There’s a scene in The Avengers where Black Widow is fighting Hawkeye. He’s being mindcontrolled by Loki and is trying to kill her; she just wants to incapacitate him. A few minutes before this fight scene, she hurt her ankle and was visibly limping when she was fleeing the Hulk. She volunteered to go after Hawkeye, despite being understandably shaken by her encounter, and the fact that she and Hawkeye clearly have an emotional bond.
Oh, and the fight? She won. And she didn’t win because Hawkeye was distracted or something happened that got his attention or he was wounded from a previous scuffle. She won because she’s better. There was no reason for her not to—Hawkeye is an archer, not a hand-to-hand expert. If it had been a contest of marksmanship, he would have won, and rightly so. But it wasn’t, and she won by simply being a better fighter.
The best part, though, was probably when he looked up at her, after being hit in the head, and said “Tasha?” A lot of people would have stopped fighting then—I probably would have done—but Natasha Romanoff is a trained spy, and she just clocks him in the head again. It’s the choice of someone whose job is to be suspicious of other people, regardless of what they might mean to her.
This sums up a huge part of why I love Black Widow—Natasha Romanoff—so much: she is a professional and she acts like one.
But there’s more to it than that. She doesn’t just subvert stereotypical gender roles; she actively plays with them. Her interrogation technique, which we see at the beginning of the movie and then again in the middle with Loki, depends on the assumptions people will make of her because she’s a small, pretty woman. It’s smart—it shows that she’s aware of how people view her, and it’s a good way of getting information—but it’s also very clearly a commentary on how society views such women. People underestimate Black Widow because she’s slim and female and looks like Scarlett Johansson, and she lets them do that because it ultimately gives her the upper hand.
I’m reluctant to use the word “weakness” as a blanket term for what I’m about to talk about, because the connotations aren’t quite right, but I cannot think of a better way to lump together the parts of Natasha’s personality and character that represent the chinks in her armor. Weakness feels like the wrong word because I don’t think they make her weaker as a character—no one is perfect, and anyone who was would be boring anyway.
But here goes: we see Natasha scared and shaken at a couple of junctures in the movie. Several times, with Bruce Banner and the Hulk, she get scared, and she’s shaken during the interrogation scene with Loki. I’ll leave it up to others to debate how much of her vulnerability in that scene was faked for his benefit and how much was a genuine reaction to his threats to make someone she trusts (probably one of the only people she trusts) tear her limb from limb and enjoy doing it. To me, the more important part is that she, regardless of how shaken she may have been by the amount that Loki knew about her, turned back around and figured out his plan. Black Widow tricked the trickster god. We watched numerous other characters in the movie play straight into his hands, but she managed to get the upper hand long enough to find out his plan. That’s no small feat.
Here’s the thing about her being scared of the Hulk—because there’s been a lot of talk about it, and rightfully so—when you break it down, it makes sense for her to be scared of him. She’s a brilliant hand-to-hand fighter, but she doesn’t have any actual superpowers. Her most valuable assets aren’t her fighting abilities, they’re her gifts for infiltration and manipulation. Hawkeye points this out when he says that she’s a spy, not a soldier.
The Hulk cannot be controlled by anything except brute strength. Thor can fight him; Thor is a god who has a hammer that literally no other person can lift. The Hulk cannot be manipulated, or charmed, or reasoned with, and Natasha doesn’t have the strength to take him on in a fight (because no human does). Other people have written longer commentaries on this particular aspect of her character—and probably better ones—so I’m just going to distill it to its essence: the Hulk is an uncontrollable, unpredictable creature of rage so strong it can level towns and go punch for punch with a god. Everything about it is the opposite of Natasha’s fighting style and pokes at her weaknesses as a fighter.
Natasha has been a spy her entire life, as she mentions in her first scene with Bruce. Partway through her career, she changed sides, countries, nationalities—and it probably wasn’t easy to lose all traces of an accent, give up her native language and country. She doesn’t trust people easily—you can’t, if you’re a spy—and she’s scared of things she can’t control. We see both of these things in her interactions with Bruce; she doesn’t know him well enough to trust him but she does know that he has the potential to become something completely uncontrollable.
