By Ndtiger 1 Comments
There has been a whole lot of hoopla about the new Avengers movie, and for a pretty good reason: while it lacks the cerebral triumph contained within Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, it excels past both movies in its sheer entertainment value. On top of all of that, it holds a strong cast, which against all odds managed to receive equal screen time and achieve shared time in the spotlight. In fact, after reading several reviews from major news reports, the critics—though mostly raving about the movie—were constantly torn about who demanded the most attention onscreen. While none of the cast received much flack, the kudos was distributed equally between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The argument jumps back and forth between the best lines (most of which go to Downey), the coolest action (which arguably can be attributed to the Hulk smashing quite a large number of things), and the most powerful scenes, most of which unarguably go to the Widow. The other drama in the movie, while never outright ridiculous, just does not hold the same level of impact as anything the red-haired maiden does. She commands the attention of the movie every time she steps onto the screen, whether she is barely surviving an encounter with the Hulk, playing with Loki to make him reveal his plans while her own emotions are being challenged, or simply talking to her old friend about the “red in her ledger.” Thor’s familial squabbles and Iron Man’s discomfort with losing a friend just cannot pack the same punch as Natasha Romanoff’s empowered woman among men.
And there’s a reason for that: as an audience, we are so unused to seeing such a strong female character that she becomes a marvel to us, and when it is executed properly the empowered female overwhelms the superman in crowd appeal. Everyone loves an underdog, and historically women have always been the underdogs in pop culture, dominated by the patriarchy of entertainment into near obscurity.
Don’t believe it? Let’s look just at this genre. Quick, name a strong female comic book character. It’s hard to do, isn’t it? They are few and far between; more than holding their own, they tend to fill in the gaps. The question gets even harder when you ask someone who doesn’t read comics. While strong female characters are underrepresented in comics, what manages to bleed into the mainstream is shockingly estrogen-free.
A few of you probably said Wonder Woman, straight off the bat, and that’s a fair answer. I’ll even throw you a bone and give you a few extra answers (though I know you’re so clever, you probably got these all by your lonesome): Catwoman, the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman, and the X-Men’s Jean Grey and Storm all have “strong, confident woman,” tattooed onto their foreheads. All of you who named these lovely ladies should be proud of yourselves; if we were going off of the comics, you’d be pretty correct. But not everyone reads comic books, and their success within the pages begs the question: why can’t they get a decent movie made about them?
Wonder Woman, ignoring her BDSM laden origin (seriously, what did you think the lasso was for?), is probably the best candidate for her own tale, but no one seems to be able to do the job right. A short while ago, Joss Whedon himself was attached to develop a Wonder Woman movie, but those plans fell through, leading to a TV pilot that also fell through. All in all, with the exception of her TV show from some time ago, Wonder Woman hasn’t had a powerful presence in mainstream media. That’s not to say that people don’t know who she is; she is one of DC’s holy trinity, the fierce woman that can stand beside Batman and Superman. But can she really stand by them? Both Batman and Superman have had extended franchises devoted to them. Batman had his old TV series, Tim Burton’s movies (and later sequels culminating in Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, one of the worst films in history), and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, still arguably the best superhero movies ever made. Superman had numerous television series, the old Christopher Reeve movies that most comic book nerds grew up on, and the more recent Smallville (love it or hate it) and Superman Returns (also love it or hate it). What has Wonder Woman gotten? A few half-assed attempts at adapting her, one television series from the 70s, and some supporting roles in animated films and series about the Justice League. She doesn’t even get a cool nickname. Say “The Caped Crusader,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Man of Tomorrow,” or “The Last Son of Krypton,” and at least some people are bound to know what you’re talking about. Hell, forget that: call them “Bats” and “Supes” and they still have more of a nickname than Wonder Woman. Culturally, her impact does not even stack up to her male competitors (because being a certain gender is to pick a side in a war, obviously).
