"Love is for children, I owe him a debt."
This is the sequel to Black Widow for Beginners Part One, which went into the comic book history of the character through the early 2000s. Instead of continuing where that one left off, this card is going to examine the character's portrayal in the Marvel films. There will be spoilers, so if you're not up to date you should hurry and catch up before you read this card!
"Never take your eye off your opponent."
Though there were a few teasers leading up to The Avengers Initiative, this was Black Widow's first on-screen appearance. And considering she's undercover, she kind of gives herself away in the first five minutes. She unnerves Tony Stark, basically knocks out Happy, and seems too talented to be real. One thing that's interesting about this scene, she never takes her eye off her opponent. It just so happens that her 'opponent' is the man she's studying: Tony Stark.
When she enters, the audience knows who she is, even if Tony and Pepper don't (new fans might not know her name, but they have to suspect that she's *someone*). So even though we're not told outright, we learn subconsciously that Natasha is more than she seems. And we know who she's spying on.
"I'm very attached."
This is Natasha acting of course. While the audience has some idea that she's not what she seems, they're distracted by the assumed rivalry between 'Natalie' and Pepper. Though this scene was cut, it further illustrates this dynamic. My personal headcanon for this scene is that Natasha is studying Tony's armor in case he's no longer able to use it. Because it never hurts to be prepared.
This is a great scene, because we see Natasha playing a part. Unlike her entrance, which told us she's important, she totally blends in during the party scenes. She's doing her job so well that we barely notice she's doing it.
Then comes the big reveal. We see the camaraderie she's built with Fury (which is very important when we get to Winter Solder), and we also get to see who she really is for the first time. She's calm, competent, and totally unfazed by Tony's snark. In fact, she knows more about him than we did!
"The appearances of things are deceptive."
And we see how annoyed she really is with Tony Stark. Gone is the flirtatiousness we saw at the birthday party. He cavalier and reckless and she definitely doesn't appreciate that. This is such a great moment because it's a complete flip from how she acted around him before. She's not flirting with him to get information, she has everything she needs. And she is 100% done with his crap.
She doesn't recommend Tony for the Avengers initiative. She recommends the suit, but not the man inside it.
"Mr. Stark displays compulsive behavior." In my own defense, that was a week ago. "Prone to self-destructive tendencies." I was dying. I mean, please, aren't we all? "Textbook narcissism?" [looks at Fury askew, who returns the look] Agreed.
We all know he ends up on the team anyways, but this was setting the groundwork for the clashes the Avengers had at the beginning of the film. Which is really interesting when you take into account whose side Nat is on during civil war...
"Oh no honey."
Those should really be famous last words. This scene is amazing because the dynamic between Pepper and Natasha is really clear. Natasha is the brawn, she can beat anyone to a pulp to get the information she needs. Pepper on the other hand is there with the verbal shut-down, she takes command of the situation while Natasha goes to deal with it using her skills as an agent. They're both crucial: Pepper is making sure all the civilians get out safe, and Natasha is making sure the bad guys don't get to keep making trouble.
This sets up Natasha to be more than an ordinary person, she gets to be a hero, and she solves problems on that scale.
"I got 'em!"
Seeing her in action is one of the best parts of Iron Man 2. Her fighting style is really graceful and acrobatic without sacrificing brutality. Let's face it, some of those guys aren't ever getting up again. Her expression is stony, and her movements are precisely choreographed. It's not just setting up the joke with Happy at the end of the scene, it's also Black Widow's moment to prove herself. She's not just the secretary, just the spy, she's ruthless, and it's pretty darn lucky she's on our side.
Which brings me to...
What's her backstory?
Unlike the comics, which have a very rich (if occasionally befuddling) history, the Black Widow of the films is not as clearly defined by her past. There are hints about who she is and what she's done, but we've yet to hear the full story about her character.
What we do know comes from Agent Carter
In season one Peggy faced a threat from the Russian spy organization Leviathan, which was confirmed to be the precursor to the Red Room where Natasha would have been trained as a child. The scene above demonstrates the degree of conditioning (as well as the horror) she would have faced.
"You know what it's like to be unmade?"/"You know that I do."
There's a moment between Clint and Natasha in the first Avengers film that implies some of what we would later learn from Agent Carter. All of this alludes to her history in the early comics, being brainwashed by the KGB before joining The Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Let me put you on hold."
Now that we have the groundwork for the character, we can start to look at the ways she progressed through the films. This scene serves as a secondary introduction; it's thrilling for the people who saw Iron Man 2 and sets up her character for those who didn't. She seems like a damsel in distress, but nothing could be further from the truth. She makes use of the assumptions people make about her, and takes advantage of them because they think she's helpless.
"Thank you for your cooperation."
If you watch the second video on this card, you can see Natasha using the same ploy. She lets Loki think he's gotten to her, and uses his assumption of power to get the information she needs. Once more she takes advantage of the expectations people have of her to control the situation. People expect her to be in love, and to be made vulnerable by that love. Whether she is or she isn't in love is still up for debate. But even on a plane full of gods and super soldiers, she's the one with the power.
