I call it the Athena Complex: when a woman outdoes the boys at their own game using impartial wisdom, logic and knowledge. Ideally, she is untouchable, whether physically or psychologically or both. She wins by play.
Black Widow is our 21st Century Athena in the Marvel pantheon until Age of Ultron. (Unfortunately, we’ll probably have to wait another century for Wonder Woman to be as cinematically relevant.) She knows S.H.I.E.L.D.’s game and outthinks them, using gender norms to her advantage without combating the structure that creates them. She is wise because she knows how to manipulate the world around her when necessary, but otherwise steps into the background.
Rather than countering the male dominated dynamic, her presence reinforces it.
The problem is not that Black Widow has an Athena Complex. An Athena Complex does not have to be a bad thing. It can lead to considerable character growth, or it can be fascinating to consider on its own. The primary problem is that Black Widow’s agency—the bits and pieces of character collected in Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier—was disregarded in Age of Ultron. The secondary problem is having a character whose agency is defined by her ability to manipulate gender tropes as the only Female Character of a franchise.
For all of the faults in Iron Man 2, better considered Avengers: The Prequel, the Black Widow’s introduction was not one of them.
As Natalie Rushman, Black Widow utilizes her femininity without for a second demonstrating being anything less than vital to Pepper. The hints that she was something more range from the ham to the subtle. When she’s revealed to be a spy, her hallway fight scene furthers her as a character and a necessary part of the plot—and the furthest thing from another love interest for Stark.
Her femininity is another tool, one to be used when convenient.
In The Avengers, her femininity only comes into play when relevant to the plot—and that’s not inherently bad when you’re twisting the femme fatale trope. Her absolute control over how others assume she should react due to her gender makes her intrinsic to the team. As does the fact that she can turn it off when her services are no longer needed.
She holds the distinction of being one of the guys. Even when she kisses Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s a tool to hide them from Hydra goons. There is no awkwardness or sudden evoking of hidden feeling on either side. Even the dialogue following up the kiss is not about their relationship, but Steve—and that’s fine. He’s the titular character, the plot revolves around him and his past. The kiss is a tool in her arsenal, part of her skill set.
The film doesn’t ask if Natasha can be Steve’s love interest—it asks if she’s capable of being trusted and trusting others. We don’t know how honest her intentions are when it comes to her friendship with Steve, and the very word “honest” highlights the fact she’s a super-spy whose backstory is entirely unknown to the general MCU audience without comic knowledge.
How we get from that to the Black Widow as Bruce Banner’s love interest in The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a mystery. Are we supposed to believe with the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., Black Widow had the time to bond with the Hulk? Yes, it’s been two years since the last time she directly interacted with him—and in case you forgot what happened, here it is:
After the first Avengers movie, it made sense that Black Widow and Captain America became friends through working together at S.H.I.E.LD. Their teamwork was established and expanded upon. The fear Black Widow held for the Hulk in the first movie—the fear that first introduced the Hulk as something worthy of terror because someone as capable as Natasha is scared of him—is complete forgotten. Moreover, dating within the team is somehow encouraged, particularly between the man with anger issues and the woman with trust issues.
Whether or not you like the pairing does not matter, the fact is that the movie begins with an unprecedented relationship that it never earns. The pieces of Natasha we’ve collected through past movies are scattered aside to make her the Hulk’s Love Interest, and learning more of her backstory does not change that. In fact, an integral piece of her backstory is ruined because of it. Rather giving the audience incredible insight into her character, the backstory is presented as nothing more than a reason why she and Banner should live happily ever after. He can’t have children? No problem! Turns out the Motherland took her uterus; so she can’t either.
It’s a double loss of agency for Black Widow: the loss of agency in the backstory and the loss of agency of the backstory. For a character who has been defined by her utter control of personal agency in the past three films, the negligent execution is appalling.
Black Widow’s ability to use gender as a tool makes her a fascinating character, and by the very nature of that ability her gender becomes a matter of convenience. She cannot simply exist on the team as a woman, any discomfort her gender may cause is pocketed away in her utility belt. Whether or not she has an Athena Complex that devolves into Trinity Syndrome, the problem lies in that she presents the only example of a female superhero in the Marvel Universe.
A convenient one or a poorly written love interest.
When the latest Marvel movies make you go back to Iron Man 2 as a high point, something’s wrong.
Do better, Marvel.
***Written by guest writer Torbeast***
Images From: Giphy.com, Tumblr, Fanpop.com