Chop and Change: The Shifting Nature of Natasha Romanov

SPOILERS AHEAD

The most prominent female superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, has made appearances in four movies over six years: Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now Avengers: Age of Ultron. This forces us to take Natasha not as different iterations of a character but as a constantly evolving singularity. Her arc is less of an arc and more of a Rubik’s cube, with different facets aligning to reveal new elements to her character.

widow_poster

When she first appears in Iron Man 2, we meet a cover identity, Natalie Rushman, a facsimile of Tony Stark’s love interest Pepper Potts—she’s well-dressed in tailored clothes like Pepper, and she’s contained and poised like Pepper, too. But Natalie is much more overtly sexy than Pepper, who is statuesque and icy as played by the statuesque and icy Gwyneth Paltrow. Natalie is played by Scarlett Johansson, a classic Old Hollywood bombshell type, which is exactly how Natalie Rushman comes across. In both cases the real woman behind the character informs her role, and while Iron Man 2 is a big mess, one thing it does very cleverly is subvert the expectations these classic brands of femininity carry with them.

Widow_Pepper
Version A

Natalie is a creation meant to entice Tony Stark, which she does. He objectifies her immediately—she even has a manufactured past as a lingerie model to make this even easier—just as we so often objectify beautiful women in cinema. Stark is the audience in this instance, desiring the flashy thing placed before him. And Natalie plays into this, flirting and casting coy glances over her new boss, wearing a series of fetishized secretary outfits. But in act three, as the real trouble kicks off, Natalie is cast aside and Natasha Romanov emerges. She doesn’t smile, her gaze is candid and direct, and she talks around Stark like he’s not worth her time. She is the most physically capable character in the movie, and she turns out to have computer skills that are vital to defeating the villain. In the end, Natasha is no man’s eye candy. She’s a lethal agent capable of deep deception.

Widow_mace
Version B

In The Avengers, writer/director Joss Whedon doubles down on this concept, introducing Natasha once again undercover, using her sexuality and feminine wiles to fool men for her advantage. In a classic bad-guy move, she’s tied to a chair, but she literally tears her bonds apart and uses the chair to beat her captors, a barely-even-metaphorical visual cue that Natasha will continue to defy the conventions placed upon her simply by virtue of being a woman. And in The Avengers we get to see the “real” Natasha Romanov: a cunning, deadly, nearly unstoppable force whose moral code is dictated by guilt and loyalty more than actual morality.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier unravels that aspect of Natasha even more. She’s partnered with Steve Rogers but she’s loyal to Nick Fury, to the point of risking her working relationship with her partner. This flies in the face of conventional partner scenarios in “on the run” thrillers, which The Winter Soldier is. Traditionally, the plot would be Natasha and Steve against the world, but Natasha throws Steve over for her boss, until her boss betrays her loyalty. Each movie sets up Natasha in different character tropes, from femme fatale to partner/sidekick, and in each movie she upends the convention to reveal her own personal and complicated motivations underneath. It makes her fascinating, but it also makes her hard to parse. There isn’t a “real” Natasha, there is only this Natasha before us in any given moment, and she may or may not be presenting a genuine face.

Widow_Cap

Which is why it seems that people are struggling with the latest iteration of Natasha Romanov in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Once again springing from writer/director Whedon, this Natasha is more open and vulnerable than we’ve ever seen her. She has a crush on Bruce Banner, and she’s aggressively pursuing a romance with him. This strikes many as “out of character”, but we don’t actually know what Natasha Romanov’s character is. We’ve only ever seen facets of the whole person, and this is just another facet. The last time we saw Natasha was at the end of The Winter Soldier, after the fall of SHIELD, when she abandons her partnership with Steve Rogers in order to find “a past she can live with”. Ultron occurs about a year later, so Natasha has had plenty of time to come up with a new façade, and the one she’s trying out is “normal person”.

I’ve largely been of the mind that Natasha doesn’t need a romantic subplot because she’s interesting enough on her own. Romantic plots are vessels of vulnerability and motivation, but Natasha is interesting because of her invulnerability, and she does not lack for motivation; a woman seeking redemption for past misdeeds is much more compelling than a woman trying to win the favor of a lover. However, it occurs that in rejecting a romance for Natasha we’re asking her, as a character, not to change. By her fourth appearance, we know what’s driving Natasha—the red in her ledger—and we know her capabilities and deceptions. What we don’t know is what Natasha wants for herself, what life she imagines post-Avengering.

Widow_Avengers

This is the new facet of her character that Ultron explores. It’s a dense concept and I’m not convinced Whedon successfully navigates all of the nooks and crannies of his own conceit, but we do learn a lot about Natasha throughout Ultron, and even though it comes wrapped in a romantic bow, it really has very little to do with romance. In many ways, this Natasha is a return to Natalie Rushman, as she play-acts a role for the benefit of a male audience. In the party scene in which she flirts with Banner, Natasha is wearing a retro styled dress and has her hair done in a style reminiscent of vintage finger waves. She uses retro language, saying a “fella done her wrong” and vamping up her sultry voice. The whole scene between Natasha and Banner plays like something from a screwball comedy.

Out of character? No, it’s perfectly in character, given that Natasha has assumed the role of screen siren. She’s approximating characters like Slim in To Have or Have Not—Natasha in this scene reminds one of Lauren Bacall’s many strong, sassy leading ladies. Steve Rogers comments that this is not like other times when he’s seen Natasha flirt, that she seems more open with Banner than with anyone else. And it is more genuine in the sense that this is Natasha pursuing something she wants for herself, and not for the benefit of someone else’s agenda. Yet it’s still just another angle for Natasha to play, an approximation of what she thinks courtship should be, gleaned from movies and external references. Read this way it’s actually the saddest aspect of Natasha Romanov—in trying to be her own person, she’s only copying someone else, and that someone isn’t even real.

Shades of Slim
Shades of Slim

Later in the movie, a dream sequence takes us back to Natasha’s past as a child soldier in the brutal “Red Room”. Groomed from a very young age to be a perfect assassin, Natasha has had her identity completely erased by the Red Room. In a surprisingly heartfelt scene for a comic book movie, Natasha describes the brutal “graduation ceremony” in which she was sterilized. It’s “one less thing to worry about” she says, then asks Banner, “Who’s the monster now?” Many people are reading that as an indictment of Natasha’s barrenness, implying that she thinks because she can’t have children she’s monstrous.

That’s way too simple a reading, and it’s ignoring everything else we’ve learned about Natasha Romanov. We know Natasha is driven to atone for the things she did as an assassin for the Red Room, and now we know she is haunted by the trauma of invasion, by the loss of bodily autonomy. In Ultron the Avengers learn about Clint Barton’s secret life as a husband and father, and Banner seems tortured by the idea that he can’t give that same life to Natasha. She, however, isn’t tortured by the loss of potential children so much as she is what the Red Room did to her in sterilizing her—make her into a perfect instrument of death.

Widow_fight

By sterilizing her, the Red Room removed any possibility of life springing from Natasha. She isn’t a monster because she’s barren, she sees herself as monstrous because everything about her is calculated to bring about death, to the great extreme that she can no longer create life. That’s how far the Red Room was willing to take it, that’s the level of horror visited upon a young Natasha. Her autonomy was violated so that she could be this thing for someone else, and twenty years later we see a Natasha who still doesn’t know how to define her own self except as a monster. Not because she can’t have children, but because her sterility represents just another brutal aspect of the training that made her into the Black Widow.

It’s a dense concept that requires parsing by taking into account every version of Natasha Romanov from Natalie Rushman to the Black Widow. In Ultron we see one of her deepest layers, one traumatized by loss of autonomy. The Black Widow was made and the cost of that making was the person Natasha Romanov could have been. Through four appearances, what we’ve learned about Natasha is that she does not know who that person is, and so is left to assume different roles and don an unending series of masks, all to approximate a person it’s impossible for her to know. Natasha was divorced from herself by her training, a metaphysical concept manifested physically by her sterilization.

Widow_empty

At the end of Ultron Natasha puts away another mask, abandoning her attempt at normalcy in favor of stepping up as Steve Rogers’s lieutenant. In her final moments on screen, she is posed alone in an empty room, her back to a distorted reflection of herself. She has a choice to make, to continue being the distortion or to embrace a new identity. Throughout the movie she and Banner discussed running away, but at two critical moments Natasha chose to fight, first when she literally pushes Banner into becoming the Hulk, and again when she follows Steve Rogers (perhaps the only man worthy of her incredible loyalty). She could have retired alongside Clint Barton and Tony Stark, but she chooses to stay in the fight, and in this instance we see the clearest view of Natasha Romanov yet. She is not a monster but a fighter, a warrior worthy of walking next to another great warrior. At least for now.