Nicknames aside, look at the rest of the women on the list. Each of them only have a couple pop culture outings under their belts, even if you include the animated series for the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and of their appearances, most of them are bad bridging on disgusting; Halle Berry’s Catwoman was garbage that doesn’t even merit watching to laugh at, Fantastic Four is not aging well (those effects weren’t revolutionary to begin with, and Jessica Alba could use a few more acting lessons) and its sequel was never good in the first place, and while X-Men and X2 are fairly good movies, they are almost overshadowed by the awfulness that is X-Men: The Last Stand. Plus, even if critical opinion is ignored, these characters still do not have nearly the same level of exposure as Wolverine (who has appeared in every movie in the X-Men series, even briefly in the kind-of, sort-of prequel X-Men: First Class), Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, etc.
Women have been criminally ignored or downright abused in both the comic book and the mainstream pop culture worlds. Jean Grey is always dead or evil (along with most of the rest of the Marvel Universe’s strong women), Sue Storm is barely a main character in her own series, and Catwoman has become more of a sexual icon than a fully fleshed out individual. Marvel no longer has any ongoing series starring a woman, and four and/or five (Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Birds of Prey’s all female team) is far outnumbered. In the mainstream, most female characters in action movies are forced to resort to tropes and are flattened to fit into the 2.5 hour runtime. Even in the critical darlings this happens: Spider-Man’s Mary Jane Watson lacks any significant depth, X-Men’s Jean Grey never has a moment deeper than “will they or won’t they” with Wolverine, and Rachel Dawes of The Dark Knight exists, in common pop culture form, only to be saved (or, eventually, not saved).
Enter Black Widow.
Now, I specifically did not mention Natasha Romanoff in all of her leathery jumpsuited goodness because previous to Whedon’s The Avengers most peopled did not even know that she existed. Kick-ass presence in the movie aside, she has even less exposure than Catwoman (and that movie should count for negative points). But Whedon has always excelled at giving his female characters depth and style to spare, and Widow comes off as the powerful woman that the industry needs. This isn’t to say that she is a strong, independent woman; not many of Whedon’s characters really are. A long discussion could be written about how Whedon equalizes rather than empowers (that is to say, the men are just as dependent on the women as the women are on the men), but that is not really the point. The point is that when Scarlett Johansson came on screen, she did something that none of the other female heroes up to this point have been able to do: she commanded just as much attention as—if not more than—the men. And she did it without having to show her cleavage.
The entertainment industry, riddled with feminists and those pesky liberal conspirators as it is, has been screaming for more female representation. Make no mistake, this is a small victory—Natasha Romanoff is one of three named female characters in the film, and none of them speak to each other—but it is a success nonetheless. This might not be the best representation available (one might hope for some sort of equality, I guess), but as far as strong women go the Black Widow is the top of the bunch. She avoids the romantic interest trope by being more prominent in the film than her potential romantic partner, and that zipper is kept far higher on her body than even her comic book character usually allows. She is neither femme fatale nor girl-next-door, transcending the tropes to become something it is difficult to put a label on.
So, basically, what the world needs is more of her.
Now there are other potentially more interesting characters that deserve their time in the sun. Ms. Marvel (soon to be Captain Marvel in what will be the publisher’s only ongoing female title come July) and Zatanna would both make spectacular films if handled correctly, and an argument could be made for Wonder Woman getting that movie or TV series to work out. But through Joss Whedon and Zak Penn’s script (along with, of course, Scarlet Johansson’s acting work) the potential to bridge into something much bigger already exists. Within Marvel’s newly created cinematic universe, the Black Widow could thrive, maybe reaching the level of fame found by current cultural darlings Batman, Superman, Iron Man, and Spider-Man. It may sound like a snowball effect, but all it takes is that one big effort (before 2008’s Iron Man, who in the public even knew who he was?) to get the ball rolling.
Just to help her along, I’ll be referring to Black Widow as B-Dubs from now on. I like to think I’m making a difference.