All eyes are on Black Widow. At least, that’s how it feels in the Internet home that I’ve curated on Twitter and Tumblr. My dashboards and feeds are full of GIFs of Scarlett Johansson grappling with Chitauri aliens and comic book creators showing off deliberately posed Natasha Romanoff Hot Toys figures. That’s the world I live in, and I love it.
Odds are, though, that even you’ve seen an uptick in Black Widow’s prominence since “Marvel’s The Avengers” annihilated all comers at the box office as if they were alien invaders. That’s because a very vocal segment of Marvel Cinematic Universe fans have rallied around Black Widow and hooked all their hopes for equal gender representation in the blockbuster film universe to her streamlined utility belt. As more and more Marvel movies starring straight white men are buzzed about (“Ant-Man” and “Doctor Strange”) and Warner Bros. keeps twiddling their thumbs about what to do with Wonder Woman (“She’ll be in a larger ensemble — eventually!”), all eyes turn to Black Widow — the highest profile female super hero on the planet right now. If any female character has a chance of successfully headlining a solo film, it’s her. Last week, the KGB spy turned S.H.I.E.L.D. agent made her third big screen appearance in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a film that — spoilers ahead — undeniably pushes Natasha onto the A-List. She’s ready for her own movie, Marvel.
Unlike “Iron Man 2” and “Marvel’s the Avengers” — where Widow’s clocked the most screentime after Cap and Iron Man — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” pushes the wisecracking badass front and center. From the moment she rolls up in a car that’s more conspicuous and overtly sexy than Black Widow has ever been herself, despite what many misogynistic film critics have said, “Winter Soldier” feels just as equally concerned about both Cap and Nat’s inner struggle. This is Chris Evans’ show to steal, so Johansson plays Black Widow as if she’s one step away from making off with the headlining goods.
Unlike other super hero movies, where all allotted competency and dignity gets bestowed solely upon the main character, Black Widow’s allowed to live up to her in-universe rep as the best of the best, the precedent set by her tour de force turn in Joss Whedon’s “Avengers.” In that film, she beat up a bunch of mobsters while tied to a chair and knocked the snot out of alien warriors using whatever she had at arm’s reach. She tricked a trickster god. That level of competency, a trait rarely given female characters in any film outside of the MCU, is maintained throughout “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” She’s never damseled, she’s never consciously helpless; Natasha gets shot through the shoulder and still lifts the weight of a grenade launcher to save her partners.
But that shoulder injury is an important one. While watching the film for the first time, that moment terrified me. I did not want to see Natasha sidelined for the final act of the movie, and I didn’t want the woman who hitched a ride on a Chitauri sky sled taken out by a bullet wound. If she had been shown folding in the second act, if she had been used as bait for the bad guys at any point, the near-flawless credibility as a capable super hero that she’s amassed over her film career could be called into question by nay-sayers. That didn’t happen. A lead character can’t be untouchable. They have to make mistakes, and like every other action hero before her, Black Widow pushed past physical pain and took her super spy skills all the way to the end.
A lead character also has to have an emotional center. We feel for Tony Stark’s shattered hubris, Steve Rogers’ sense of loss and Thor’s family troubles. Truly successful leading characters have to go on a journey, and they have to face conflict internally as well as externally. “Winter Soldier’s” Black Widow isn’t just the calculating spy from “Iron Man 2,” or the cocky dynamo from “Avengers.” She’s both of those interpretations, given enough screen time to deal with the very real sense of vulnerability briefly glimpsed in her previous appearances. “Winter Soldier” is a movie about trust. Until this film, trust has just been another weapon in Black Widow’s arsenal, but as the web she’s crafted starts falling apart around her, she’s left with nothing but trust. For the first time in the MCU, Natasha Romanoff confronts the idea that maybe her life choices have not created the best version of herself. Black Widow is a super hero haunted by regret and struggling with her identity.
In the end, Captain America does not make the heroic sacrifice, thus further proving that Black Widow can handle the emotional weight of being a lead character. As if anyone could really forget the most quoted line in “The Avengers” — “I’ve got red in my ledger; I’d like to wipe it out” — it helps to have that line fresh in your mind when deconstructing what Widow does in the final act of what’s billed as a Captain America movie. Black Widow doesn’t wipe out the red in her ledger. No, she blasts her ledger out to the world, like it was the grisliest email forward of all time. We know from here heart to heart with Hawkeye that the shame she feels about what she’s done is real, and she hesitates when she realizes that taking down the bad guys means revealing her secrets. But she does it anyway, because she’s not just a spy anymore; she’s a super hero, and she makes a super hero’s sacrifice.
As Cap and his hastily assembled team of heroes reconvene in the movie’s final moments, the film teases a number of possible spin-off films that seem ripe with potential. It’s fitting that, after two hours of showing Agent Romanoff taking charge of every situation she found herself in, a solo “Black Widow” movie feels the most viable. What does a master spy do when the world knows who she is? Does she try to have a normal life, or does she become a full-on super hero? Going public also opens her up to countless faces from her past, all of whom now have the info needed to track her down and get revenge. Now she has to take care of the red in her ledger before it wipes her out.
No matter how obvious Black Widow’s eventual solo stardom may seem to those who look at the evidence found in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” there will still be those unable to recognize the character’s potential just because they can’t see past Johansson’s pretty face. Those people are going to have a hard time with “The Winter Soldier,” a film with three “pretty faces” all on board to kick ass and not be a damsel in distress/love interest/set decoration. Anyone who refuses to see the immense contributions Maria Hill, Agent 13 and Black Widow make to this film will find their viewing riddled with as many holes as Nick Fury’s SUV. These women cannot be ignored, and their place in these films will age significantly better than the reviews of film critics more concerned with Natasha’s makeup routine than her inner conflicts.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” makes Black Widow a flawed-yet-competent super hero, one with a compelling emotional hook. Through the sacrifices she makes, the film advances her character into a thrilling new status quo that begs for a solo film. Make it happen, Marvel.