Tuesday, 28 August 2012

In Praise of The Black Widow

So, "The Avengers" came out earlier this year, and everyone pretty much agrees it was infinitely better than it had any right to be. It should've been a massive train-wreck of egos and screentime squabbling, drowning in excessive backstory and garnished with overblown spectacle but, under the steady guidance of Joss Whedon, we were given a solidly structured slice of pure entertainment built on a foundation of character comedy and personal drama. And alien robot-snake monsters.

The film was, of course, full of larger than life characters jostling for their moment in the spotlight, but Whedon managed to make it feel like nobody got short-changed, everybody got funny lines and everyone got to boot some alien balls.

The biggest surprise, however, was the character that stood out the most for me. It wasn't RDJ as Tony Stark, who is usually the best thing in whatever he's in, Chris Evans reprising his endearingly earnest boyscout, Chris Hemsworth's grandiose hammer-thrower, Jeremy Renner as a mind-fucked bow-boy, or even Mark Ruffalo's brilliant inaugural performance as a benignly twitchy Bruce Banner. No, the character and performance that stayed with me was the lone lady wading through the testosterone. Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff. The Black Widow.

Scarlett has fluctuated between brilliant and bland throughout her career, delivering performances of intimate nuance such as in "Lost in Translation", or wooden detachment such as in "Iron Man 2".

It was this initial performance as Romanoff that set me up for the surprise of the avengers. In "Iron Man 2", Johansson has nothing to do other than to look hot enough to catch Tony Stark's eye, stand around while RDJ and Sam Jackson discuss the plot, take her clothes off in the back of the Director's car and open an (admittedly impressive) can of whoopass in one scene towards the end.

She has no motivation or personality beyond "she works for SHIELD", and even occasionally seems awkward and uncomfortable in the eye-catching costume. It's as if Favreau didn't know what to do with her, so Johansson didn't know what to do with herself.

From her first scene in "The Avengers", a change is apparent. Tied to a chair by three thugs, she exudes confidence whilst dominating her captors verbally, mentally and then physically. This is a woman in control.

Whedon has given the character an air of professionalism and skill, while Johansson injects a swagger and spirit that was entirely missing from "Iron Man 2". It's as if Romanov was replaced by a robot the first time we met her, and only now are we seeing the real deal.

For many, the major concern with blockbuster movies is a favouring of spectacle over drama, effects over emotion. Whedon works the balance very well, but the emotional heart of the film is arguably the relationship between Romanoff and Renner's Clint Barton. Complex and seemingly platonic rather than romantic - more akin to a mentor/student relationship than an inferred desire - it's an important and distinctive human connection amongst all the superheroics. It's also worth noting that she sorts Barton's erratic behaviour out by bashing him in the head. Girl power.

One of the best acted scenes in the film is the exchange between Romanoff and the villainous Loki, where he comes over all Hannibal Lecter, sneering and leering at her through the glass of his prison. Tom Hiddleston as Loki goes from comic book bad guy to glowering sexual predator in this scene, becoming an altogether more personal and frightening prospect than we have seen him be before. He rains threats and sexually charged cuss-words (mewling quim! What? He's from the olden times) on her until she busts out crying. Little does he know that she is merely playing on his (and Whedon on our) expectations of the weak-willed damsel in distress. This is a trick Whedon has been pulling since the first scene of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it still works because we remain unaccustomed to the so-called "strong woman" in popular culture.

As strong as this woman may be, however, a woman she remains. Check out the touch of femininity when she picks up her heels and walks barefoot from the scene of a shitkick. And the "most human moment" in the film (read this) comes when Romanoff meets the Hulk. After a valiant effort to talk Banner down from his rage, she's smart enough to know she's out of her league and it's time to cut and run. She's just a woman. A person, and she gets decked by the fucking Hulk. Thor has to come and save her leather-clad ass and we see her as a true damsel in distress for the first time. It doesn't last.

She's obviously a little shaken, and there's that beautiful moment where she's hiding and crying, before she mans up and runs off to carry on kicking ass. A true hero isn't the guy in the impenetrable armour, or the demi-god or the super-soldier, it's the hurt, scared girl who gets up and gets back in the fight anyway.

So Natasha Romanoff joins the pantheon of Joss Whedon's strong women, taking her place alongside Buffy, Willow, Faith, Cordelia, Fred, Inara, Zoe, River, Kaylee and the chicks from "Dollhouse". I haven't got round to watching that.

Before I saw "The Avengers", Romanov was just the one who showed her arse on the posters, now I want to see where her character goes within "The Avengers" movies, but I also wouldn't begrudge a solo outing for the red-headed wonder-spy. Not bad for a character I described as "window dressing" in my "Iron Man 2" review.

1 comment:

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