. Not that I blame Whedon – it sounds odd to a modern English ear now to call important inanimate objects "he" – but it's unfortunately not particularly progressive.

  • Karina | May 15, 2012 6:33 AMReply

    I'd say "Loki’s glowing phallic scimitar" was the best line, but I loved every bit of it. A+ article. The Black Widow is really underrated.

  • Lessa | May 15, 2012 3:49 AMReply

    I believe you might see the same reaction when Brave comes out. I don't think men are mentally prepared for a self-rescuing princess. Black Widow doesn't need to be saved by any one of the other Avengers. She only needs Hawkeye to forgive/forget her past on an emotional level. As a female fan, I am thrilled with how Natasha is portrayed. I am also so happy with her suit not being some decorative piece of armor that serves no purpose. Thanks, Joss for doing a great job!

  • Shawn | June 14, 2012 3:59 PM

    Well, Thor did rescue her from Hulk, but that was less a gendered thing than an immovable object sort of thing. And then she immediately was called to go help Hawkeye.

  • Pippi44 | May 24, 2012 6:07 PM

    Lessa, I think you hit the nail on the head . . . I'm not sure I would go with "princess," but certainly the "self-rescuing" part. And once you remove the need for rescue and suddenly prove to be self-reliant, what you have left isn't gender-specific; just human.

  • Watt27 | May 15, 2012 3:15 AMReply

    Loved Johansson in the film. I felt like she was the strongest character, best acted, and one of the most centered in the film. The critics that couldn't see this (or even understand this) figuratively blow my mind. btw, I'm a guy.

  • Ian Grey | May 15, 2012 1:23 AMReply

    Hey TTS....You're 100% on the money. I believe Black Widow is the reason the film clicks
    with Non-fanboys and exactly like you said...makes it more human...more approachable.

  • tts | May 15, 2012 12:51 AMReply

    i think black widow made this movie more human and giving the emotional vibe along with hulk character. lot of people think her character isn't usefull since she doesn't have bigger superpower like the rest, but she made avenger more human imo. but i get it why ppl seem judge her character so hard coz marvel movie or simply action geek doesn't get used to women character who's not "typical" oh and bout her acting,nah she's fantastic potraying cold and complex natasha and her character doesn't even have back story so why this ppl judging her so much geez, sexist much? i don't see people raving about chris or the rest male character like this

  • Micah | May 19, 2012 1:33 PM

    I can't believe people miss how integral she was to the plot she. 1-Recruiting the Hulk (and Iron Man in a previous movie. 2-Tricking Loki into revealing parts of his plan to her. 3-In recovering Hawkeye. 4-In actually figuring out how to stop Loki's machine. Also she's the only cool head in a bunch of oversized egos. She lives by her wits, which is a thing that can be lacking in Big Budget films.

  • JVJ | May 15, 2012 12:27 AMReply

    Since I'm not Gay I found the Black Widow character to be just fine,I felt she was a strong part of the movie,and great to look at also.

  • ally | June 5, 2012 12:55 AM

    Yeah, because gay men never identify/stan for strong female characters in media.

    This comment just irks me.

  • Ian Grey | May 14, 2012 11:30 PMReply

    Hey Jessi D, Thanks! I think I knew everything would be okay when she finished wiping out the Russian guys and picked up her pumps and traipsed away. Because that means she really did have everything so totally under control she knew before hand to put her pumps somewhere where they'd be out of the way of some battle yet easy enough to grab for a quick, yet chic, getaway. How many people would be thinking of a pair of black pumps in a superhero movie--from the POV of the female hero, not some femme fatale, you know?

  • Ian Grey | May 14, 2012 11:24 PMReply

    Thank you Traci-- I really had an entirely different AVENGERS piece in my mind--then I started looking at review and it just got weirder and weirder as it became clear that this alternate universe existed where Black Widow didn't exist which, you know, might make a good BUFFY episode but in reality, was distressing. This was before it became The Biggest Movie In Earth's History. Anyway--I'm glad you enjoyed the piece and thanks for the link!

  • Ian Grey | May 14, 2012 11:18 PMReply

    Hi Travis. I think it's absolutely right--it's absolutely in line with a career that has utterly been defined by its feminist content and intent. There is no such thing as a Joss Whedon project that is not also a feminist project--it just what he does.

