I know I’m not alone in wanting a Black Widow movie, but it seems pretty clear that we’re not getting one. Marvel films have been announced out to 2019 and there’s nothing in sight with our favorite red-headed assassin in the lead. So, since we’re not getting the Black widow movie we want, we will have to make do with the Black Widow movie we have. Here’s what we’ve got:
Prologue: Iron Man 2
We start with the prologue in which we are introduced to our hero and learn that Natasha Romanoff can kick seventeen kinds of butt without mussing her hair. Most importantly for a superhero movie, the prologue sets up our hero’s superpower, which will also become the flaw she has to overcome. While Black Widow may be an excellent martial artist, that’s not her real superpower. Her power is control.
From finagling a corner table for Tony Stark to taking out a hallway full of goons, Black Widow is always in control. We see her mostly through Tony’s eyes and it is her ability to stay in control of herself and others that Tony finds fascinating. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that she’s a gorgeous woman, but he’s got ladies throwing themselves at him at every opportunity and Tony doesn’t perv on “Natalie,” even when she gives him an opening.
Act 1: The Avengers
Having set up the character in the prologue, we now step into Act 1, where things start to get complicated. At first she’s just as much in control as ever, even by making it look like she’s not in control.
She does it to the Russian smugglers in her first scene. She does it to Loki later. She sets up her meet with Bruce Banner in much the same way, manipulating him with a plea for medical help that he won’t refuse then coming at him with the kind of calm, scientific logic she knows will draw him in. For most of the conversation, she’s just as much in charge as we are used to seeing her. Then Banner threatens to unleash the Hulk and everything changes. Romanoff has a split-second freak-out and goes for her gun. The Hulk is a force she can’t reason with, manipulate, or take down.
By the Battle of New York, all of the Avengers have faced their own demons and this is Black Widow’s: her need to be in control. While Banner has to learn to let the Hulk out, Romanoff has to learn to work with people without manipulating them. She’s the one who invites the Hulk out to play. Stark expects it. Captain America asks for it. Thor is ready to be his bruising battle buddy. But it’s Romanoff who gives Banner permission to get green.
Act 2: Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
This crack in Black Widow’s armor gets wedged open in Act 2 as she is forced to confront where her obsession with control could take her. She starts out in Winter Soldier playing the cynical foil to Rogers’s idealism. You can almost hear the buddy cop movie voice-over: “He’s a by-the-book super solider. She’s a loose cannon who plays by her own rules.” But her seemingly casual disregard for the rules is really just another way of staying in control: if Cap doesn’t know what her mission is, he won’t try to stop her.
Then she comes face to face with the apotheosis of control: HYDRA. For Rogers, HYDRA is an old enemy he thought long defeated, but for Romanoff it’s much worse. HYDRA, and its head, Pierce, are what she risks becoming if she keeps trying to manage the world around her. She has to make a choice, and her choice is to give up control: in the moment by stunning herself to overload Pierce’s zap tags and on a bigger scale by letting all her covers get hung out with SHIELD’s dirty laundry.
Act 3: Avengers: Age of Ultron
In Act 3, Black Widow’s archenemy, the need to control others, rises again, stronger than before. At first, we see that Romanoff and Banner’s relationship has progressed from where we left them at the end of Avengers. Now she’s helping him come down off a Hulk high, and just like before where she let Banner know it was okay to Hulk out, she lets the Hulk know it’s okay to Banner down. She’s not manipulating him any more; she’s giving him permission to make the choice himself.
The Black Widow story in Age of Ultron is controversial, and I think the script needed another draft or two to figure out exactly what it wanted to say, but here’s my reading of it, which I think makes sense in light of the rest of the Black Widow “movie” I’ve been laying out here.
The thing that Romanoff can’t get past is that she let her choice be taken away from her. Her Wanda-vision flashbacks are not so much about the awful things that were done to her, but about how she let herself be talked into accepting those things. When she calls herself a “monster” to Bruce, she doesn’t mean that it’s because she can’t be a mother or because she was a killer. She means that she allowed herself to be manipulated into giving someone else control over her fate. This is the other side of the fear she confronted in the resurgent HYDRA. While the fear of becoming so obsessed with control that she becomes the enemy is one thing she has to face, the fear of being manipulated by someone else into doing terrible things is even more potent for her because she’s been there already.
In the end, when Romanoff kicks Banner off the ledge to bring out the Hulk, it is in some way a triumph for her, as she proves she’s no longer afraid of the force she can’t control. But it’s also a tragic moment, as she does to the man she loves exactly what her creators did to her: she takes away his control.
The Black Widow movie is a bittersweet one that explores the limits of a hero’s ability to conquer her fears and master the force that made her. That’s what Marvel movies do, though, and it’s part of what makes them compelling. Being a superhero isn’t a prize you win that makes everything perfect. It’s a struggle you fight all your life and just hope to win more often than you lose. What makes a hero is not someone who always comes out on top, but someone who keeps getting back in the fight.
All of Marvel’s heroes have their own eternal enemies. Tony Stark’s narcissism. Thor’s arrogance. Captain America’s idealism. Bruce Banner’s self-doubt. Natasha Romanoff is in good company.
It may not be the Black Widow movie we want, but it’s the Black Widow movie we have, and I think it’s more than enough to show that she deserves a proper movie of her own.
Images: Spraying guard via cheezburger.com. “Is that dirty enough for you” via btchflcks.com. On the phone via insignificxnt.tumblr.com. Pulling gun via capaurus.tumblr.com. “No, we could use a little worse” via gifhunterress.tumblr.com. “Well, there’s a chance you might be in the wrong business, Rogers” via marvelmovies.tumblr.com. “If you want to arrest me, arrest me” via brideoffire on rebloggy.com. Lullaby via iam-thehero.tumblr.com. Walking out via btchflcks.com.
In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.