The Avengers (2012) – The 6th Marvel Cinematic Universe Film – Directed by Joss Whedon – Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Alexis Denisof, Stan Lee, Powers Boothe, Lou Ferrigno, and Harry Dean Stanton.
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Welcome to the third character-specific reaction to Joss Whedon’s THE AVENGERS. I’ve already written a 4,200+ word review of the film, but that wasn’t nearly enough to cover everything I wanted to talk about, so I’m going to write character-specific reactions to delve a bit deeper into the film. You can find all of the relevant AVENGERS links at the bottom of this post.
Let me be clear about what’s coming: SPOILERS. Lots and lots of SPOILERS. Read ahead only if you’re cool with that. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want things ruined, come on back when you do.
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“Doctor, we need you to come in.”
“What if I say No?”
“I’ll persuade you.”
Going into THE AVENGERS, there was no character I was more interested in seeing play out than Black Widow. It’s not because Natasha Romanoff is one of my all-time favorite characters (though I like her quite a bit) and it’s not because I wanted to ogle Scarlett Johansson for 2 1/2 hours (though I like her quite a bit), but because I wasn’t sure if the combination of Joss Whedon and Scarlett Johansson and the Black Widow was going to work.
Whedon’s strength in writing female characters is widely recognized at this point, but Johansson doesn’t seem like a natural fit for his words. In a sense, she reminds me of Sarah Michelle Gellar back in the early days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she didn’t quite mesh with Whedon’s dialogue. That worked for the show because Buffy was supposed to feel isolated from her classmates, but I wasn’t sure if that same vibe would work in AVENGERS, or if Widow would end up being a weak link, or really what would happen at all. Whedon likes writing women and there’s only one woman on the team, so I thought Widow might get used quite a bit, but there are only two Avengers who haven’t had their own movie and she’s one of them, so I thought she might not get used a whole lot.
I’m also not totally sure about Scarlett Johansson as an actress. At times, she’s quite good and at others, not so much. Perhaps this makes her just like a lot of other actors, but my reaction seems to swing wider with her than it does others.
In all kinds of ways, then, both Ms. Johansson and the Black Widow were real wildcards for me going into AVENGERS, and I’m happy to say that I think Whedon got a whole hell of a lot out of the actor and the character, and instead of Widow feeling like a character on the periphery of the movie, she was intrinsic to its success in small but important ways. While no one actor carries the film, a large chunk of the weight in the film’s first half falls on Johansson’s shoulders, and she delivers with aplomb.
While Loki is busy taking control of Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) mind and stealing the Tesseract, Widow is all tied up in a Russian warehouse and getting interrogated by some Russian baddies. We can see right in her first appearance how Whedon builds his conception of Widow around making Johansson the stable center of action and having her signature moments largely determined by misdirection. Take her interrogation scene. The Russians are all, “We caught you. We’re smarter than you. You’re dumb,” and all Johansson really has to do is sit there. When one of the Russian’s phones goes off and it’s for Widow, we hear the voice of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) on the other end of the line, telling the Russians to put Widow on the phone or else he’s going to level the building their in with the fighter jets he has circling the city. In that phone call, Whedon has brought in fan-favorite Agent Coulson to amplify the scene and be the no-nonsense tough guy. Johansson doesn’t have to try and pull off being bad-ass; she can just be herself and let the context of the scene prove her bad-ass-ness.
I don’t mean to imply that Johansson is a terrible actress because she’s not terrible at all, but I do want to point out that this scene works around Widow rather than because of her. Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn (though it’s apparently more of a case of Whedon rewriting Penn’s initial script instead of them being partners) create a scenario where Widow is physically restrained (by the Russians) and verbally restrained (by herself). Then Coulson calls and the scene starts to gather energy. He tells her she has to come in but she doesn’t want to because, “these idiots are telling me everything.” Whedon has flipped the meaning of the scene from the Russians being in control to Tasha being in control, and she doesn’t even have to get out of her bonds or her chair to do it.
It’s a really smart bit of writing and, again, I know this sounds like I’m bagging on Johansson, but I’m not. When a writer and/or director uses his actors strengths and stays away from their weaknesses, that’s a good thing. That’s a smart thing. That’s the way a collaborative effort like film making should work.
Once Coulson tells Widow that “Barton has been compromised,” however, Tasha instantly changes her mind about coming in. We get an impressive action sequence where she attacks the Russians while still strapped to her chair, and Coulson tells her before she comes back that she needs to pick up “the big guy.”
“No, the Big Guy.”
Gulp. The Hulk.
Widow would rather go rescue Hawkeye, and Whedon does a good job not turning this clear concern and care for her associate into melodrama. He doesn’t need to oversell or even explicitly state what Hawkeye means to Widow because her concern is obvious. Chameleon-like that Tasha is in AVENGERS, her concern for Barton never comes across as anything but honest, and Whedon and Johansson do an excellent job at employing a little bit of emotion to carry a lot of weight.
Widow goes to India to recruit Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to come in and work for SHIELD. Instead of confronting Banner directly, Tasha uses a young girl to go to Banner and lie to him about her father being really sick in order to get him to come to her. It works, and it makes Widow seem like a cooler character because of this manipulation, even though she plays no visible, onscreen role in this subterfuge. Just think for a moment on the brilliance of that move; without even appearing on screen, Whedon has made Widow a much more impressive character, so when she steps out of the shadows in this shack on the edge of the city looking all super cool, she gets the benefit of all the work that little girl just performed.
