[4 April 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
It can’t be easy to be the girl in the Marvel Universe. Though Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, also appearing in Under the Skin) is plainly as smart and calculating and hyper-fit as all the boys surrounding her, she’s mostly on hand to help out on their more primary missions. She’s good at this, certainly. She shows up on time, stays on task, drives an awesome Corvette Stingray, and is ever ready to kick or cover anyone’s ass, depending on what lie she’s instructed to tell and what target she’s assigned.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Natasha’s sidekicky status is at once reaffirmed and tossed up for question, if not by the plot proper (which remains deeply devoted to boys’ relationships), then by the thematic messes it doesn’t quite sort out. The Winter Soldier, per its clunky title, is adamantly focused on the crises facing Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the World War II veteran still recovering from the monumental jet lag of entering the 21st century. These crises include the titular assassin Winter Soldier, Steve’s supposedly dead buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), resurrected to work for bad guys.
Steve’s grappling with this alternative version of his own story is sort of complicated by his engagement with a new buddy, former paratrooper and soon-to-be-Falcon Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Their relationship—in which Sam is even more a sidekick than Natasha—begins as Steve outruns Sam during an early morning workout along DC’s Potomac River, and is secured when Sam offers the persistently naïve Steve some instruction on the state of the world, viewed by a black man.
Seeing that Steve has a list of cultural touchstones on which he needs to catch up, including Nirvana and Steve Jobs, Sam adds Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”, a rather profound way for Captain America to find, as Sam puts it, “everything you missed.” It’s a joke and it’s not, in the sense that Captain America will never quite get what it means to be black in the US, but he can at least begin to appreciate the ever tentative, never secure relationship an individual might have with his or her social and political worlds.
Nevertheless, and of course, Sam chooses to align himself with Steve (who is, arguably, not exactly a part of such worlds). He makes this choice at least in part because he sees right off that Steve is himself aligned with Natasha. As the boys bond during their first-meeting scene, she arrives, on cue and in her ‘Vette, smiling appropriately and beguilingly at the eager Iraq War veteran, welcoming him into a fold he has yet to know exists. It’s a fold where the secrets will become increasingly vexing to Steve and Natasha too, mainly because, even if they are good soldiers or dedicated agents, they are also expected to follow orders absolutely—always a trouble spot for Americans who want so badly to believe in small-d democratic values and individual freedoms.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier muddles this trouble spot in ways that are by turns fascinating and ridiculous. For one thing, Natasha—whose superhero name, Black Widow, is as silly as any of her male compatriots’—and Steve must have a spat, ostensibly over whether or not she’s “trustworthy”, but really about S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). If Natasha must perpetually deal with her fellow agents’ anxieties about her past (she was, infamously, a Soviet spy), even if she did find a whole new religion in S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury, devoting herself utterly to his fatherly direction), she is now cast into doubt in Steve’s eyes precisely for that devotion, which has her performing a secret mission inside the secret mission he’s supposed to be managing at the top of the film.
Following this discovery, Steve suffers pangs of poutiness, until he doesn’t. It’s no small matter that his shift in attitude, his decision to re-trust Natasha, is triggered by a mid-plot crisis concerning Nick Fury, namely, a gnarly, prolonged attack on him in the streets of DC by men dressed like cops. It’s a brilliant sequence, frankly, borrowing from “Trouble Man” as it might be reimagined in a state that’s not only racist but also equipped with advanced surveillance and weapons technologies.
Nick Fury’s ordeal begins as he’s apparently observed by cops to be a black man driving a fancy car in downtown DC, then escalates rapidly into a mega shootout and car chase. As exciting and expert as the choreography of this sequence may be, the basic fact that it situates you in the increasingly battered and blown up car with an increasingly battered and blown up Nick Fury makes it unusual, now, a throwback to John Shaft fighting the Man.
That this particular Man ends up being a version of S.H.I.E.L.D., as it has been sucked up and exploited by another organization named HYDRA, is a plot point that relies on your faith in Steve, a faith reinforced by the faith shown by Sam and also by Natasha. Sure, Steve is the whitest of white guys, literally pumped up by science, but he’s also the most idealistic and, somewhat ironically, democratic too. And so when he believes—in, say, a first and then second iteration of S.H.I.E.L.D.—he believes wholly.
That’s not to say Steve doesn’t go through a process here, a process in which he reconsiders his allegiances. But it’s telling that this process is mostly embodied in his relationship with Natasha. During the longest non-action sequence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they drive from one state to another, and then enter into a secret-secret facility where they discover a new set of secrets about S.H.I.E.L.D. during this sequence, they talk lots, ask questions, and maybe confess (“I only act like I know everything,” she offers). And as they talk, the camera cuts between their so very earnest faces, then observes them in long shots as they investigate dark passageways and creepy rooms. Whether framed closely or at a distance, Natasha and Steve come to share a rhythm, a trust, a dynamic that is less about superheroes and sidekicks than about the two of them.
True, this sequence gives way to more action, more boy bonding, and more secrets exposed and pondered. But in this relationship, you see not only a compelling sensitivity in Steve, but also an intriguing complexity in Natasha. She’s the girl in Marvel’s universe. But she’s Natasha too, part of that part of the “everything you missed” that Marvel continues to miss.