Last weekend Scarlett Johansson hosted Saturday Night Live, and the sketch that stood out the most, and has been making the rounds on the Internet, was a trailer for Marvel’s Black Widow movie: a romantic comedy. The sketch itself is really well done; it covers all the tropes of rom-coms, riffs on the Natasha and Bruce plot of Age of Ultron, is timely and topical, and puts Thor in a towel. It’s quite funny.
But there’s some bite under the surface, too. The trailer is positioned as the a movie Marvel made For Women. That, based on what we’ve seen so far, if Marvel were to make a Black Widow film they’d fill it up with “girl stuff.” The thing is, this sketch isn’t wrong. The saying “it’s funny because it’s true” also applies to sad social truths. I think I laughed loudest at the line “We know girls” was delivered over the Marvel Studios title card.
I know that the Captain Marvel movie is in the works. I’m pretty confident it’ll be awesome and I’ll love it. While there definitely have been missteps, I know that Marvel Studios in general does a good job with their female characters. But the backlash Age of Ultron is getting is proof that not only do we need a Black Widow movie, we needed it a while ago.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a behemoth of a film. An awesome, action-packed, exciting behemoth; but it’s still a monster of a movie. You’re juggling a team of 6 main characters, introducing three more characters, and creating a villain. There’s only so much screen time you get with these characters. So Age of Ultron relies on the previous MCU films and the Scarlet Witch’s secret nightmare hallucinations to develops its characters.
For the most part, it’s a strategy that works. This is fifth movie with Tony Stark; Cap’s and Thor’s visions are pretty much in line with what we know about the characters but work as a quick insight into the characters for those who haven’t see the other films. We never see what’s planted in Bruce’s head, but the Hulk’s rampage and its aftermath are enough to know what Dr. Banner misses the most. And even though Hawkeye, who has been given the least amount of screen time, prevents the Scarlet Witch from rattling around in his head, the lack of information we have about his character makes narrative sense when the Barton family and farm are finally revealed.
Which leaves us with Natasha and brings us back to the way she’s handled in Age of Ultron.
I think of everyone’s head trips, we see the most of Natasha’s which are more flashback than anything else. We get glimpses and flashes into her time in the Red Room–a brutal KGB training facility for women. From there we can glean how Natasha became a person with red in their ledger. The person, as we learned in Avengers, Clint Barton was sent to take down but instead gave a second chance.
But that’s all we’ve really learned about the Black Widow over the course of three films. That Natasha is a brilliant secret agent who carries the burden of her past and uses it to do better. We see more of her personality in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it mostly just reinforces what we learned in Avengers the First (because we seriously learn nothing about Black Widow from Iron Man 2).
What we’re presented with in Age of Ultron is a female character–the only female character on the Avengers team–who has romantic feelings for one of her fellow Avengers, who wants to get out of the life she has and settle down, who is frustrated that she can’t have the ubiquitous white house with the picket fence and 2.5 children, and who is kidnapped and needs saving.
First things first, there is nothing wrong with a woman wanting that. You can be a complete bad-ass as well as a mother and wife. You can kick bad guys in the face and drop out of planes on a motorcycle and, at the same time, want the storybook happily ever after. Wanting these stereotypically feminine things does not make for a bad character. When it’s done well, it gives a token Strong Female Character depth and complexity. But it’s not done particularly well with Natasha and the MCU.
There’s context, and lack of context, that needs to be considered. We haven’t seen that much of Natasha, especially compared to her male compatriots. The audience hasn’t seen her origin story; they haven’t spent the time with her the way they have with Tony and Steve and Thor. Natasha has been an ensemble character and supporting character in someone else’s story. She has not had a story of her own. And she is the sole female Avenger.
These things are important because a lot of the development we see in Natasha in Age of Ultron are tropes for woman in an action movies. While Whedon has brilliantly subverted gender-based tropes in the past, that doesn’t really come through in this film. And it’s because we’ve never been given the opportunity to see Natasha as a woman in charge of her own story.
It’s not a question of can Black Widow hold down her own movie or will a female-led action movie make money or do women even see movies like this. Because we know she can, it will, and they do. If Marvel Studios wants a complete and integrated cinematic universe, it needs a Black Widow movie.
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