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?
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.