  • Travis | May 14, 2012 9:32 PMReply

    Not to be nitpicky, but is nobody really going to point out that the first sentence in this article is wrong?

  • Faye | May 15, 2012 9:27 AM

    It's true - we see Hawkeye, but for those who don't quite know who he is it might (aside from recognizing that he's Jeremy Renner) be more difficult to figure that out since he's neither in superhero mode nor has he had a separate movie (she hasn't either, but she was in Iron Man kicking butt).

  • Z. | May 14, 2012 3:48 PMReply

    The problem is Scarlett Johansson is not a strong actress and yet, her performance in this film should have been better because Joss has always been able to get a good performance out of mediocre actors/actresses. However, sadly, I must agree with the critics; Johansson's performance was weak and I do believe that it had more to do with her character and Hawkeye (c'mon!...Jeremy Renner could have phoned that performance in!)not having much to do. If there is a BW film perhaps Johansson could use her free time constructively and take some more acting lessons.

  • attica | May 14, 2012 2:33 PMReply

    I sstruck me that while all the fellas banter with each other, with jokey put-downs meant with varying degrees of seriousness (and when serious, withdrawn later with dudely respect), only Black Widow gets full vitriol: Loki's 'mewling quim' taunt. Gosh! Genital-based venom, directed at his female antogonist ! It felt just like the internets!

  • Jess D | May 13, 2012 6:08 PMReply

    SUCH a good article. My jaw dropped reading all those reviews from guys who simply could not see the awesomeness that was Black Widow. As a woman who loves superhero movies, Black Widow was like a breath of fresh air. As soon as she beat those Russian thugs by playing on their preconceived notions of the weak, emotional woman, I was like "FINALLY! THANK YOU!" Black Widow deserves recognition as more than just "the token sexy female." Makes me wonder if we were even watching the same movie. Great job!

  • Traci Loudin | May 13, 2012 4:34 PMReply

    Great write-up, Ian. I think it's one of the best articles about Black Widow I've seen. So many other reviewers of the movie completely ignored the role Black Widow played throughout the movie. One other thing I really liked that you didn't mention was that Black Widow was nobody's "love interest," even though it's clear that she and Hawkeye are close. I linked to your article in my blog post on The Avengers, where I look at Black Widow's reactions to Loki and the Hulk, why Hawkeye was damsel in distress (from a writer's perspective), and who the real heroes of this movie are. It's over at: http://www.traciloudin.com/2012/05/avengers-movie-review.html Thanks again for getting people thinking more about the not-as-super heroes in this movie.

  • Ian Grey | May 13, 2012 1:49 PMReply

    Hey Doug. You're 100% on the money about Black Widow and Hulk in that scene--she's afraid because she's not, like, an idiot but she's not even vaguely helpless. And I love how Hawkeye always seems so pitifully outmatched--and then you see how strategically he uses those arrows.

    And yes--Black Widow is a stealth weapon drawing power on peoples' expectations of her. I cannot recall any other female hero being drawn this way.

  • Doug Spaulding | May 13, 2012 1:20 PMReply

    What I enjoyed most about Black Widow in the Avengers is that her attractiveness wasn't her weapon. She doesn't seduce or tittilate to get what she wants- she manipulates, she fights, and she makes sacrifices. In most movies, the opening scene would have been Black Widow in bed with her target, getting information through pillow talk. Instead, she has arranged to be captured, and lets the illusion of control draw information from her captors.

    Add to that the fact that you actually get to see real fear on her face when dealing with the Hulk (fear, but never helplessness) and you get a much more compelling character than the rest of the team (although I loved them all).

    I would love a Shield movie, with Black Widow and Hawkeye driving the action.

  • Bij | May 13, 2012 8:59 AMReply

    Thanks, Ian, damn well written!

  • Dan | May 13, 2012 5:15 AMReply

    I feel that it would be cool to see The Black Widow and Spider-Man do a team-up adventure together as she is the perfect alternate crime fighting partner to The Black Cat.