Advertisements

20 thoughts on “Chop and Change: The Shifting Nature of Natasha Romanov

  1. Agent K

    I get what Whedon was going for in the sterilization talk but I found it a (reasonably) rare case of poor writing. Having Banner talk about how he can’t have kids being the final catalyst for her to open up places focus on that point. I am not surprised many people took this view (I didn’t) but I just cannot blame them.

    She comes across better to me when I stick her in the sidekick zone (Hawkeye lives there too)…which is unfortunate given she’s the lead woman. The jump to “this” Widow felt like if Cap had shown up in Avengers suddenly fully versed and comfortable in modern times, rather than seeing him struggle. That’s fine for a sidekick (I liked Hawkeye’s family, don’t need to know where he got them) but if all we have gotten so far for female heroes is Widow the shortcuts feel dismissive (things that would have been covered in a stand-alone while she looked for “an identity she could live with”).

    A story that had her slowly growing closer to Banner while struggling with the Hulk could have been gorgeous. The scene where she talks him down with the lullaby coming at the end of the movie would have been incredibly touching. At the beginning it felt unearned and a bit…wait, huh? The last time Widow and Hulk had any meaningful interaction (Avengers) she was terrified of him. I think they jumped forward in narrative too far for it to work as well as they wanted.

    1. I agree it’s not executed perfectly, but the people who are mad about the “monster” comment are completely, maybe even wilfully, misreading the scene. I think stupid shipper shit is keeping a lot of people from taking a clear look at Natasha in this movie.

      Personally, I think the goals of Natasha’s arc would have been better served by attacking only one aspect of her relationship with Bruce, not both. Either they’re flirting and trying to figure out if they can be together, or they already ARE together and they’re discussing their post-Avenger future. Either could work out to the same ending–Bruce MIA and Natasha full-time Avengering with Steve–but by limiting their conversation you actually open up space for more thorough talks. Instead Whedon goes after both and so yes, it does feel overstuffed and shortchanged.

      1. Agent K

        Shipper stuff should be ignored at all costs…for sanity, LOL! But hey, live dangerously…

        I liked Hawkeye and Widow’s completely messed up and twisted “romance” in the comic books but they were very different characters. In the movies it’s made very clear that Hawkeye is the one who “saved” her. I am 100% OK with that for her character, until we add a romantic relationship. It’s an unequal relationship. There’s love there on both their parts absolutely; but subverting the romantic expectation was probably a better choice for her particular character. She would want to keep the “power”. Like it or hate it, I would say in the Bruce relationship she has the power. With Clint? He does. I think they could do really interesting things with Clint and Natasha in Civil War.

        Steve and Natasha? Well….they’re both pretty, I’ll give them that. I don’t see that “ship” at all though.

      2. Yeah, I don’t get the Clint/Natasha thing in the movies because she makes it clear in The Avengers that she feels indebted to him–do you really want to add a sexual relationship to that? The balance of power would be crazy. But that’s the thing about “shipping”, it almost never has anything to do with what’s actually happening in context. I’m a Daredevil/Black Widow fan in the comics, so of course there’s a part of me that would love to see Matt and Nat meet in the MCU, but that has nothing to do with anything. I’m certainly not building an expectation of it.

        On Tue, May 5, 2015 at 1:27 PM, Cinesnark wrote:

        >

    2. I am totally with you on wanting to see the beginnings of the lullaby protocol. Why was she chosen? It belies a little sexism for Natasha to automatically be given a seemingly maternal role. Why not Clint, with whom it could have just as easily have taken a paternal turn that he obviously has in him, previously unbeknownst to his team? It could have been the beginning of the romance, building the trust that helped both of them to open up.

      That said, I really enjoyed that Banner was more oblivious to the come-on than Steve.

      1. Agent K

        Strangely from a story standpoint it probably would have made the most sense to have Tony able to talk him down at first. That was the big moment of the first Avengers, Hulk deciding to save Iron Man, with the background of Tony showing no fear of him and being Bruce’s friend. It would have been hilariously awkward too! Natasha doing it just felt like it needed a better set up.

