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Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 2. Image: Marvel Studios

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Black Widow happened at the only time Marvel was capable of making it

What happens when your first superheroine is actually a reformed supervillain

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Marvel fans have clamored for a Black Widow movie since the moment Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff first appeared on screen in 2010’s Iron Man 2. I know, because I spent a lot of time covering that pressure, and the various ways in which Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has responded whenever asked about it.

I’ve also spent Black Widow’s COVID-elongated pre-release period shaking my head at how just much more eagerly received this film would have been if Marvel had put it out in 2013 or ’14, on the heels of The Avengers’ billion-dollar success. Before we started talking about MCU fatigue. Before the character’s Endgame death. Before that time Johansson became a Twitter meme for saying she should be allowed to play a tree.

But now that I’ve seen it, I can’t help thinking to myself that Black Widow really couldn’t have come out until now (or, at least, until spring of 2020). The reasons why are still a terrifically punted own-goal for Marvel.

Don’t forget that female superheroes used to be tricky

We live in a flowering of female-led action blockbusters, particularly in the comic book realm. We have not one but two Wonder Woman movies, a Captain Marvel sequel on the way, television shows for Jessica Jones, Supergirl, Stargirl, the Scarlet Witch, and soon Ms. Marvel, Ironheart, and She-Hulk. We might have finally eclipsed that era of the 1990s when, on a single day of reruns you just might catch an episode of Xena, Star Trek: Voyager, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Cleopatra 2525.

It’s almost enough to make you forget how consistently, vocally nervous top executives at Warner Bros. and Marvel were about the idea of a female-led superhero movie for the entire 2010s. The looming shadow of Catwoman and Elektra was apparently so dark as to render the stampeding success of franchises like the Hunger Games, and standalone movies like Gravity or Maleficent, invisible.

In 2010, Warner Bros. announced it was developing a Wonder Woman movie. The same year, Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel) wrote a treatment for a Black Widow movie that never took off (she does not receive credit on the 2021 film). In 2013, no Wonder Woman movie in sight, DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson said that the character was “tricky.” At the same time, Kevin Feige admitted that Marvel Studios had no plans to produce a solo movie for a female superhero. In contrast to the logic, the Jennifer Lawrence-led Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the fifth highest-grossing film of the year.

In 2014, Variety reported that there was a Black Widow film in development, but work on it had been delayed to focus on bringing Captain Marvel to screens first in 2018. Months later, Captain Marvel was in turn delayed so that Marvel could focus on a sequel to Ant-Man. In 2015, Patty Jenkins finally signed on for Wonder Woman, and when it smashed box offices in 2017, Warner Bros. scrambled to renegotiate her initial contract — which had not included any language locking her or Gal Gadot in for a sequel. Almost as if those involved assumed there would not be an audience for one.

That year, Marvel began its first serious search for a director for a Black Widow solo movie. Captain Marvel hit theaters in 2019 and grossed over a billion dollars, and the Hollywood fear of superheroines seemed to subside. Finally, it was Black Widow’s turn.

But here’s the thing about Black Widow

“Do you think Margaret Thatcher had girl power?” comedian Eric Andre asks guest Mel B. “Yes, of course,” she replies. “Do you think she effectively utilized girl power by funneling money to illegal paramilitary death squads in Northern Ireland?” he asks. “I don’t know about that,” she responds. Image: Warner Bros. Television

The easiest way to get someone to accept what they think is a large risk is to reduce the number of risks around it. Imagine sculpting a female-lead superhero movie in the most palatable way possible for a nervous film executive; a tiny jar of spandex-clad baby food.

Imagine a movie that restricts itself to a safely proven standard superhero origin story — hero gets powers, discovers how they work, gets a brightly colored costume, overthrows blatantly evil bad guy, saves day with bravery and kindness. The lead actress is at a point in her career where she does not yet have the clout to pick any lead action roles she wants, and doesn’t have the leverage to get paid like it. Preferably, the story is set at least two decades in the past, so that any examples of sexism faced by the main character will not cause the modern men watching to squirm. And the film overall will have the least complicated and most obvious message a Hollywood executive would think of for a female-lead superhero movie: Peace, with a side order of Girl Power.

This is exactly what Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel look like. They’re two of the superheroiest superhero movies out there since the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and packed with Girl Power moments. This isn’t a bad thing, for Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel — both characters were designed from the jump to shoulder the weight of being an overtly feminist superhero, not just a superhero who happens to be a woman.

But Black Widow will never be a rosy Girl Power character — her fist lifted in a We Can Do It! curl — because nobody should ever do what she’s done. Rather than heroism and power fantasy, her character hook is atonement, hard-won agency, and unflappable competence. And she’s atoning for some objectively awful things! Murder, assassination, and a host of [thinking face emoji] other actions for which she feels deep contrition.

This isn’t a bad thing, for Black Widow. It’s not her fault that she wasn’t safe enough to spoon feed to a Hollywood executive. It’s Marvel’s fault, for deciding that the token woman on the Avengers would be a reformed supervillain.

Red in a ledger

Black Widow standing in New York City with an explosion above a bus behind her Image: Marvel Studios

I can’t say exactly what Marvel movers and shakers were thinking when they made Black Widow the token girl of the Avengers. Among other things, it’s pretty obvious that Natasha Romanoff is a favorite character archetype of writer-director Joss Whedon; like Buffy, River Tam, or Echo, she is a traumatized girl weaponized by men into a killing machine.

But it’s easy to see what they weren’t thinking: They weren’t thinking about how Black Widow, a character with a dark backstory and no superpowers, was unsuited to the standard superhero origin arc that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had built itself on. They weren’t thinking about the prospect of paying Scarlett Johansson a lead actress’ salary, rather than a supporting one. They weren’t thinking about using their most anticipated movie to introduce another female superhero, which would have widened the array of choices for an established MCU superheroine to develop in her own franchise. They weren’t choosing a character with any consideration for whether or not she was viable to lead a First Superheroine Movie.

Before Black Widow could move forward it needed 2017’s Wonder Woman. A mere four months after it hit screens, Marvel finally recruited a new screenwriter for Black Widow. Wonder Woman had made female-led superhero films look viable, and within a year, Black Widow finally had a director. But Marvel still prioritized the un-introduced Captain Marvel over a character fans had known for nine years. Her story was a standard, energy-blasting superhero origin, and fit the feminist-lite mold that Hollywood is most comfortable in. Now, and only now, could Marvel fit a darkly funny, female-focused spy flick into their superhero universe.

It’s easy to imagine Marvel executives breathing a sigh of relief at Black Widow’s death in Avengers: Endgame. Now they’d have the perfect excuse not to have to negotiate with Scarlett Johansson — 2018 and 2019’s highest-paid actress in Hollywood — over a solo franchise, just the single solo movie already on the release calendar.

Marvel never built Black Widow to be a franchise-bearing character. And thanks to that, she never will be.


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