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From eye candy to superhero: Why did it take Marvel so long to give Black Widow her due?

From eye candy to superhero: Why did it take Marvel so long to give Black Widow her due?

From eye candy to superhero: Why did it take Marvel so long to give Black Widow her due?

There is a running gag in the new Marvel film,Black Widow, in which Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff reunites with her long-lost sister, trained assassin Yelena (a scene-stealing Florence Pugh). Yelena mocks the superhero fighting pose for which Natasha is famed as an Avenger – the one where she lands in a crouch with one leg stretched out sideways, and tosses her hair. Natasha takes her sister’s ribbing on the chin. “All that time I spent posing,” she says. “I was trying to do something good.”

In Black Widow’s early years in Marvel films – she made her debut in 2010’s Iron Man 2 as a SHIELD operative working undercover as Pepper Potts’ assistant – posing was pretty much all she was required to do. Her role as eye candy was clear from the dialogue: “I want one,” said Tony Stark, shortly after searching her name online and instantly finding pictures of her as an underwear model. In the same film, Natasha changes out of a cocktail dress into her trademark catsuit in the back seat of a car, for no other reason than to have a gratuitous bra shot.

Now, 11 years later, she has her own film, a fact that is cause for celebration, unless you are Stephen Dorff, who – reigniting the conversation about Marvel started by Scorsese – told The Independent this week that Black Widow “looks like garbage to me. It looks like a bad video game. I’m embarrassed for those people. I’m embarrassed for Scarlett!” This from the man who appeared in Blade, a superhero film also based on Marvel comics.

Black Widow is set in a time before Natasha was killed off in Avengers: Endgame. There are no bra shots and there is no tossing of hair. Instead, we get Natasha’s origin story: she was raised in a sleeper cell of Russian agents masquerading as an all-American family in Ohio. Like her sister, she was trained as an assassin; unlike her, she switched sides to join the Avengers. We find her laying low in Norway and drawn into a mission involving Yelena and their “parents” – Melina (Rachel Weisz), who passes the time practicing mind control experiments on pigs, and Soviet super-soldier, Alexei (David Harbour), abandoned by the Kremlin and left to rot in jail.

In a recent press interview, Johansson spoke of her relief that her character had moved on from the “hyper-sexualised” early version, in which being a babe who is also great at fighting seemed the sole justification for her existence. The crass sexism with which she was treated didn’t go unnoticed by fans either: many bridled at her describing herself as a “monster” on account of her infertility in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron; a storm also erupted over Black Widow merchandise, or the lack of it. The reason, according to one former Disney employee, was that the corporation felt its lady merch was all sewn up in the tween princess market; Marvel was all about the boys.

Several years ago, Johansson’s co-stars Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans also got into hot water when, on being asked whether either of their characters might end up as Natasha’s boyfriend, they called her a “slut”. Renner’s apology wasn’t exactly heartfelt. “I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone,” he said.

Should we be bothered at the previously dismissive and sexist treatment of a fictional woman based on a cartoon character in a comic book? In the original Marvel comic, Natasha comes with heavy-duty make-up, pouty lips and a catsuit unzipped to allow her breasts to spill out – perfectly constructed to appeal to the teenage boys that once made up the comics’ readership. While it’s probably pointless to carp about the unreconstructed messaging in the original cartoons, it remains odd, not to say annoying, that it took so long for Marvel studios to give its female characters their due.

In the case of Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, it took the studio six years to get from script stage to a finished film, owing to prolonged faffing around storylines and hiring a director. Shortly before it came out, trolls deluged the internet with fake “reviews”, which included negative comments about Larson’s physique and her alleged sexism against men.

In any case, Black Widow – which is directed by Cate Shortland, the first solo female director of a Marvel film – seems to be trying to right past wrongs by giving Natasha the nuance and depth that she has long deserved. Talking to Radio 4’s Front Row earlier this week, Shortland spoke of allowing Natasha to be alone for the first time. “The character was always on display,” she said, referring to the previous films. “There’s not many moments where you see her relaxed in her body, so… it was a choice to put Scarlett by herself so she could just be a person and not a femme fatale or a superhero.”

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Marvel Studios’ Black Widow Trailer

It would seem significant, too, that Natasha and her sister decide to take on Ray Winstone’s super-villain, Dreykov, who has spent decades trafficking young girls and turning them into killing machines in the fabled Red Room. This is a film about control, trauma and crimes by men against women that include mass kidnappings and forced sterilisation. Shortland has said the plot was hatched before #MeToo, though the themes of female oppression and the dismantling of patriarchy seem apt in its aftermath. Dreykov, with his suit and air of smug entitlement, could be Trump and Weinstein rolled into one.

Time magazine recently pointed out that, for an entire decade “more white men named Chris headlined Marvel movies than women and actors of colour combined”. In making Black Panther, one of the best films in the franchise, Marvel acknowledged the woefully small number of people of colour in their films up until that point. Perhaps we can look at Black Widow not just as an admission of its past failures towards Natasha but a pledge to do better for all its female characters – and for the superheroes of the future.

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