  • Silvia | May 13, 2012 4:48 AMReply

    i actually agree with this article in a lot of things. I saw the movie and I dd not think that "Black Widow" was forgettable, useless or the "token sexy female" , like some of these reviewers suggested. Scarlett did a great job in her performance, it was subtle- which is why it went over so many peoples heads- but it was great nonetheless. I felt like she had a personality and it came out in her scenes with Hawkeye. You can tell that she has some sort of past that she feels burdened by but she doesn't like to dwell and she definitely doesn't want people to notice it. She's also level headed and has a no nonsense attitude.
    I thought that Joss Whedon did a wonderful job here IMO he made "Black Widow" shine in a movie that was packed with big personalities.

  • Amy | May 13, 2012 4:01 AMReply

    I think many people might have missed Black Widow's contribution to the narrative because she lacked the most compelling power of them all- a personality. While other members of the main cast all had clearly defined and multi-dimensional personality, I struggled to think of a character trait to describe Black Widow that wasn't just "lady". While she wasn't assigned the role of damsel in distress, it seems like Whedon fell into the "Strong Female Character" trap a bit here- he created a female character who kicks ass, but isn't really well-rounded enough for anything else. We're used to Whedon providing a lot more nuance than that. Perhaps he was worried that mainstream audiences wouldn't accept a woman with power and personality; or maybe devoting screen time to her character development just wasn't a priority. Either way, I don't think this is the leap forward that this article thinks it is.

  • Edd | May 16, 2012 8:34 PM

    I didn't see multi-dimensioned personalities in any of the (super)heroes, though I found them, as you did. well defined. Black Widow's personality, I think, was most clearly defined as 'competent'.

    Hulk 'hulked out' in the Helicarrier. Fury allowed/invited him aboard. Hawkeye was compromised. Thor was flat-out tricked by Loki into the sort of trap he's fallen for before (multiple times, Loki implies). Iron Man compromised the carrier's security systems. Only Captain America and Black Widow didn't make serious mistakes (IIRC...).

  • jj | May 12, 2012 7:55 PMReply

    she was meh but not as useless as hawkeye, i don't think its a feminist thing really its about the film

  • Ian Grey | May 12, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    I stand corrected, ELECTRICSPACEGIRL. I should have written that his mother was "instrumental" in its creation, for she was.

    "In 1992, Jessica Neuwirth, Navanethem Pillay, and Feryal Gharahi founded Equality Now to address the gender disparity in the human rights movement, which had come to dismiss certain violations as "cultural" or "private". At the time, issues such as domestic violence, rape, female genital mutilation, trafficking, and reproductive rights were often overlooked by established human rights organizations.

    "Neuwirth was a student of Lee Stearns, who founded the first Amnesty International chapter run exclusively by high school students. Stearns is Joss Whedon's mother."

    When Whedon's mother died, Joss stayed with Equality Now. And so EN benefits are an ongoing thing w/ him, including the AVENGERS press tour where he took a goodly amount of time out to write a series of monologues for an Equality Now fundraiser performed by Eliza Dushku, Laura Linney, Daphne Zuniga, Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Natalie Merchant and others performed here in New York. It's heartening to see that success means a stronger amplifier for his no excuses feminism.

    http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/joss-whedon-hosts-equality-now-sexism-laura-linney-avengers-314557

  • electricspacegirl | May 12, 2012 12:46 PMReply

    Whedon's mother didn't co-found Equality Now. It was founded by one of her students. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equality_Now#section_1

  • Lucretia | May 12, 2012 11:04 AMReply

    I am of the female persuasion and I just wanted to state for the record that I found her character incredibly irritating and possibly my least favorite thing about the movie. It is not just an matter of guys missing the point. I find the critiques of her pretty darn spot on.

  • Ray Anselmo | May 12, 2012 10:13 AMReply

    Agreed on all points! Also, apparently Marvel is keeping a May 16, 2014 release date open (two weeks after the scheduled release for Captain America II) for a yet-unannounced film, but rumor has it that it might be a Black Widow solo feature. We can hope.

  • Jay | May 12, 2012 8:28 AMReply

    In fact the principal narrative of the movie is that the ordinary (non-super) people are the real heroes, whether male or female. Loki claims to be superior and demands to be worshipped, but in fact is shown up as an over-confident bungler in his dealings with the Black Window (the reverse Lecter v Starling confrontation), Hawkeye (the exploding arrow) and Agent Coulson (getting shot by that blaster). Whedon's text seems to be that dictators are pompous twits and little folks just need to deflate their egos.