It’s a bit of beautiful irony, really. The person responsible for the assessment that crushed Tony at the end of Iron Man 2—Iron Man is suitable for the Avengers but Tony himself isn’t because he’s not a good team player—struggles almost as much with being a team player as he does.
This is a bit of a digression, but it bears mentioning here: a character being strong in the sense that people ask for—strong female or black or gay or Arab or trans or Latina or overweight characters—doesn’t mean that the character’s personality should be devoid of weaknesses. Silly, unconsidered weaknesses, yes. Reasoned, in-character ones, no.
It’s the interplay between strengths and weaknesses that makes characters interesting, anyway. I can’t speak for other people, of course, but the stories I want to read and see are ones where the characters struggle to reconcile different facets of their personalities. What makes characters interesting is what’s inside their heads, not how well they can beat other people up.
For what it’s worth, by the way, the dude Avengers have their fair share of weaknesses. Thor is strong enough to fight the Hulk but also weak to his brother. Wait, let me spell that out for you more clearly: with the exception of the Hulk, Thor is the strongest Avengers and his biggest weakness is the very emotion-grounded fact that, despite everything, he loves his little brother and is deeply reluctant to kill him or harm him more than necessary.
(Oh, and Natasha’s not the only one who’s afraid, either. Bruce spends most of the film terrified—of himself.)
What’s really critical, to me at least, is the order in which we see the scenes establishing Natasha’s character. First she’s an extremely competent spy. Then that scene reveals a couple of other tidbits: (1) she has some personal, emotional connection to Clint Barton and (2) the absolute confidence Phil Coulson has in her ability to get herself out in a smooth, timely, efficient manner.
Thus, the first things we learn about her give us overwhelming evidence that she is extremely good at her job. We aren’t just told that by some lackey or informed in some other vague way that she’s good; we get to see her being good.
The next time we see super-competent Natasha Romanoff, she’s in Calcutta, tracking down Bruce Banner. Her goal is to bring him in to help SHIELD, and obviously to keep from meeting, as he puts it, the other guy.
At one point, he snaps at her and she gets scared.
She’s not scared of disheveled, nerdy Bruce Banner, though. She’s scared of what he has the potential to become. It’s an important distinction.
Oh, and another important point. Fear isn’t a bad thing. Being afraid doesn’t make you a poorly drawn character. It’s a normal human emotion in the face of something overwhelming or outside of one’s ability to control. Tony was visibly scared when he was steering the nuke away from midtown Manhattan. Bruce spends most of the movie afraid of himself. Clint is shaken and upset once he’s back in his right mind.
So Natasha was afraid when threatened with the Hulk. She never let that fear overcome her or keep her from doing her job. She fights and wins—while at a disadvantage—simply by being better than her opponents. (That’s happened before, in Iron Man 2, but it’s more significant when it’s a named male member of the main cast.) She’s drawn carefully and with consideration for the way that her life would have shaped her personality.
The only way to conclude this essay properly is to go to a place that I really don’t want to—it’s messy and often unpopular, and a really good way to get flamed. It involves turning a lot of what I’ve said around on the reader and pointing out that, despite the fad in popular vernacular of describing beloved female characters as “flawless,” a good character actually does possess flaws.
And that’s as close as I’m going to get to that argument. Brian’s already made it and I have very little to add.
Instead, I’m going to reiterate another thing, because it’s easy to forget this when you’re watching an action movie full of crazy technology and monsters from outer space and Midtown Manhattan being basically leveled: being able to beat someone up (regardless of how efficiently) isn’t a character trait, it’s a skill. What makes characters interesting are the chinks in their armor—whether those are because of past traumas or ingrained fears or misplaced trust or inability to connect with the world around them.
I’m not going to lie and say that I thought everything about The Avengers was perfect, and I’m not going to say it couldn’t have benefited from more female characters (if nothing else, it would have been nice to see a second Marvel film pass the Bechdel test; more Pepper and Maria too). But Black Widow being the main female character doesn’t mean she has to be some amalgamation of every possible positive quality that female characters can have.
Oh, and in case you forgot, she was the one who not only had the idea of getting up there on the roof of Stark Tower to try and close the portal, she actually got to close it, effectively saving Manhattan all by herself.
So, you know, don’t mess with her.