Here is the required post about the Avengers film, that Loki interrogation sequence, and themes of weakness, expectation, and vulnerability. When I say required, I mean everybody else is doing it, but that I will soldier on bravely, just like every other person on the internet in love with their own opinion.
So, Natasha’s most constant recurring themes are themes of control. Comic books are vast and largely un-sum-up-able, but every character has central metaphors that shine through multiple arcs and adaptations, and I think questions of control, questions of agency, are a huge part of her equation. Duane Swierczynski is the current writer on the DC series Birds of Prey, but he also did a run on Black Widow, and this is something he had to say about it:
From the very beginning, she had no say in her own destiny, which is a very noir, very dark kind of outlook on life. And yet, she fought back from that and has now taken her own life in her own hands again. I guess I respond to those kinds of characters. Characters that seem screwed, who are also talented but are put in a difficult position and who fight their way out of it. That’s what appeals to me about her. Despite the convoluted, difficult life, she’s come out on top. And now her mission, the way I see it, is that she wants to free other people from being controlled and used. That’s her thing, I believe, and why she is equally super hero as she is a spy.
Natasha is someone whose specific skillset was forced upon her, something beyond her immediate control, but it’s also the only means she has to take her own life back.
In some ways weakness is a lack of control. Victims don’t act, they’re acted upon. And sometimes that’s how Natasha’s story operates— but not always. Spies are fundamentally agents of something other than themselves. They have missions they are assigned to, but do not decide. On the flipside of all this is freedom. A life without protocol. Natasha’s second wave feminism came when four color comics embraced women’s liberation, the ability to know her own mind, to be her own woman. And love, with its tragic and intoxicating complications, is something no one can control, hence her ~web of romance~.
These themes explain her origin(s), her genre, and her modus operandi. Why she’s a spy, why she’s a superhero, why she has to be paranoid but can’t lose herself in her paranoia. Information is control, intelligence is control, weapons are control, appearance is control, and she needs all of this to stay alive, but she needs more if the good parts of her are to survive.
I’m explaining this because to me these are the things the Avengers film is trying to adapt, and they are things that encompass gender but aren’t limited to gender. There’s allegory there, the language of superheroes is a language of symbols, but these are flexile metaphors that gain their iconic power through their adaptability. Legends grow in their reiterations, they take on new meanings as they are retold, but they don’t lose their old connotations either. This is basically why comic books are weird and unapproachable.
No one looks below the surface, not here. You fit the mold of what they expect in a place like this, and that’s all that matters to them. It’s all about calculating how willfully blind a person is going to be. And then exploiting that.
Anyway, one of the basic premises of the espionage is that things aren’t what they seem, cue spooky music. (“Fallaces sunt rerum species.”) The battle of wits, the trick of seeing past appearances, that is just as important as the guns and the kung fu car explosions. So of course Natasha is introduced as tied up and dangling over Certain Peril. There’s a Polish actor pretending to be Russian, and he’s got the girl right where he wants her— but by assuming he has control, he loses it.
Whedon’s inviting a game of expectations, staging the damsel-in-distress interrogation like the action movie cliche it is. We’re invited to assume that Natasha is bound and helpless and will need some sort of SHIELD jetpack intervention. If we’re savvy moviegoers or have seen the previews, then yeah, we know there’s more going on, insert smugface emoticon here.
But it’s not a coincidence that Natasha literally flips around the chair she’s tied to, breaks it, and starts whacking some generic goon ass with it. The instruments of her capture have become the instruments of her freedom. Nor is it coincidental that the scene is framed by Natasha blinking in heavy makeup, by her picking her stilettos off the ground. When stock evil Russian dude needs to cement his own superiority, he does it by dismissing her as just another pretty face.
See, society has this myth it likes to tell about pretty women, and it says they tend to be skin-deep. And the twist in that myth is that it says more about society’s obsession with appearances than it does about pretty women. The introduction beatdown sequence is the most deliberately sexualized Natasha is in the entire movie, but it’s to play with a purpose. We see her through the eyes of dismissive generic goons so we can make their mistakes. The male gaze gazes here so that she can look back.
