Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in The Avengers
Photo: Marvel Studios

The Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t just changed the way people consume movie franchises. It’s also changed the way audiences engage with cinematic characters. Heroes introduced as the lead of their own film can go on to be tertiary characters in another and vice versa. And no character better embodies this new form of storytelling than Scarlett Johansson’s Russian-spy-turned-Avenger Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow. She’s the shared universe’s de facto female lead, appearing in more MCU films than any other female superhero. Yet she’s never actually starred in her own film, mostly because Marvel has never made a film with a solo female lead and won’t until 2019’s Captain Marvel, the 21st film in the franchise. (After years of pestering from fans, and a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle that seemed to steal her origin story, Marvel is on track to finally release a Black Widow solo film at some undetermined point in the future.) More so than any other character, Black Widow exists within a unique space in the MCU and a relatively unprecedented one in film history, too.

Black Widow was first introduced in 2010’s Iron Man 2, the third film in the MCU canon and the first to truly invest in the idea of a shared cinematic universe hinted at by the first Iron Man’s post-credits scene. She’s introduced as Natalie Rushman, a Stark Industries employee with surprisingly impressive martial arts skills who becomes the personal assistant to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), mostly because he finds her super hot. Only it turns out the joke’s on Tony because she’s actually an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent assigned to keep an eye on him. The reveal is fun, and Black Widow gets a memorable hallway fight in the film’s climax, but otherwise her intro is pretty standard femme fatale stuff. Although Johansson sells the material she’s given, she isn’t able to elevate it beyond its inherent limitations. Both before and after her identity is revealed, director Jon Favreau is far more interested in ogling Johansson than in treating Natasha as an actual character—something the film thinks it gets away with because of its rote “she’s actually tougher than the guys!” messaging. After Iron Man 2, Black Widow seemed destined to be as much a male gaze fantasy as a superhero in her own right.

And then came 2012’s The Avengers, which does more to rehabilitate the character than perhaps even seemed possible at the time. After an action- and exposition-heavy prologue, writer-director Joss Whedon centers the film’s first two real scenes on Black Widow. We’re reintroduced to Nat during a warehouse interrogation, which seems to present her as the victim, only to delightfully reveal she’s actually the one in control. Her skills are such that she can escape whenever she wants to, which she does when she finds out her friend and S.H.I.E.L.D. partner Clint Barton, a.k.a Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), has been compromised by the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Her boss, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), then sends her off to Calcutta to recruit a reclusive Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) for the Avengers Initiative, which she does despite being pretty clearly terrified that Bruce could turn into the Hulk at any moment.

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In just two scenes, Whedon immediately establishes the three things we need to know in order to connect with Nat as a character: her skill set, what she cares about, and what she fears. It’s screenwriting 101, but it’s remarkable how often superhero films skip over that kind of character-building, particularly when it comes to supporting female characters. And that’s the thing about Black Widow in The Avengers: She never feels like a supporting character. In many ways, she’s our entry point to the entire Avengers concept. And she gets the third most screen time in the film, just behind Iron Man and Captain America. According to Vulture, she also gets the most unbroken dialogue scenes of any of the film’s heroes, meaning the time we spend with her is more impactful. That includes arguably the best scene in the movie, the moment she out-tricks a literal trickster god by playing into his arrogant assumption that she’s just a weak and helpless woman.

In other words, Whedon takes every good impulse he ever had on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and successfully applies it to Black Widow in The Avengers. She’s both intelligent and tough (while all the other Avengers are tackling threats that match their abilities during the Battle Of New York, she’s the only one to “level up” and take on a bigger challenge), but most importantly she also feels like an actual human being. My favorite Black Widow moment in the entire MCU starts with Nat huddled in a corner, utterly traumatized after barely escaping the Hulk’s accidental rampage. Yet when the call comes through that Fury needs someone to take down the still-brainwashed Hawkeye, Nat steps up to answer it—not because she’s an infallible badass who’s unfazed by anything, but because she’s willing to power through her trauma in order to help her friend. That’s the sort of texture that separates a one-note “strong female character” from one that’s actually well-written.