      2. M.A.F.

        The first thing that came to mind as to why Nat was chosen goes back to the Avengers when both her and Banner fall and she sees him turn. That was the only thing I could think of.

  2. This is an amazing post. I’m still trying to full understand all the aspects of it but thinking back over all the movies you are spot on. She is always assimilating information from the surroundings and using it to her advantage. She is never the same and will always change because the situation she finds herself in is never the same. So even when she is acting on her own orders she will still keep changing as that is who she is. I did a much more lighthearted and general review of Ultron and would love for you to check it out and leave some feedback. https://slatethesilverscreen.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/marvels-avengers-age-of-cameos/

  3. nikki

    I really like Ultron although it was not without problems. It felt bloated and I felt like Joss was trying to do each Avenger justice which is pretty impossible in a 2 hour movie. There is just too many characters to deal with.

    That being said, I love the Natasha’s arc. Mainly because I feel like over the course of 4 movies she is trying to figure out who is she is, reconcile with her past, and decide what she wants. Her life and loyalty has been given to a series of figures but really none of her choosing. The Red Room and her country due to how they made and enslaved her, Clint and Fury received her loyalty for saving her and giving her a chance to use her skills for a perceived “good”. More recently Steve has earned her loyalty but I think that dynamic is much healthier than anything that preceded it and that is why the discussion of trust between them is such an important part of Winter Soldier.

    As to the sterilization scene. I read it in much the same way you did. She is not a monster because she cannot have children but that even the opportunity to give life(anything she could prioritize over her mission) was taken from her to make her a better killing machine. Her autonomy was stripped away much like Bruce’s. I do think that while it may not be entirely deliberate, in having them equivocate Bruce’s view of being a monster to Natasha’s view of herself as one that Joss is touching on some more traditional views of the feminine. I say this because in literature women who are barren are seen as being tougher/less compassionate, such as Lady Macbeth. But overall, I think Joss’ larger point, was that the Red Room process transformed her from a person to an instrument and she has basically spent the last 4 movies trying to figure out how to be a human being.

    I really think we need a black widow movie.

    1. tribble

      Three of the Avengers directly compare themselves to monsters at some point in the movie. Captain America does it sarcastically as a way of rejecting that the Maximovs are monsters for allowing themselves to be enhanced. He clearly doesn’t think he’s a monster (mostly), so they aren’t automatically, either. Bruce knows that the Hulk is a monster, one that he created by his own actions, though unintentionally. He clearly hasn’t come to terms with the good and bad that he can do (and probably never will). Natasha falls somewhere in the middle. I agree that she doesn’t see her sterilization as the root of her monstrousness, rather as one more aspect of the process that made her a killer and only a killer.

  4. Kailz

    This post is amazing. I loved Age of Ultron. Was it perfect? No, but I rarely expect a movie to be perfect. I really enjoyed it as a whole and I really liked Natasha’s arc as it starts to show a side of her that we really haven’t seen before. It seems that everyone preaches character development yet when it doesn’t fit what they’ve built in their own little world, they cry foul. Everyone is so caught up in their ‘Clintasha’ ship crap, but like you mentioned in the comment above, Natasha feels indebted to Clint. I think that having them end up together would be more detrimental to her character than her potential relationship with Bruce Banner.

    From all the comments and complaints I’ve seen, I think its more than a safe bet that this will not end with AOU. I saw a post on tumblr the other day that had a list of what HAS to happen in Captain America: Civil War in order for the person to like it, followed by a list of what will make them hate the movie. Almost every single point in the first part of the list referred to Steve and Bucky being romantically involved, and every point in the second part of the list were things that are more than likely going to happen in the movie. Judging by the amount of notes the post had, I may have to quit the internet before Cap 3 is released.

  5. Lymis

    I think something is missing from this. Maybe I read far too much into it, but even as Natasha told the story and ended it with “who’s the monster,” I felt the subtext that she’s not only dealing with the victimization of having been trained and sterilized, but that she herself bought that line and threw herself into it – likely until Clint Barton did something to pull her out of it.

