There’s a saying: If you can see it, you can be it. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true, and it’s never been more relevant to how audiences experience the stories that appear onscreen. It’s why, despite a new lawsuit and a lagging box office, Black Widow is a deeply important film, both for me and for viewers all over the world. It’s a movie I’d been anticipating for over a decade, and regardless of whether you think it warrants an A+ review, it’s hard to argue with its importance.
When Iron Man came out in 2008 we couldn’t have predicted the superhero blockbuster onslaught that would follow, and we certainly couldn’t have predicted that getting a woman to lead one of those superhero films would take more than 10 years. Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superheroes existed in film and on TV, and some of them even, like Wonder Woman, were not white men. The X-Men films, which kicked off in 2000, had a solid — although imperfect — streak of representing both heroes and heroines (Jean Grey still had to be rescued by Wolverine).
In Iron Man 2, she was cool. And she kicked ass. But, ultimately, she was there for Tony Stark to flirt with and for viewers to ogle.
So why has it taken Marvel so long to arrive at Black Widow? There had been murmurs of a stand-alone film since the early 2000s, when Lionsgate began development of a potential film. After Marvel Studios got back the rights to the character, Natasha Romanoff appeared in Iron Man 2, complete with a skin-tight catsuit and an overwrought hair style that no woman would even wear in a fight. Sure, she was cool. And she kicked ass. But, ultimately, she was there for Tony Stark to flirt with and for viewers to ogle. Scarlett Johansson has spoken out about that portrayal, recently noting during a press day for Black Widow just how much the male gaze played into that appearance.
“While [Iron Man 2] was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualized, you know?” Johansson told reporters. “[She is] really talked about like she’s a piece of something, like a possession or a thing or whatever — like a piece of ass, really.”
With that history in mind, it’s difficult to emphasize just how significant it is that Black Widow, directed by Cate Shortland, doesn’t treat its female characters like objects. Natasha gets to team up with two other fearless yet flawed woman, Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova and Rachel Weisz’s Melina Vostokoff, and no one treats them as lesser than or objectifies them based on their gender. Their hair, thankfully, remains pulled off their faces for the entire story — a detail that will only resonate for those of us with long hair. The costumes are less like catsuits and more like military uniforms, and Yelena knows the importance of a pocket — again, a detail you only notice if you have trouble finding clothes with pockets (ahem, all women’s retailers). But most importantly, they are real, complicated women who happen to have the courage, skill and determination to fight their way to justice.
True representation in Hollywood requires that everyone — everyone! — gets to see themselves on the silver screen. That when you watch a movie you either can identify with the story and its characters, or you can learn to empathize with them despite their difference from you. And all moviegoers deserve opportunities to be reflected by the movies. Whether it means a female Jedi like Rey in The Force Awakens or a Black superhero like T’Challa in Black Panther or something we haven’t gotten to see yet, blockbuster action movies need to showcase heroes to whom we can aspire. If a young girl never sees a superhero who can kick ass without paying service to a man, then she’ll never recognize her own potential to do the same, in her own way.
I’ve been waiting a long time for Black Widow (thankfully Wonder Woman arrived a few years ago to tide me over), and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a shame that the film was delayed by the pandemic and that its box office returns have been taxed by the (understandable) reluctance of fans to venture into movie theaters. But no film’s success can be measured by numbers alone, even if that’s the metric by which Hollywood operates.
Its success comes from the small moments of recognition and aspiration audience members have when they see it. It comes from me attempting to braid my hair to look like Yelena to go on a hike. It comes from knowing that that young girl gets to have a superhero role model. It means that she, too, can be it.
Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture.