Fans have been crying for a Black Widow movie since her first appearance back in 2010. So why won’t Marvel make one? It’s easy to rage on principle of the thing, but there must be an actual reason why the media giant isn’t keen to make another movie that would flood the company with millions of dollars. When the shift in Phase III was recently announced, and Ant-Man and the Wasp was added to the schedule, it was another sting for Widow fans–Marvel has two upcoming films on the docket with headlining female characters, but the MCU’s First Lady is relegated to every other hero’s story. Where is our Black Widow movie?
I have a guess, but it’s not exactly an uplifting one.
Let’s start by taking a look at the two Marvel women who ended up lucky enough to get their names in movie titles over the next few years. Ant-Man was a moderate success by Marvel’s standards, but many critics and the majority of fans felt the Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne was grossly underused. (It was my primary beef with the film when all was said and done.) To keep Ant-Man as a viable part of a Marvel universe–he did have the lowest opening of any Marvel film ever–it makes sense to give the fans what they want in this case. Hope is an easy sell to movie audiences; Lilly plays her with an elegant old Hollywood vibe, combined with all the power and know-how of a good modern action hero. She’s fierce, gorgeous, opinionated, and gets the job done. She’s also relatively uncomplicated–the background story with her parents has mostly played out, and now she’s free to pick up her mother’s mantle and go be the hero she dreamed of being from the start.
In short, there’s no risk in having her headline the movie alongside Ant-Man. They are a fun team that will do likely better for being on equal footing in the sequel. Hope is classy and brilliant, a large part of what was good about the first Ant-Man film. Audiences may have just met her, but they warmed to her fast, and her absence would be unacceptable. Why not give her a co-starring credit?
Then we have Carol Danvers, better known these days as Captain Marvel. Following her hit comics run under Kelly Sue DeConnick, Danvers’ star is on the rise in a big way; she already has a literal legion of fans ready to spread her gospel in the form of the Carol Corps. As a character, Danvers is wonderful–warm and funny, determined and commanding. She was an Air Force pilot, she worked at NASA, and she’s currently the person in charge of keeping the Earth safe from intergalactic peril in the comics, if I’m still up to date.
In short, she’s the perfect answer to DC’s upcoming Wonder Woman film. Both women are warriors, both have superhuman strength, both can fly. And while both have an avid feminist following and are powerful figures and role models for women everywhere, there is no doubt that both Carol Danvers and Diana have something else working in their favor–they both harbor many qualities and powers that are already well-loved in your typical male superhero. This is not to diminish the value of female superheroes who happen to embody many of the traits you find in characters like Aquaman, Captain America, Wolverine, and Green Lantern. But it does mean that Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman are tailor-made to star in films that are much closer to the proven commodities that DC and Marvel have already made bank on. They will be big budget films about lady bruisers who kick ass and take names. Their basic formula is not that far off from Cap, from Superman, from Thor.
And this perfectly illustrates the problem that Marvel faces with Black Widow.
The first reply is often, “But Black Widow is a spy! People love spy movies!” Sure, that’s true. But Black Widow isn’t just any spy. She’s a spy who was programmed by the Soviet government to do their dirty work from childhood. So if Marvel wants to jump back to do an origin story, the narrative is going to be a pretty bleak (if fascinating) one. Widow’s femininity and sexuality are deeply tied into the work that she does; her ability to seduce, distract, and otherwise confound the men around her is a part of her skill set. Her capacity to play vulnerable, to be mistaken for someone small and/or weak, to use people’s preconceptions of womanhood against them are all assets that her male counterparts do not share. Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman have super strength and inhuman powers, but simply being a woman–and all the baggage that comes with that–is Black Widow’s primary weapon. Her understanding of power dynamics, social pressures, and enforced gender normativity is precisely what makes her valuable to a team of big, hard-hitting dudes. (And Hawkeye. Sorry Clint, you know I love you, and I’m sure you punch very hard. Just not as hard as a titanium alloy bodysuit.)
All of these elements would make for a great movie, without any doubt. But they would also make for a risky movie that Marvel Studios could easily make a mess of. Case in point: the audience reaction to Natasha’s arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Following her interactions with Bruce Banner, there were a contingent of fans and critics who believed that Whedon’s dialogue made a pointed jab at women who could not conceive children–that Natasha’s belief that she was a “monster” was implicitly indicating that all women incapable of having kids were also monstrous. While it seems unlikely that this was the film’s intended commentary, the dialogue was muddy enough that such an interpretation could be drawn from it. And that was from one short scene… can you imagine how much damage could be done in an entire film script?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has remained relatively untarnished in the eyes of fans since they powered up the live action roster in 2008. Their movies do well, and even the less-successful ones are enjoyable enough to keep the series in good standing. The last thing the studio wants is to blow their record with something that poisons the well, and a poorly handled Black Widow film would likely do just that. Natasha’s fans are (understandably) fiercely protective of the character, and won’t stand for anything less than a thoughtful meditation on a woman embroiled in politics, murder, secrecy, and constant transformation. By today’s blockbuster standards, that movie is a unicorn (with the prominent exception of Mad Max: Fury Road, which is notably Rated R). Natasha Romanov demands much of your average moviegoer; she is a walking, talking argument for feminist self-actualization, a woman who casts aside a past that molded her to its liking for a future where she decides who and what are worthy of her skills, her time, and her camaraderie. Doing her story justice demands a sensibility that is harsher and meaner than the Marvel house blend–perhaps a little “too real” for the hyper-saturated universe that the films have painted.
Instead, Marvel is looking to a different medium to tell those kinds of stories: television.
Let’s be honest here–while we’re all glad that Peggy Carter was given her own series (because we have that much more of her to watch), there was never a remote chance that she was going to get her own movie. And it wasn’t simply because she was a secondary character in Captain America’s origin; it’s because a continuation of Peggy’s journey, one that deals in the post-war struggles of female soldiers, needed more consideration that a two-hour-palooza. Television gives characters more room to breathe and writers more time to clarify their message. You can offer a character the detailed depiction they deserve, and avoid getting bogged down by centerpiece action sequences.
Daredevil and Jessica Jones are perfect illustrations of that model being put to good use. Daredevil is tonally much darker than the MCU: the violence it depicts is brutal, Matt Murdock’s religious quandaries are treated with respect, Wilson Fisk feels far more dangerous on a person-to-person level than any other villain we’ve been handed so far. And while we still have some time before the premiere of Jessica Jones, the first two episodes have already been reviewed to similar applause. Jones, like Widow, is another Marvel character who requires care in the telling–her narrative contains serious psychological abuse and deals heavily in the power dynamics between men and women. And while Jones has similar powers to Carol Danvers (strength, invulnerability), those unsettling aspects of her background seemed to demand that she be given more than two hours to get her story across. Television is better suited to these characters, and it’s also an excellent way of learning what fans are hungry for.
What’s more, these series have the chance of spilling onto the silver screen. Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, has already suggested that if the television shows prove popular with fans, they could become feature films down the line. In that case, you have the best of both worlds: all the nuance and careful examination that television excels at, with the occasional foray into big budget territory. If that model works, we could end up with a slew of Marvel leading ladies who cross from TV to film and back again, dominating in a way that the majority of male superheroes are not currently equipped to do.
So it seems as though the real question should be… Where’s our Black Widow Netflix series?