Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Is Black Widow a Problem?

I'm conflicted over the necessity of writing this piece, but the only conversation anybody seems to be having about "Avengers: Age of Ultron" concerns whether Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, was unfairly shoehorned into the token girlfriend role, and by Joss Whedon of all people.  So I want to put down some thoughts.

Spoilers ahead.

Scarlett Johanssen returns in "Ultron" as Black Widow for her fourth appearance in the MCU.  Previous films have established her as a Russian-born spy, a resourceful member of the Peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., and best friends with the sharpshooter Hawkeye.  None of this has changed in "Ultron" except that she's become romantically involved with Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and we learn more about her unhappy background.  The objections to her portrayal seem to boil down to two major issues.  First, that the Widow's connection with the Hulk allows her to use a technique called the "lullaby" to calm him down during his rages and help him turn back into Bruce Banner, essentially putting an awful lot of importance on her role as a romantic figure.  Then there's the revelation that she was sterilized during the training process to become a spy, which some saw as losing a big opportunity to examine the shades of gray in her morality in favor of a rather cliché infertility crisis.

Now, Black Widow also gets spiffy new weapons, a new costume, and has one major action sequence nearly all to herself.  She and Bruce Banner get about the same amount of narrative emphasis - she gets a bit more, really - so she's certainly not being sidelined or deemphasized in any way.  She gives us no reason to doubt her competence or her heroism at any point.  Whedon even pointedly includes some of her interactions with Hawkeye's family as Aunt Nat, nixing any speculation about a possible romance on that front, and underlining the point that men and women can simply be good friends.  Her story arc is a little rushed and ungainly, but that's true of pretty much everything in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."  It is a messy film with too much going on, and the problems with the portrayal of Black Widow seem to reflect the problems of the film in general.  I think a contributing issue is that most of the other major characters like Iron Man and Captain America have been featured in their own films, so we have more context for their actions.  Black Widow and Hawkeye have not, and Whedon trying to delve deeper into their characters here, with a fraction of the available screen time, ran into trouble.  With Hawkeye it wasn't so bad, because his story is pretty simple and straightforward.  Black Widow, however, is more complicated.

Once again, we have to ask why Black Widow hasn't gotten a solo film yet.  Many of the bits and pieces of her story in "Ultron" would have played so much better if they had been part of a whole film that focused on her character.  The romance, the sterility - I can see all of it working if they had been presented better, and there were more time to explore the implications.  Fleshing out those flashbacks to her time as a spy and her other relationships would have helped too.  Others have pointed out that the Widow's search for redemption, which was a big part of her arc in the first "Avengers" movie, hasn't really come up since.  There's been an irritating inconsistency to Black Widow from film to film.  To some extent her personality (and hairstyle) have been adapted to whatever each movie needs - Iron Man's femme fatale assistant, Captain America's cool gal-pal, and now the Hulk's paramour.  The suddenness of the match with Banner doesn't help, making it feel like the filmmakers have reworked her role yet again, instead of revealing new dimensions of her character.  With her story being told so piecemeal like this, Black Widow simply isn't on the same footing as the rest of the Avengers.

I give Joss Whedon credit for trying to do right by the character - and I look forward to what extra tidbits might be revealed in his Director's Cut of "Ultron," but I'm afraid it's not enough.  The real problem with Black Widow is that her origin story is too big for a subplot, and I don't think she's ever going to get more than that in a Marvel movie.  She's due to appear next year's "Captain America: Civil War," another team-up movie overstuffed with interesting characters.  Is she still going to be with the Hulk in that one, I wonder, or back to being the super S.H.I.E.L.D. agent?  Your guess is as good as mine.


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