Marvel fans have clamored for a Black Widow movie from the moment Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson, 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 responded every time he was asked about it.
I also spent the lengthened pre-release period for black widow shaking my head about how much more enthusiastic this movie would have been if marvel had released it in 2013 or 2014, right after the avengers. ‘ billion dollar hit. before we started talking about mcu fatigue. before the character’s death at the end of the game. Before that time, Johansson became a Twitter meme for saying that he should be allowed to play a tree.
but now that i’ve seen it, i can’t help but think that black widow really couldn’t have come out until now (or, at least, until spring 2020). the reasons why remain a terrifyingly clear own goal for marvel.
don’t forget that superheroines used to be complicated
We live in a blossoming of female-led action blockbusters, especially in the realm of comics. We have not one but two Wonder Woman movies, a Captain Marvel sequel on the way, TV shows for Jessica Jones, Supergirl, Stargirl, Scarlet Witch and more soon. marvel, ironheart and she-hulk. We could have finally eclipsed that 1990s era when, in a single day of reruns, you could watch an episode of Xena, Star Trek: Voyager, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Cleopatra 2525.
is almost enough to make you forget how consistently, vocally flustered, top executives at warner bros. and Marvel were all about the idea of a female-led superhero movie for the entire 2010s. The looming shadow of Catwoman and Elektra was apparently dark enough to make the stampeding success of franchises like The Hunger Games and independent films. such as gravity or malefic were invisible.
In 2010, Warner Bros. announced that she 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 she never got off the ground (she doesn’t get credit for the 2021 film). In 2013, with no Wonder Woman movie in the offing, DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson called the character “complicated.” At the same time, Kevin Feige admitted that Marvel Studios had no plans to produce a solo film for a female superhero. Contrasting logic, the Jennifer Lawrence-directed Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the fifth-highest-grossing film of the year.
In 2014, Variety reported that a Black Widow movie was in development, but work on it had been delayed to focus on bringing Captain Marvel to screens for the first time in 2018. Months later, Captain Marvel was delayed. in turn so that marvel could focus on an ant-man sequel. In 2015, Patty Jenkins finally signed on for Wonder Woman, and when she swept the box office in 2017, Warner Bros. He was quick to renegotiate her initial contract, which did not include any language that would lock her or Gal Gadot in for a sequel. almost as if those involved assumed there would be no audience for one.
That year, Marvel began its first serious search for a director for a solo Black Widow movie. Captain Marvel hit theaters in 2019 and grossed over a billion dollars, and Hollywood’s fear of female superheroes seemed to subside. finally, it was the turn of the black widow.
but this is what happens with the black widow
The easiest way to get someone to take what you think is a big risk is to reduce the number of risks around you. imagine sculpting a superhero movie starring a woman in the most pleasing way possible for a nervous movie executive; a small jar of spandex-coated baby food.
Imagine a movie that sticks to a standard proven superhero origin story for sure: the hero gets powers, finds out how they work, gets a brightly colored costume, topples the brazenly evil baddie, saves the day with bravery and kindness . the lead actress is at a point in her career where she still doesn’t have the clout to choose the leading action roles she wants, and she doesn’t have the clout to get paid like that. Preferably, the story is set at least two decades in the past, so that any examples of sexism the main character faces won’t make modern men watching squirm. and the film overall will have the least complicated and most obvious message a Hollywood executive would think of for a female-led superhero movie: peace, with a side of girl power.
this is exactly what wonder woman and captain marvel look like. They’re two of the most superheroine superhero movies to exist since the earliest phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they’re full of girl power moments. This is not a bad thing, for Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel – both characters were designed from the start to shoulder the weight of being an outspoken feminist superhero, not just a superhero who happens to be a woman.
but black widow will never be a rosy girl power character – she raised her fist in a we can do it! curl, because no one should do what she has done. Instead of heroism and power fantasy, her character’s hook is atonement, hard-earned agency and unflappable competition. and she’s atoning for some objectively horrible things! murder, murder, and a series of [thinking face emoji] other actions for which she feels deep regret.
this is not a bad thing, for the black widow. It’s not her fault that she wasn’t confident enough to feed a Hollywood executive. it’s marvel’s fault, for deciding that the symbolic woman of the avengers would be a reformed supervillain.
red on a ledger
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, wasn’t right for the standard superhero origin arc that had built the cinematic universe. of marvel in itself. They weren’t thinking about the prospect of paying Scarlett Johansson a lead actress’s salary, rather than a supporting one. they weren’t thinking of using their most anticipated movie to introduce another superheroine, which would have widened the range of options for an established mcu superheroine to play out in her own franchise. they weren’t casting a character based on whether or not she was viable to star in a first female superhero movie.
Before Black Widow could move on, she needed Wonder Woman from 2017. Just four months after she hit screens, Marvel finally recruited a new writer for Black Widow. Wonder Woman had made female-led superhero movies seem viable, and within a year, Black Widow finally had a director. But Marvel still prioritized the unintroduced Captain Marvel over a character fans have known for nine years. his story was a standard, high-energy superhero origin story, and he fit the feminist-lite mold that hollywood is most comfortable with. Now, and only now, could Marvel fit a darkly funny, female-centric spy movie into its superhero universe.
It’s easy to imagine Marvel executives breathing a sigh of relief over Black Widow’s death in Avengers: Endgame. now they would have the perfect excuse not to have to negotiate with scarlett johansson, the highest paid actress in hollywood in 2018 and 2019, for a solo franchise, just the only solo movie already on the release schedule.
marvel never built black widow to be a franchise character. and thanks to that, she never will be.