    The only slight hitch with the BW scene is that the information she gets out of Loki is meaningless - "His plan was to let the Hulk loose on the helicarrier!" Well, we all knew that was going to happen from the moment Fury had her invite Banner aboard. So Loki's "master plan" is basically obvious and didn't result from anything he himself did. This Loki was certainly not the silver-tongued trickster of myth, which somewhat devalues the triumphs of the three non-supers in outwitting him.

  • Helena | May 17, 2012 3:47 AM

    "So Loki's "master plan" is basically obvious and didn't result from anything he himself did."

    Er? Natasha gleaned that the reason Loki allowed himself to be captured was to get aboard the helicarrier in order to sow dissent among the Avengers, turning up the tension until Banner flipped and Hulked out.

    That only seems obvious to us because we're sitting on our butts watching a comic book movie. To the people in the film, it's not really very intuitive that a demigod would allow himself be imprisoned so that he can talk shit, target vulnerabilities, amp up conflicts and get everyone sniping at each other until an antsy doctor turns into an enormous green rage monster. As far as the characters know, all Loki cares about is screwing with Thor and conquering the world (also largely to screw with Thor.) Do the characters even have any reason to think Loki knows that the Hulk exists? Loki lived in another dimension til a year ago.

    In the audience, of course we know that Banner is going to Hulk out because we know that we're watching The Avengers. But I thought the film did a great job of showing that the characters regarded the Hulk as a natural disaster that they were trying to insulate and keep under wraps. Loki never directly targets Banner, he seems to be razzing anyone who comes close enough to chatter at; Natasha figures out that it's all targeted at stressing Banner out. This only seems obvious to the audience because it's deftly written and foreshadowed.

  • miri | May 12, 2012 3:16 AMReply

    Wow. That's instructive. The Women Men Don't See, all over again.

  • Ian Grey | May 12, 2012 2:39 AMReply

    Hi LADYSUGARQUILL; Ian here. Well, the whole point of Black Widow, I think, is that she can't blow shit up, that she's *just* human and still, incredibly, she can battle in the same context as the (literally) big boys with all their super augmentation.

    It isn't just that she's smart--which she is, and which is why Captain America turns to her so often--it's because she can be counted on to keep her shit together no matter what. Natasha is the queen of cool and never allowing anyone to make her lose what she wants to project.

    And in classical terms, she's really the only real hero here because aside from Iron Man's short moment in space, she's the only person who can for certain die.

    Every time she does something, she's doing it knowing she can die. And in as an Joss Whedon fan will tell you, that's a serious danger!

  • John Armstrong | May 11, 2012 10:50 PMReply

    I think there's at least one more position: Black Widow didn't work for me in the film, not because she "vanished" or I "forgot" her, but because she and Hawkeye received very short shrift. They were filler, as there always is in any super-group. But I saw the possibility for much more to be done with her character, and I complain that her backstory was just waved at and never explored. I want a "Black Widow" standalone movie, dammit!

  • ladysugarquill | May 11, 2012 10:46 PMReply

    I think another reason is that Black Widow's badassery was subtle. She doesn't blow up buildings like the other heroes, because she doesn't have superpowers. Her special ability is her brain, but she's not a generic "smart girl" either. She has the very specific ability of getting information out of people that don't even realize they're being interrogated, and putting that information together. This, along with awesome martial arts skills and utter professionalism, makes her a vital member of the team.

    But also means that even people with good intentions may miss her, thinking that "strong female character" means "blow stuff up".

  • Kirby-oh | May 11, 2012 9:58 PMReply

    And I am glad he did it because the rights to most other female Avengers are not in his hands right now, so he couldn't put in the Crimson Witch, who would have rounded this cast off so well.

  • Carmela | May 15, 2012 11:55 PM

    I believe you mean Scarlet Witch. :)

  • Jim | May 11, 2012 7:05 PMReply

    To expand on the feminism of the Avengers, take a look at all the background characters on the bridge of the hovership. All those people on computer screens, flying the aircraft, following orders - by my quick estimation, they were divided 50-50 male and female. It may not seem like a big deal, but try and think of any other movie warship that had as many women in control as that one did. This is a small thing, but I feel like it helps augment what Black Widow's role meant.

  • Shawn | June 14, 2012 4:52 PM

    It's very important, especially when you look at movies like Star Wars, etc., where the only female seemed to be Princess Leia. And don't forget Agent Hill, she had a major role and was as human as they come.

