For a while now, a storm’s been building. Comic book movie fans are wondering why we have yet to see a female-lead superhero film despite being in the middle of a boom of comic book movies that show virtually every other kind of superhero film getting made. The knee-jerk answer is “sexism,” but I think it’s more complicated than that.
We might not have gotten a Wonder Woman movie yet, but you also have to remember that Warners has thus far balked on films about the Flash, the Justice League, and took forever to decide if it was going to do a sequel to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. All three of those projects spent a lot of time in development before being abandoned. (Though all signs are that Warners is moving forward on a different Justice League project at some point soon.)
Since Marvel has put out a lot more product over the last several years, it’s harder to give them the same excuse. Thus far, Marvel Studios’ films have only featured one female superhero – Black Widow. With appearances in Iron Man 2, The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson’s depiction of the character has become quite popular. While she’s not the only Avenger to miss out on a solo shot (Hawkeye being the other one), you don’t have to go too far on the internet to find fans taking umbrage that Black Widow is “only a sidekick” in the Captain America sequel.
However, if the choice was between having Black Widow in The Winter Soldier and having her in a solo film, I am thrilled that we got the former.
A solo film sending her off on her own mission would probably mean we would be denied the excellent chemistry between Cap and the Black Widow. The Winter Soldier would have lost one of its best elements. Those two are fantastic foils for each other, a terrific double-act. The dynamic works because he’s such a Dudley Do-Right while she’s more of an “anything to get the job done” type. Adding to this contrast is that he’s a terrible liar while she is all about deception and subterfuge.
There’s value in Black Widow’s screentime, and she comes out of this film a different person than she enters it. This isn’t a case of her simply showing up to turn her back to the camera and pose. If you take Black Widow out of The Winter Soldier, it becomes a lesser film by significant measure because she’s far more than a sidekick. She’s absolutely a co-lead, pretty much to the point that the movie could have been called Captain America & The Black Widow. Cap has the meatier arc of still adjusting to the world, but Black Widow has some big issues of her own to grapple with, and her final scene in the film suggests that past sins will come back to haunt her in future installments.
I can already imagine someone making the point that there should be a Black Widow movie that then features Captain America in the supporting cast without putting him in the title. That would be terrible marketing. The Captain America brand has value and name recognition, so there’s no reason Marvel and Disney would bury it. Also, Chris Evans has only signed for six films and has made it clear he has no intention of continuing the role after that. That means Marvel is going to have to be content with twin trilogies of Captain America and The Avengers (and the odd cameo).
I hope that this relationship gets explored in the next Captain America movie, though I feel like the creators might be keeping their options open by introducing Emily VanCamp’s Agent 13. Like Black Widow, she’s also a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and has the cold assassin attitude about her. If necessary, she could be a contrasting personality for Cap to play off of, but as of yet, she lacks the history with him that Black Widow already has. Though they can serve the same function, thus far the nurse next door’s relationship with Cap is far less interesting than Widow’s.
That said, if there ever were a time for Marvel to ready a solo Black Widow film, this would be it. Johansson has never had more value to her name than post-Winter Soldier, coming off of Under the Skin and getting a lot of additional action-star buzz from the forthcoming Lucy. At this point, greenlighting a solo Black Widow film is far more of a no-brainer than putting a Wonder Woman film into production. So for Marvel, the challenge is to get a good script that is worthy of the character. If they’re not at that point right now, then they have a year to get there so they can make that announcement off of the strength of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
It would be fantastic if the conversation could focus on how there’s an appetite for a Black Widow standalone rather than mounting the ignorant argument that her role as a co-lead in The Winter Soldier is an example of sexism at work. I’d rather Black Widow get some awesome work to do in a story where Captain America is top-billed than she headline a stinker of a film just to give the appearance of fairness. So far Marvel has been very smart about building its franchises and playing their cards in a timely fashion.
Let’s see how their Black Widow plan plays out before we crucify them for it.