Cate Shortland: Black Widow (2021) | poster excerpt
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow (2021) | poster excerpt

Marvel Studios ‘Black Widow’ Mishandles the MCU’s Most Popular Female Character

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow was too little, too late for the MCU’s most popular female character due partially to misogynistic business practices at Disney.

Black Widow
Cate Shortland
Walt Disney Su

When Cate Shortland‘s Black Widow was released in July 2021, one of the most pervasive questions the film faced was: What took so long? Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was the first female superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), introduced in Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010). She was the only female superhero in the MCU until Gamora (Zoe Saldana) was introduced in Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) was introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015). Since then, there have been various female heroes in Black Panther (Coogler, 2018), The Wasp in Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018), and finally, a female lead with Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel in Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019). All the while, Black Widow remained very popular, appearing in seven MCU films and dying in Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019).

Over the course of those seven supporting appearances in nine years, the producers of the MCU and Johansson herself paid lip service to the idea of a solo Black Widow film. After all, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man all received multiple solo films during that time period. It did not help that Black Widow was originally scheduled to release in May 2020 but was delayed 14 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also did not help that the film is set between the character’s appearances in Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018). This had the effect of making this 2021 film seem like it should have been released sometime in 2017. It was four years too late. So, upon its release, Black Widow had the inescapable feeling of a ‘too little too late’ mishandling of the most important female character in the expansive, hugely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. This was not ideal.

A year after its release, separated from the apparent disappointment in its lateness, how does Black Widow hold up as a film on its own terms? Does it tell a compelling story, or does it play like an obligation? And finally, how did its fumbled, pandemic-impacted release affect its success? Read on and see.

Natalia “Natasha” Romanova/Black Widow first appeared in Tales of Suspense #52 (April 1964) as a femme-fatale Soviet spy/assassin and villain for Iron Man. She appears several times in Tales of Suspense and The Avengers as a villain before she escapes Soviet control, defects to the United States, and joins the Avengers. Black Widow is notable for operating alongside superpowered Marvel heroes and against superpowered villains, despite possessing no superpowers herself. She is an expert at various fighting techniques, highly agile, and a master of spycraft (disguise, information-gathering, interrogation, etc). In 1970, her character design was updated to the red-hair and black catsuit that have become her most distinctive look. That same year, she had a short-lived solo feature in Amazing Adventures. When that feature was cancelled, she was paired with Daredevil to become the co-lead of his book for several years.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Black Widow was most closely associated with The Avengers and with the spy organization SHIELD. She starred in several limited series from 1999 to 2006. The first of these series fleshed out Natasha’s background by introducing the Red Room, a Soviet training facility that specialized in training girls to become Black Widow assassins. This series also introduced the villainous Yelena Belova, a graduate of the Red Room who fancies herself Natasha’s successor as a master assassin. At the same time, Marvel Comics began publishing its Ultimate line of comics, which reintroduced classic Marvel characters and stories in more streamlined, modern settings. Ultimate Black Widow is introduced as a top SHIELD operative partnered with Clint Barton/Hawkeye under Nick Fury. Black Widow and Hawkeye soon become members of Fury’s team of superheroes, The Ultimates.

Although elements of the classic Marvel Comics have been used in the MCU, the cinematic Black Widow has mostly been modelled after the Ultimate Comics. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is introduced in Iron Man 2 as a SHIELD agent tasked by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to keep an eye on Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr). The character is fairly thin in that film, but future films admirably expand her backstory and characterization.

In The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), she joins the fight against Loki (Tom Hiddleston) when he captures and brainwashes Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner). Natasha was a brainwashed Russian-trained assassin until Clint helped her defect to SHIELD, and she owes him a debt. Throughout the MCU, Natasha is driven by her loyalty to allies and by guilt for past misdeeds (“the red in her ledger”). In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014), her morally-gray, pragmatic approach to spycraft is nicely contrasted with Steve Rogers/Captain America’s (Chris Evans) black and white idealism. By the end of that film, SHIELD is revealed to have been infiltrated by the evil Hydra organization, and it is dismantled. With SHIELD gone, Natasha fully commits to the Avengers.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron Natasha describes her indoctrination in the Red Room, including forced sterilization that ensured Black Widows would never have a child. The idea was that a child might be prioritized above their duty. This concept was poorly communicated by writer Joss Whedon and misunderstood as an argument that motherless women are monsters. Not ideal.

In Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers suffer an ideological split over whether superheroes should have government oversight. Natasha, clinging to her makeshift family, initially agrees with Iron Man, against Captain America, that the Avengers need oversight. She switches sides, cutting ties with the Avengers and forcing her on the run. It is at this moment, with SHIELD dismantled, the Avengers disassembled, and with no one for Natasha to turn to, that the Black Widow filmmakers opted to set her solo film.

By the time of Avengers: Infinity War, Natasha has joined Captain America in an underground, ramshackle team of freelance superheroes. They emerge to prevent Thanos (Josh Brolin) from retrieving the powerful Infinity Stones. They fail, and Thanos uses his power to eliminate half of life in the Universe. Natasha is one of the heroes left alive and devotes the next five years to coordinating the remaining heroes across the Earth and even in space. In Avengers: Endgame, she has no life beyond her hero work, obsessively trying to assuage her guilt over failing to stop Thanos.

When a plan emerges to reverse Thanos’ devastation by retrieving the Infinity Stones from the past, she travels with Clint to a distant planet to retrieve the Soul Stone. When its keeper reveals that one of them must be sacrificed to attain the Stone, Natasha sacrifices herself. She dies for her friend, and to make up for her past mistakes by saving half the universe. It’s a nice idea, but it also necessitates the death of the only original female Avenger in order to progress the story. Not ideal.

 The first plans for a Black Widow film date back to 2004 when writer David Hayter developed the concept as a spy thriller at Lionsgate. The film was cancelled after the failure of female-led superhero films such as Catwoman (Pitof, 2004), Elektra (Bowman, 2005), and Aeon Flux (Kusama, 2005). Soon the rights to all Marvel properties licensed to Lionsgate reverted to Marvel, Marvel Studios was founded, and the MCU was born. Scarlett Johansson was cast as Natasha in Iron Man 2 in 2009, and discussions about a solo Black Widow film began. Over the years, on every press tour for a film featuring Black Widow, the filmmakers or Johansson would pay lip service to the idea of a solo Black Widow film, but there was no real intention to make one.

The reason for this tends to boil down to one villain: Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, the CEO of Marvel Entertainment. A lot of bad decisions or early tumult at Marvel Studios has been blamed on Perlmutter, to the point that he has become the Marvel bogeyman in contrast to Kevin Feige, the Chief Creative Officer of Marvel. I doubt Perlmutter is the sole cause for all of the problems, but his attitude was certainly indicative of the culture at Marvel and Disney in the ‘10s. In the ‘00s, Walt Disney Studios consciously moved away from their typical princess branding in an effort to appeal more to boys. All their efforts, besides the Pirates of the Caribbean films, failed.

In 2009, they changed their approach. They recommitted to Disney Princess films for girls and purchased Marvel Entertainment, and later Star Wars, for boys. So, as Perlmutter entered the Disney fold with the acquisition of Marvel, he was fully aware that the mission was to appeal to boys. This mission was played out very obviously on the toy market, where Disney assumed girls were catered to by the Princess line. Therefore, Marvel toys were designed to appeal primarily to boys, leading to the purposeful minimization of female representation out of a belief that boys would not play with girl characters. For example, there is a sequence in Age of Ultron prominently featuring Natasha on a motorcycle. In the associated playset, Captain America is on the motorcycle.

But beyond toys, Perlmutter openly argued against female-led superhero films, citing past failures (and ignoring successful female-led action films) to make his point. Natasha was the primary female superhero in the MCU from 2010 to 2019, appearing in seven films. From 2015 to 2019, Ant-Man has more screen time than Natasha despite only appearing in four films. This was not a culture in which a Black Widow film would be made.

Meanwhile, other studios produced films such as Lucy (Besson, 2014), Atomic Blonde (Leitch, 2017) and Red Sparrow (Lawrence, 2018) which were successful enough, and similar enough to a potential Black Widow film, that they demonstrated clear audience demand for such a film. Reportedly, in 2015 Feige called for an organizational change due to frustrations with Perlmutter. Marvel Studios was put under direct control of Disney studio chief Alan Horn rather than Perlmutter. Since then, Marvel Studios has produced such female-forward films as Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, WandaVision (2021), and finally, Black Widow. Sadly, that delay resulted in the film being produced after Natasha had died in the MCU. Not ideal.