  • Ian Grey | May 11, 2012 4:43 PMReply

    Johansson reminds me of people like Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood.
    You never expect such performers to 'become' another, do you? Its more what how you can interpolate your icon w/ a character. Part of what fascinates with Johansson is the sense that she's always holding something back, that something's softly amiss with her. Mix that with amazing fighting skills and voila! The perfect Black Widow.

  • Skytteflickan88 | May 11, 2012 4:15 PMReply

    Very interesting article. I had no idea Black Widow was reviewed this way by serious critics. I knew she was considered useless by some marvel fans, and I too was confused at first, trying to figure out how she could be useful, but trusting she was.

    Small nitpick: She was not talking on her phone while kicking ass.

    Bigger nitpick: I am told she does have super-powers. I had no idea, but was told that by someone who's read more Marvel comics than me, and sure enough wikipedia confirms it.

  • Carmela | May 15, 2012 11:57 PM

    She does have some extra strength, dexterity, and stamina as well as a slow aging factor, but compared to the rest of them, she's very mortal.

  • Madik | May 11, 2012 3:07 PMReply

    I appreciated Black Widow more on my second viewing. I thought she had the most interesting fight scenes precisely because she's not a superhero. And I felt that she had to work the hardest of them to compensate for her very different skill set. In terms of acting, though, Johansson does not quite pull it off completely. There are some scenes where you're painfully aware that she's acting the part.

  • Ian Grey | May 11, 2012 1:31 PMReply

    "I realized her great superpower is being underestimated by men" *Exactly, Joel. 100% on the money.

  • Ian Grey | May 11, 2012 1:30 PMReply

    Hi Fraac--I think Johansson isn't at all a problem here --obviously :)

    But you are right to point out a strangeness in the way she comports her self/body. It's like
    she's incredibly clumsy *and* walking on air, all at once. I think it's this strange combo that
    halfway makes her a star: we can't help but watch and try and figure out what the hell is up
    with what we're seeing.

  • fraac | May 11, 2012 1:11 PMReply

    Scarlett Johansson is the problem. She seems to have this odd lack of awareness of her body. She should be hot but she moves like a child. Weird. This is the best, most human I've ever seen her, because Joss knows women, but, for example, she could never carry her own film.

  • Faye | May 15, 2012 9:21 AM

    ....seriously?
    First of all, Joss wasn't directing every body movement she took in here (I mean, it's possible taking martial arts made her a little more body aware and that's what you're seeing) and also, I think she's been in plenty of films that one could say she carried. It's actually really offensive to say "she should be hot but". That's not the point.

    So what if she's a little awkward? She can act. Not to mention that for half her teenage years, before people started typecasting her as the femme fatale/hot girl, she was playing pretty much nothing but awkward sullen girls. I get the distinct impression that her persona and her actual personality are quite different and you know what, that's okay. She's not on screen to be your fantasy.

  • Kristin | May 11, 2012 12:47 PMReply

    Outstanding analysis. Thank you for seeing what others choose not to.

  • seraph | May 11, 2012 12:43 PMReply

    Fun fact: most feminists consider Joss Whedon only an attempted feminist who is actually really, really bad at it. Please do a little research before ascribing that descriptor to him. His fetishizing of torture of women throughout all of his work is problematic at best.

    For a little more information, refer to http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Joss_Whedon.

    Particularly this article: http://www.themarysue.com/reconsidering-the-feminism-of-joss-whedon/

  • Mel | June 3, 2012 9:36 PM

    I don't think there's any kind of feminist consensus on Whedon. I know feminists who think his work is amazingly good, feminists who think it's astounding misogynist, and (a lot more) feminists who think aspects of his work are amazingly good and other aspects have serious problems.

    But I may just know more of category three because I fall into it. *shrug*

  • Faye | May 15, 2012 9:16 AM

    Great link, Buttercup, that's exactly how I felt about Dollhouse.

    I don't think that Joss is the best feminist ever (his personal behavior is worse than his writing imho, though that's not perfect nor necessarily), but that doesn't preclude him from writing some powerful stuff, or even just on the mark. Black Widow is a strong character in comics for decades: she should be here as well and I walked away seeing exactly what this reviewer saw.