This sequence foreshadows a similar interrogation tango with Loki in his big plastic hamster wheel. The warehouse goon-off was about Natasha’s physical control, the perception of bodily weakness. She has no hope of wacking Loki on the head with a chair. But Loki takes the past he’s stolen from Clint Barton’s head and tries to fashion it into a poking pole. He wants to unmake her mental control, and he thinks he can, because he’s Patron Saint of Trolling.
It’s not that the wounds he’s striking at aren’t real— it’s that he doesn’t control them. Natasha does. That’s why she wins.
The visual language of this scene is pretty far removed from the dingy warehouse. There’s no action, no close up on her heels. At the climactic moment we see just her shoulders, the back of her head. But she’s still in control.
I think this explains why she’s afraid of the Hulk, not because he’s the brusing male id run amok to wreck sexual violence, but because he’s a metaphor for unchecked emotion. Natasha’s power comes from her intense self-discipline, her experience, her training, and her needlepoint control. The Hulk is her diametric opposite. He’s also big and green and smashes things. Of course she’d be terrified, of course she’d be rattled. She’s been unmade, before— and that is a situation she can’t control.
She tries, though. She waves the other SHIELD agents away, she speaks to Bruce as calm as she can manage, doesn’t lash out. And when it’s over, and she survives, she strings herself back together and saves Hawkeye. She uses her self-possession to give him back his.
That moment of vulnerability establishes the stakes at play, and establishes the sort of personal badassitude it takes for her to storm into flying centipede battle armed with nothing her training prepared her for. This is outside her protocol. Note that she doesn’t defeat the alien army by batting her eyelashes or trying to sweet talk them, but by hitching a ride, closing the portal, and controlling the battlefield.
I’ve seen it said that Natasha was the only human one, the only one allowed that moment of vulnerability, but that is high-stacked lies. This is a movie that features Tony Stark freefalling through the cosmos, Christ-like, where Bruce Banner casually admits to having attempted suicide. Clint spends most of the movie brainwashed, Steve is unsure of his place in a post-Truman Doctrine world. Everyone’s emotional insecurities are plucked by Loki and his magical glowy mind staff.
Lack of options, Phil. It’s what most women are up against. If you want to succeed, you’ve got two choices… pole dancer or hard-faced harridan. It is Madonna or whore. It’s just the Madonna got promoted— on the condition that she’s twice as tough and twice as smart as any man she’s dealing with. Anything less, and they’ll rip her to shreds.
But Natasha is the only one who mines her own vulnerability. She’s the only one who makes it into a performance. And there’s something radical in acknowledging that feminine vulnerability as a performative, as something fake we are taught to expect and to mimic. That can be our superpower. We can be strong in ways men never will be because we face bullshit they will never have to face. That’s not justice, but it is power. It is strength. It’s control.
That’s not everything Natasha does in this film, it’s not the only space her story inhabits. She deadpans in the face of danger, she worries for her partner, she’s driven by the murky corners of her past, the balance of her cosmic equation. And because we get more than manipulation and reversals those reversals become more powerful. The idea that there’s more to Natasha than her pretty face only really sticks if the story treats her that way.
That doesn’t mean the Avengers film is some kind of feminist utopia, that whatever Natasha’s metaphors are, they couldn’t be made more vibrant by including more large female roles. The Avengers are overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male, and the characters who aren’t will be cowled by their status as the exception until the day that they aren’t.
But I’ve seen people straight-faced argue that Natasha is presented as a stripper because she swings on a pole during a fight scene. I’ve read a whole lot that assumes her storyline purpose is her cleavage. I’ve rolled my eyes at feminist-presenting concerns about Women Who Wear Tight Clothing in Our Superhero Films (and Why it is Bad They are There.) You see, society has this myth it likes to tell about pretty women.
I’m not calling this a victory. I am calling Black Widow character, and not an assemblage of physical traits. I am trying to look at the things lurking beneath appearances. I am using my own eyes, my own mind. I’m in control.