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Given an actual character to play, rather than just a series of cool poses, Johansson more than rises to the challenge. She locks into her role with confidence in Avengers, giving Nat a wry world-weariness behind whatever personality she’s adopted to complete her given mission. Marvel chased this strong, prominent role for Black Widow with an even stronger, more prominent one in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely smartly recognize Natasha’s potential as a foil for Steve Rogers—they’re two government agents raised in very different circumstances and with very different moral compasses. And directors Joe and Anthony Russo take advantage of the natural chemistry between Johansson and Chris Evans, who had worked together on both 2004’s The Perfect Score and 2007’s The Nanny Diaries. Throughout the film, Black Widow’s connection with Captain America is charged but not romantic, which makes for a refreshing change of pace for a male/female pairing in a superhero film.

Winter Soldier provides a darker, more intellectual counterpoint to the whizzbang fun of Avengers, and that’s true for Black Widow’s characterization as well. She gets some cool action moments, but it’s the first film to really try to dig into the character’s psychology. And it does so by retconning her previous personality shifts into an active character trait. While on the run with Steve, Natasha shares her philosophy that the truth is just a matter of circumstance; it’s easier for her to change her personality to fit whatever situation she finds herself in. “That’s a tough way to live,” Steve notes. “It’s a good way not to die, though,” Natasha counters wistfully. Although she’s a supporting character in his film, Natasha gets an arc independent of Steve’s. She faces a moral crisis (it turns out the “good guys” she thought she was working for were as corrupt as the “bad guys” she defected from) and decides to embrace transparency rather than returning to a life of secrecy and subterfuge. Avengers gave Nat some much-needed emotional vulnerability, and Winter Soldier takes that idea and runs with it. Johansson is once again fantastic, selling Nat’s familial relationship with Nick Fury with virtually no dialogue.

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Unfortunately, Black Widow’s run of solid appearances was brought to a screeching halt by 2015’s Avengers: Age Of Ultronarguably the most divisive entry in the MCU and certainly the most controversial one for Black Widow. The criticism centered on Nat’s truly out-of-nowhere romantic relationship with Bruce Banner and on one particular scene in which she opens up about the horrific “graduation ceremony” at the end of her KGB training. “They sterilize you,” Natasha explains to Bruce while trying to find common ground with his self-flagellation. “It’s efficient. One less thing to worry about. The one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier. Even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”

It’s the line that launched a thousand think pieces, with debates about whether Nat referring to herself as a monster was in relation to her inability to have biological children or to her past as an assassin. And there were arguments on both sides about whether it even felt relevant for Nat to be discussing her reproductive capabilities at all. It’s a debate that will likely never be fully settled, but what’s most clear is that whatever Whedon was trying to do with Black Widow in the film, the execution didn’t work. If the first Avengers gave Whedon the chance to use all his good creative impulses from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it feels like he uses all of his bad ones in Age Of Ultron. Nat is in love with Bruce, not because that’s a natural choice for her character or even something that’s believably built up within the screenplay, but because Whedon loves the idea of women falling in love with men who have monsters hidden inside them. (Feel free to add your Freudian analysis here.)

Having only one or two female leads in a giant cinematic universe means they have to be all things to all people. Should female heroes have love interests? Should they want a family? Are they allowed to fail and be rescued, or does that make them damsels in distress? We don’t ask those questions of male heroes because there are so many of them that no single one bears the burden of representation in the way that Black Widow does for the MCU. Thankfully, however, that’s slowly starting to change. Black Panther is the perfect example of a film with so many female characters that no single one is expected to represent “womanhood” as a whole.

Returned to the creative control of Markus, McFeely, and the Russo brothers, Black Widow at least feels like herself again in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where she’s mercifully never asked to gushingly deliver the line “I adore you” to anyone. She’s underutilized in the crowded film, but the script makes some attempts to demonstrate the way she’s become more of a team player and a bit more of a diplomat following her experiences in Winter Solider and Ultron. More so than anyone else in the film, she’s equally invested in her relationships with both Tony and Steve, which makes her a crucial fulcrum in their titular civil war, at least briefly. It’s just a shame the film didn’t do more with the idea, something Infinity War will hopefully rectify.

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Assuming the trend of shared cinematic universes isn’t just a flash in the pan, we’ll likely have a lot more characters like Black Widow who are built up piecemeal by multiple creative forces. And that means new challenges for actors who have to figure out how to play a pseudo-lead without ever really being one. Johansson’s made it look easy over the past decade, but I suspect we aren’t giving her nearly enough credit for how much coherence she’s brought to the role. Uneven though it’s sometimes been, the evolution of Black Widow stands as one of the most compelling threads of the MCU.