  • buttercup | May 12, 2012 2:28 AM

    Speaking for myself, I do think that BTVS and FIREFLY played with feminist ideas, but didn't engage with them in any deep or meaningful way. Which is fine: the shows were awesome for a range of different reasons. They featured strong, empowered female characters, but that doesn't automatically equate to feminist... that just equates to awesome in my book.

    DOLLHOUSE, however, was probably the least successful Whedon show in many ways and yet engaged the most meaningfully engaged in feminist discourse.

    The article linked below pretty much crystalized my thoughts about the show and the depth of its engagement:

    http://tigerbeatdown.blogspot.com/2009/04/dollhouse-joss-whedon-and-strange-and.html

  • lsq | May 11, 2012 10:47 PM

    Joss Whedon considers himself a feminist.

  • Cat | May 11, 2012 4:34 PM

    Yeah, I read that article and didn't agree with it. At all. I felt like that author didn't get Whedon's material and lashed out at it too eagerly. Let me explain. While I hope few feminists are like this, I've met "feminists" who yell at men for opening the door for them (which is actually fairly sexist if you consider that they wouldn't yell if he were a woman, and most men that I know who do this would open it for a man also). That's how the author came across to me, misunderstanding and pointing fingers.. I read that article thinking maybe I didn't understand the feminist perspective well enough. Instead, I feel the author didn't understand any of Joss's work. 

    What sets him above those with the "girl power" mentality that claim to love feminism (yet don't appear to understand it) is the fact that he isn't forcing it in our faces that women can do everything a man can, that a woman can be strong and still be a woman, still be in touch with her sexuality, still be a human with weaknesses. He recognizes where there is inequality. And instead of lashes out at it, he addresses it, and exposes it without ignoring the harsh realities about why it exists. I think he's more of a true feminist than most any other I know that use that title so freely.

  • GK | May 11, 2012 1:34 PM

    Another feminist speaking up as someone who thinks that Joss has hits and misses, but generally appreciates his effort.

    I also noticed that some reviewers literally couldn't see Black Widow's role in the film - I'm delighted to see that recognized here.

  • palinode | May 11, 2012 1:24 PM

    Gah. "Most feminists." No. What you're talking about is simply one perspective, and one that's worth considering. But if I want to hear glib mischaracterizations of feminist thinking, I'll go talk to a misogynist.

  • C. A. Bridges | May 11, 2012 1:18 PM

    Funner fact. Some feminists consider Joss Whedon only an attempted feminist who is actually really, really bad at it. Other feminists consider Joss Whedon a successful feminist who is actually really, really good at it. Your mileage may vary. Read the comments under the MarySue article for some insightful analysis (pro and con) of her claims.

  • Laz | May 11, 2012 1:04 PM

    Here's another fun fact: that's not "most feminists", that's an unfortunately well-known vocal minority of extremely sad and lonely people. I've always felt sorry for them.

  • Tanbarkie | May 11, 2012 1:01 PM

    Speak for yourself. This feminist considers Whedon's work to be some of the finest feminist media of the past several decades. And, flat-out, the best feminist work in genre fiction.

  • Joel P | May 11, 2012 12:09 PMReply

    Exactly. Great piece. As I watched her first scene against the mobsters and then against Loki I realized her great superpower is being underestimated by men, and it's devastatingly effective.

  • Helena | May 17, 2012 4:01 AM

    "Girly and emotional"? The character who says "Love is for children" = girly and emotional? Wow. Couldn't disagree more. Also, they don't ignore Black Widow after she tells them Loki's plan... the helicarrier gets attacked and they're all fighting for their lives! If you read the article, it points out that Captain America turns to Black Widow for strategy during the end fight, not to mention, she hijacks an alien airsled, finds out how to close the alien army's portal, and does shut it down. As the end fight climaxes, everyone else is batting cleanup for Black Widow and Iron Man. And while Iron Man needs rescuing after his big moment, Black Widow has everything under control.

  • Michelle L | May 16, 2012 1:01 PM

    Actually, her superpower is being girly and emotional and manipulative, and I think it's really weak sauce, especially since she's female. That's all she gets? Really? And then, once she's outmaneuvered Loki and tells everyone... they ignore her?

    I really want Black Widow to be awesome, and I'm really sad that in this film, she wasn't.

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