Friday, July 26, 2013

Strong Female Character Friday: Black Widow from Avengers

All it really takes for me to sum up my mixed feelings about Black Widow is a glance at my wall. On it I have pictures – lots of pictures, and posters, and art, but mostly pictures – cut from magazines. These pictures are almost invariable screenshots from my favorite movies and TV shows, or full body images of my favorite actors and characters, and occasionally in depth articles pasted to my wall.

Right above my bed are two pictures pretty close together, both of Black Widow. In one of them she’s pictured with Nick Fury (it’s the Entertainment Weekly special cover) and in the other she’s standing lost and confused outside the Tesseract device (it’s a screenshot from near the end of Avengers). Both of them are on my wall. But one of them is my favorite.

I have them both up there not just because they happen to be visually appealing and include a character I find freaking fantastic, but because they showcase both sides of her so incredibly well. On the one hand you have Black Widow, a deadly assassin. Beautiful, perfect hair, posed, lit, and with a really spectacular butt. Presumably she’s good at murder, but all we know from this picture is that the girl can work a lens.

And in the other you have Natasha Romanov, the girl who was unmade, staring at a seemingly impossible situation.

Do I really have to say which one I like better?

Natasha Romanov, or Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson in the recent Marvel Movie Universe (Iron Man 2, Avengers, and the upcoming Captain America: Winter Soldier), is a hard character to figure out. That’s a huge part of why I actually like her.

Invented in the late seventies as a villain, the Black Widow was always that, a black widow. Like the spider supposedly does, she would lure in men, then kill them. She had a couple of flings with superheroes, including Hawkeye, notably, and officially turned for the mostly good in the late nineties. (Correct me if I’m wrong, oh wise nerds).

Natasha’s backstory, though intense, always made it hard to root for her. While we knew that she’d been raised to be an assassin from a very young age, brainwashed by the KGB’s “Red Room”, we also knew that she kind of liked killing people. She just wasn’t a nice person. And I have to say, her moral ambiguity was refreshing.

And even though she is a member of the Avengers in the comics, she was by no means the most obvious choice for a first female Avenger in the movie universe. Wasp actually has a much better claim, as does Captain Marvel. But they chose Black Widow, a choice which actually makes me very happy.

She’s not a nice person. She’s not an unambiguous person. She’s not even really a good person. She doesn’t care about the big picture. She can kick butt, but she’s not really going to be running around dropping bombs, nor does she have any actual superpowers. She’s a girl with a gun, an amped up taser, and some impressive kung fu skills, up against gods and monsters. And she wins.

But more than that, I’m so glad they chose Natasha because she’s a hard character. She’s hard to make an audience like, and she’s hard to portray honestly. And they managed both.

Black Widow isn’t always the smartest person in the room, nor is she always the most badass. And she knows it. She’s actually quite comfortable with this. What she is, is the most self-aware person in the room. She knows exactly what she is capable of, and she knows precisely how much she needs to be pushed to prove it. But she isn’t perfect.

She has weaknesses. Her fondness for Clint Barton (Hawkeye) is arguably a weakness, as is her limited physical strength, but I’m talking deeper down. She doesn’t trust people. She doesn’t really care about them either. Black Widow is just a little bit broken. Not in the cheezy annoying way that female characters sometimes are, but in the deep, powerful way that signifies true feeling. Black Widow is screwed up, and that makes me happy.

Why? Because it’s such a better story.

Even if Marvel were only doing one story with Natasha in it, we’d still be better off with a flawed character, so think of how much better this is. She’s not been in one film, she’s been in two so far, with another one coming out next summer (yay!). And she’ll presumably be in more films after that. This means that we get to see her grow. Change. Develop. We get to see our distrustful, unhappy Natasha possibly learn how to love again. Or maybe not. But either way, we get to see a person.

It’s not that Wasp and Captain Marvel aren’t cool characters, or that they don’t have good backstories. It’s more fundamental than that. Black Widow is human. She’s gloriously, falteringly human. And in a story about gods and monsters, we need someone human. We need someone screwed up to latch onto. To see ourselves in. And then we need to see her change.

Now, do I wish that there had been more female characters in Avengers? Of course I do. There are two. Two. And they never talk to each other. It really bothers me that we needed five male superheroes to balance out one chick with a gun.

But at the same time, I am so incredibly happy that Natasha was the one they picked. Because heroes don’t have to be invariably heroic to be interesting. We don’t have to be slave to the rules of “good role models” and “strong female characters who can bench press a car”. To do so is reductive and unhelpful. Not all female characters are or should be role models. And not all strong female characters can do a one-armed pull up.

Being a strong female character is about more than just really awesome hair and being physically capable. It’s not about being emotionally stunted or about always telling a man that you don’t need him. That’s really not it at all.

At the heart, we’re talking about giving characters agency, and then letting them do what they want with it. Natasha is a perfect example of this, because we really don’t know what she’ll do. She’s loyal to Clint, but is she loyal to SHIELD? She could be injured and sidelined from the fight, or she could jump on the back of a Chitauri flyer and pilot it to the top of the Stark building. You really don’t know, and that’s half the fun.

Most of all, though, I’m happy they chose her because Natasha actually is emotional. We have this preconceived idea that strong means you don’t have feelings, or you don’t speak them. We think this about men, but it often comes out when we talk about strong women as well. And it’s wrong.

Strong people cry. Strong women cry. They talk about their feelings. They have pasts. And they feel those pasts just as deeply as weak people do. The difference is what they do with it.

Natasha might not be sobbing on Clint’s shoulder, but we know the depth of her feelings. We know what it costs her to word them, and we know just how much she really cares about the people around her. We know, and it only makes her stronger.

Now, I have to say, I do have another picture of her on my wall.

This one is a group shot, another still image, of Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow all marching up into the helicopter, getting ready to go beat up Loki. She looks great in the shot. Not the manufactured greatness of the EW cover, but a wind-in-the-hair level of awesome that only comes from a cool character doing a cool thing. And I think I love this picture the best.

Do I love it because she looks really pretty? No. Or because it’s a badass shot of the three of them? Well, only partly. The biggest reason I love this picture is for the look on her face.

They’re walking into an unknown situation. There’s a god wreaking havoc on New York City. The sky has opened up and aliens are pouring out. She doesn’t have superpowers. She doesn’t have any big weapons. She’s just been chased across a falling helicarrier by the Hulk. She has bruised ribs and a fractured ankle. She has a gun, and a taser.

And she looks ready.

And freaking awesome.


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