Clint or Bruce?
While the first Avengers film seemed to imply a romantic relationship between Natasha and Clint (one that was alluded to with the arrow necklace Natasha was wearing during Winter Soldier), Age of Ultron had a different romantic subplot for Natasha. She flirted with Bruce during the party scene, and tried to convince him to run away with her. Unlike the comics, which changed hands frequently, the same director was in charge of both 'Avengers' films, so the abrupt change is more than a little jarring. Fans found her behavior to be particularly out of character since her only major interactions with Bruce came from this scene:
And a fight scene where he injured her.
There was clearly some time in between the two films, but some fans were left confused by what felt like a rapid progression they didn't get to see. She pulls a gun on him the first time she meets him, she clearly doesn't trust him, and the feeling is mutual. Other fans felt disappointed in the scene because they were uncomfortable with the implications, posed by Natasha's character calling herself a monster because of her infertility.
I mean, it’s disgusting. Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of “wants boyfriend” and “wants babies” is 100% disgusting. But if you look around,all of this is disgusting, because all of the characters are exactly this vapid, because Whedon can’t get more than five or ten minutes to establish or complicate their motivations, because Marvel is mandating that he not waste screen time on things like the characters’ motivations when he could be shooting ads for their other movies, because Marvel doesn’t care about men, women, or anything except getting you to show up in a few years for the next installment of Avengers.
... which we'll have to watch if there's any hope of getting a satisfying conclusion to this arc.
"Who do you want me to be?"
This is a rare moment of truth. Natasha has decided to follow Steve. There's no strategic value to doing so, she hasn't been ordered to. She made the choice to follow him. And in this scene, she's contemplative and playful and is honest in a way that we rarely see. The moment she shared with Clint in the first Avengers movie is similar. She alludes to the life she's lived up to this point, not defensive, just explaining.
She asks: who do you want me to be? And in a way, that's the most important question she's ever asked. It's a question she's always known the answer two. She knew that Loki wanted her to be weakened by love. She knew that Clint wanted to be comforted, and later she'll know that Bruce wants someone he can relate to. But she doesn't know what Steve wants.
"Who do you want me to be?" She's asking the audience as well.
Perhaps this wasn't intentional, but Natasha has been serving the audience in the same way all characters do. She's an avatar for our dreams and expectations. In every other film, she embodies them. In Winter Soldier, she has dreams and expectations of her own.
"Would you trust me?"
This is another significant moment for her character. Natasha's life thus far has been characterized by distrust. When we first encountered her in the MCU, she was lying, and ensured that Stark would "trust her about as far as he could throw her". Her scene with Clint in the Avengers revealed that she was brainwashed, which would understandably have shattered not only her trust of others, but her ability to trust herself. In the extended version of the scene with Zola, we find out that while Steve is one of the Insight targets, Natasha isn't "because Hydra doesn't fear those they can buy".
And in this moment, she's completely shaken. She thought she was done being a villain when she left the KGB, but she's been telling lies for Hydra. Even though she's allied herself with Steve, Hydra still thinks that she'll switch sides in the end. She doesn't trust herself anymore, if she ever did. But Steve trusts her. She could have given up in this moment, and if she had, Hydra would have won. That's not why Steve does it. Like he says "he's always honest". He trusts her. It's that simple.
"You would have done the same thing."
"I know. That's the problem."
This is another deleted scene, but it expands on what we learned from Natasha's scene with Steve. Trust is a currency she's only now realizing is valuable. She's faked it, playing on people's expectations in order to manipulate them, but she's never received real trust. And while her character up to this point has accepted this, discovering that Hydra has been pulling the strings all along has changed her perspective. She no longer wants to pretend to be someone else. But she's been doing it for so long, she's not sure anymore who she is.
"I blew all my covers, I gotta find out a new one."
Natasha's most vivid character arc is in Winter Soldier. We learn very little about who she was, but we're beginning to learn about who she wants to be. Whether her actions in Age of Ultron were satisfying to you or not, the end of Winter Soldier marks an important moment for her character in the Cinematic Universe. She's living out in the open. She's revealed all of her secrets, and she's no longer hiding. All of this was her choice. Which means that everything that comes after this, for better or worse, is also her choice.
Civil War and beyond
Obviously this hasn't been released yet, but we know that Natasha will be siding with Tony. For all that she doesn't seem to like him very much, this choice could make a lot of sense. While cinematically it seems like her closest relationship is with Steve, she's siding against him in the war which will ultimately tear every hero in the Marvel universe apart. Why? Truth. The heart of Civil War is the Superhuman Registration Act. And while Steve is obviously opposed to it because he feels it is a violation of Civil Rights, he's not the one that dumped the combined secrets of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra on the internet.
For better or worse, Natasha is done with secrets.
Thanks for reading!
The next card in this series will be about Phil Noto and Nathan Edmonson's work on the character. That's right! Back to the comics. Many of those were written during the films, so you can see how they influenced each other.