Tasha ends up convincing Banner to come to work for SHIELD, but not before pulling a hidden gun on him when he yells at her. Up until Banner’s outburst, Widow is completely in control of the situation, but when she fears that he’s going to let the Hulk out, she’s visibly frightened. It’s an effective move on Whedon’s part, as she goes from being total bad ass in one scene to worried for her life in the next, and just as Whedon used the little girl to make Tasha look better, he now uses Tasha to make the Hulk look better.
One of the negative responses to AVENGERS that has driven me bonkers is this idea that there’s not a lot going on in the script. That’s preposterous. There’s a whole lot going on in this script; Whedon might not dwell on character moments, but he gets the absolute most out of all of them that are here. AVENGERS is a much more psychologically complex script than its being given credit for, although perhaps that’s because it is just so darn fun.
Once the team (minus Clint) is assembled in the Helicarrier they get down to business. Widow has a few key moments here. The first is that she doesn’t let go of Hawkeye’s situation. She’s always checking a monitor or making a comment about him, and her concern for Clint is a really great character bit; you can tell Widow doesn’t like to let her emotions out, but you can also tell she can’t help herself. It’s really good acting from Johansson.
The second key moment is that she has a really great verbal sparring session with Loki. Like the scene in Russia, Whedon takes a bait-and-switch approach. Loki is all over her about the “red in her ledger,” which speaks to very bad things she did while still working in Russia. The God of Lies is interested in delving into her relationship with Hawkeye, but she’s hesitant and he doesn’t push at it too hard. What he does is combine all of the bad things to really tear into her; Loki isn’t interested in gossiping about her past, he’s just looking to plant doubt in her mind because sowing conflict is kinda his thing.
His dickishness works, as tears well in her eyes and she has to walk away, putting her back to him. It’s then that Loki makes Super Villain Mistake #7, which is to monologue too much. As soon as he gives up a bit too much info, Tasha turns around and we can see that she’s not crying at all.
She’s been playing him, using her real emotions to fuel her espionage tactics, acting soft in order to make him feel overly confident so that he gives up something he shouldn’t.
Widow figures out that Loki is here to get the Hulk to come out and play, and much to Tasha’s horror, Banner can’t stop the Hulk from doing just that when she’s trapped with him. Hawkeye’s assault on the Helicarrier begins to happen. With her leg caught under some fallen pipes, Tasha waves two SHIELD agents away, knowing Banner is about to go green. She tries to talk Bruce down, but it doesn’t work and the Hulk emerges, ready to knock the hell out of anyone and everything. What I love about this sequence (besides seeing the Hulk go off inside the Helicarrier) is just how afraid Widow is of the Hulk. We’ve seen her be cool in the face of danger, but this is another level of threat entirely and she can’t help but be unnerved by the Hulk’s power.
After her encounter with the Hulk, Tasha has a solid hand-to-hand throwdown with the brainwashed Hawkeye and punches him hard enough that Loki loses his mental hold on him. (Sadly, we don’t get a scene where someone goes around punching all of the other brainwashed SHIELD agents to free them, too.) Clint and Tasha get a really nice, if brief, private scene together where she tells him, “We weren’t trained for this,” and he admits to her that it bothers him that his actions (albeit while brainwashed) have caused the deaths of SHIELD agents. She tells him not to go down that road and, again, we don’t need to know any details about their past because the pain is evident and the implication, while general, is clear. Before their conversation can go too far sown History Road, Captain America (Chris Evans) arrives and tells Widow to suit up because they’re heading out. Clint wants in, too, and there’s a really awesome moment where Steve looks to Widow, who simply nods. That’s all Cap needs to let Hawkeye in on the mission.
I know it’s a small moment. I know. But it’s so damn good, and speaks so much to who the Avengers are (or, who they will eventually become) that we’ve got a guy Cap doesn’t know, who’s been brainwashed by Loki, who just led and assault on the Helicarrier, who commanded troops that were trying to kill Cap and everyone else, and all it takes for Cap to be cool with Hawkeye joining the mission is a nod from a former Russian spy.
Fury knows the team need a push, needs a reason to coalesce as a unit, and he manipulates Agent Coulson’s death (or, “death,” as I’m now convinced is the proper way to think about it) to achieve it, but this small scene between Cap, Hawkeye, and Black Widow already proves the team is on their way.
Definitely one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie.
After that, Widow is mostly relegated to kicking ass. She does a good job at it, having a nice moment when she steals a Chitauri sky cycle and then heads to the top of Stark Tower, where she attempts to shut down the machine that’s opening a portal to outer space where the Chitauri are waiting. It’s all good and she’s an active participant in the big battle, and she gets the moment at attempting to win the battle that I was convinced was going to go to Cap.
Taken as a whole, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is an intriguing character that touches on moral confusion and putting one’s duty above one’s individual wants. Tasha represents one of the core values of the Avengers: the chance for individual redemption by using your talents to help others who can’t help themselves. She’s a trained spy who’s done bad things, and is now becoming a hero.
Congrats to Whedon and Johansson for outstanding work in making the Black Widow one of the best aspects of MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS.
Mark Bousquet is the author of several novels, including Gunfighter Gothic, Stuffed Animals for Hire, Dreamer’s Syndrome, Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, and Adventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitle Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.
THE AVENGERS REVIEW INDEX
THE AVENGERS: THE MOVIE REVIEW
THE AVENGERS: THE HAWKEYE REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE AGENT COULSON REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE BLACK WIDOW REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE NICK FURY REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE MARIA HILL REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE CAPTAIN AMERICA REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE CHITAURI/THANOS REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE HULK REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE THOR REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE LOKI REACTION
THE AVENGERS: THE IRON MAN REACTION
THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE REVIEW INDEX