    That’s she’s dealing with feeling like a monster, not because someone sterilized her, but because, having been sterilized, she threw herself into her role as a killing machine and embraced that identity. Until someone threw her a lifeline of a way of seeing herself as a human again, which, all things considered, hasn’t been an easy or effortless identity for her to embrace.

    That she’s a monster, not because she is barren, but because she really did let being barren take away some of the harder questions and make her moral choices (or lack of them) far easier to just roll with.

    1. Yes, I think that’s the point. Being sterilized isn’t the endgame, it was just another step on the the road to the endgame, which was being a perfect killer. Which is why the “monster” comment isn’t about being barren, it’s about being a killer. I like the idea of it, but obviously it wasn’t articulated fully in the movie because everyone’s going crazy trying to parse it, myself included.

  6. Acklies

    I think my problem with the whole sterilization reveal is, why does the violation and loss of autonomy of the Red Room training need to have a physical manifestation? Why isn’t it enough for us to learn more about the mental trauma she was subjected to in order to become this monster, this perfect weapon – why does it have to be translated into a loss of bodily autonomy for us to be really affected by it? We can completely understand how Hawkeye’s experience in the first Avengers has affected him – why is it that with a female character, it ends up being translated into a bodily violation as well as a mental one, and such a loaded one at that?

    I mean, I don’t think Joss Whedon or anyone involved with this movie ever consciously thought, “Well, this is how we have to signify the loss of autonomy because she’s a woman, and this is the only way women TRULY experience that,” but I think it’s telling that that’s where it ended up going. How would it have been less effective to have Banner talk instead about the destruction he’s caused and the lives he’s ended (which is even set up by Thor’s comment early on!), and to have Natasha respond with something horrible from her past, that the Scarlet-Witch-induced-flashback reminded her of? It just ended up feeling…lazy, like this was the first place their minds went, and they just didn’t question at all what the implications might be, for the character and for the impression it gave the audience.

  7. Reblogged this on Hitting Reset and commented:
    In light of recent controversy surrounding Black Widow’s character, here’s a really good and in-depth analysis of the character. I have to admit that I initially jumped on the “This is so poorly written and out of character of the Widow” but after much thought – it has been a week since I saw the movie – I think what this blogger says holds water.

    On a side note, I’m almost done with school so my analysis of this semester will be coming soon!

  8. Very well written and good in-depth analysis. Definitely made me think and not something I had previously considered. Now that I have, I think it brings to mind the Marvel Now! Black Widow comic that is ongoing right now. Natasha in that series is very bent on wiping the red on her ledger and her motivations and loyalties lie there. It brings to mind what you said in one of the later paragraphs.

    I like your analysis and it has changed my mind about what I initially thought of her characterization in the movie. We do have to admit though, the fact that the movie had so many characters meant that Black Widow’s story wasn’t fully fleshed out and many people ended up misunderstanding the character.

    1. That’s the big issue–Whedon tried to cram an entire movie’s worth of development into less than 20 minutes of non-action screen time.

      1. And he tried to do that with all the characters too. I don’t envy his job too because he had an enormous task of not only bringing a good plot with a strong villain but also to add to the existing characters’ backstories. So in the end, he tries to bring depth to the characters when there’s just too much going on.

  9. M.A.F.

    Once again, seeing this character on screen is making me wish Marvel (and Disney) will pull their head out of their ass, and make a Black Widow movie.

  10. granello

    Well, here’s a comment made two months after the fact! I appreciate the careful analysis of who “Natalie” was, and Natasha’s choice to fight. I think people tend to dismiss her Iron Man 2 appearance very easily, when you learn so much about her from the performance she put on and the contrast between that and her “real” self.

    But I have a bone to pick with this essay; you say that what’s interesting about Black Widow is her invulnerability. I’d disagree, and I would say the movies have made a deliberate effort to show the opposite. Vulnerability is a huge part of her character – she hangs around with these men who are larger than life, with gods and with marvels of science, but she’s human. She gets hurt and she has limits. And not only does she have emotional vulnerability, but she actually uses it as a weapon in her arsenal. Her character-defining scene to this day is her interrogation of Loki, a moment where she turned her vulnerabilities into a performance she delivered.

    She’s interesting because she is not only vulnerable, but she wears her vulnerabilities on her sleeve. She leaks her precious secrets out for the world to see, she makes no secret of her desires, she forges her own path after so many years having it set for her.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s