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Film

How Scarlett Johansson reclaimed power in a male-dominated world of superheroes

Quite recently, Kylie Cheung wrote a scathing and politically charged piece regarding the blatantly misogynistic perception of female superheroes and the inability of the male gaze to accept a character that fails to “sexually gratify them”. While her comments were made in reference to the recent backlash that the live-action of Faye Valentine – portrayed by Daniella Pineda – in Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop received, it is valid for every femme-fatale in the history of cinema. Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too, is no different and has been a blatant victim of hypersexualisation until the actress boldly reclaimed her agency in a landscape of superhero films that is largely patriarchal and male-dominated in nature. 

Romanoff, an intelligent Russian spy, had been a part of the MCU for seven films until she finally landed a movie of her own. She made her debut in the 2010 Iron Man 2 film, where she kicks Tony Stark’s second-in-command, Happy Hogan’s ass, in the boxing ring. However, it is no longer Romanoff’s ability to put up a great fight that is her defining characteristic. Stark Googles photos of her in her underwear and decides to hire her. Romanoff’s skills are reduced to her beauty and sex appeal- almost foreshadowing the kind of female representation Hollywood championed before the #MeToo movement, as discussed by the executive vice president of Marvel Studios, Victoria Alonso.  

Romanoff is the only character who did not have superhero powers like the rest of the men on the squad. But boy, did she fight well. A level-headed tactician with slick abilities, Black Widow is perhaps one of the most refreshing Avengers out there. After being sidelined and shunned on various grounds, when she finally received her origin story, it was genuinely cathartic to see her tackle sexism, blatant sexualisation and objectification and misogyny in one go. Needless to say, Johansson had an immense contribution in developing this character. From appearing as a simple “scintillating” vision in latex to finally gain momentum due to her tremendous courage and strength, Johansson’s Black Widow has become an unapologetic feminist symbol that has viewed the evolution of a female superhero via the female gaze. 

Directed by Cate Shortland, the 2021 Black Widow flick has, according to Scarlett Johannson, been a “challenge” to direct “in a male-dominated industry” due to the idea of recounting “a woman’s story from the perspective of a female director and focus on the heart of something that is inherently female”. It is important to note that most of the main characters in the MCU have had stand-alone films before making an appearance in the ensemble franchises – Black Widow is the last to join them. Even her death in Infinity War seemed quiet and subdued, not receiving the kind of reaction she deserved.

While her contribution has never been any lesser than Iron Man’s, it appears as though the man with a smart suit defeated the woman whose life has never been the bed of roses. A victim of hypersexualisation and human trafficking, Romanoff has emerged from being just the simple seductress to one of the most important characters on the team. While the initial films saw her being a “sidekick” to her male counterparts, often allowing Thor or Hawkeye or the Hulk to take the lead, she gradually gained more ground as Johansson got more involved in the process of writing and developing the character. 

Although the comics have portrayed her as a female character who appeals to the inherent male gaze, it is crucial to understand how Johansson subverts it by capitalising on her burgeoning sexuality and weaving it into the power dynamics. It is the film that delves into her childhood and does not miss out on the harrowing events that shape her into the character that she is, ripping apart the notions of the star spy being an object of visual pleasure. Johansson, too, firmly believes that the male-dominated industry has created a particular narrative for women that can surely be changed and challenged with the advent of more female directors foraying into the path. 

Before Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman took over the world by storm, it was Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow who solely shouldered the responsibility of carrying forward the narrative of empowered, feminist female superheroes who are ready to smash the patriarchal narrative. Johansson has successfully carved out the path for future actresses and directors to follow; she has fleshed out a character that is no longer the seductive, one-dimensional female ‘eye-candy’ but a layered and complicated one, one can take cues from. 

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