by Doctor Science
As I said in my Avengers reaction post, I was surprised and pleased by how the character of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow was treated: she has a major role, not-particularly-exploitive clothing, and lots of action both physical and psychological. This is what my many friends in fandom see, too: I've seen a lot of reaction posts, and they all talk about how impressed they are with Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner/Hulk, and also about how much they like Natasha.
But when I started looking at reviews outside my corner of fandom, I found something Ian Grey of PressPlay also noticed:
Two parallel realities! Men who see nobody at all and women who see the next Faith (without the crazy, I mean). Don’t tell Disney, or they’ll be marketing the film as 4-D.Being me, I decided to gather data, not just examples.
Cut because the rest will be chock-a-block with spoilers.
I took RottenTomatoes.com's list of 40 "Top Critics" for The Avengers and made a spreadsheet showing how they dealt with Natasha/Black Widow/Scarlett Johansson. Top Critics are designated by Rotten Tomatoes based on influence and reputation, so this list isn't biased by my choices or opinions. Sprog the Elder did most of the work filling in the chart.
The rxn column in the spreadsheet indicates whether the reviewer's reaction to Johansson/Natasha is positive, negative, trivial, or non-existent. 420 means I want to know what the reviewer is smoking, because the review includes statements that contradict what is shown onscreen.
Objectively speaking, the following things are true of Scarlett Johansson's role in The Avengers:
- She has a great deal of screen time and large number of lines, probably second only to Robert Downey, Jr. (the putative lead)
- She has multiple fight scenes: she defeats the Russians one-on-many, even though she's tied to a chair; she fights and defeats Hawkeye; she runs from The Hulk; she commandeers one of the alien's air-scooters and steers it by stabbing the pilot with knives; she fights Loki.
- She has two scenes where she gets information from bad guys by playing their expectations: the Russians, and Loki himself, the Trickster God.
- She has additional important one-on-one conversations with Bruce Banner and Clint Barton (Hawkeye).
- Her usual outfit neither shows much skin nor is it skin-tight
I labeled 10 of the 40 reviews as "420" -- that is, one-quarter of the reviews are objectively wrong. They can be divided into 3 groups:
A. Ones which focus on the sexy outfit she isn't wearing:
- Rick Groen, Globe and Mail:
[the reviewer's inner kid] had high hopes for Black Widow. But his youthful hormones, poised to rage at the mere sight of Scarlett Johansson in martial arts gear, remained disappointingly unstirred. In the token sexy female department, Scarlett was a pale pink at best.It's a little hard to tell through the smoky haze, but I *think* he's saying that he wanted Natasha to look like she does in the comics:Variant cover for Black Widow #6: J. Scott Campbell.
Since she didn't look that way (those pesky laws of physics and human anatomy!), he couldn't be arsed to notice anything about what she *did*.Reminder: Actual Black Widow, made of real human.
- Anthony Lane, New Yorker:
... Black Widow repels invading aliens through the sheer force of her corsetrySo few words, yet all delusional: her corsetry is nothing particularly spectacular, and didn't he notice that she repelled aliens with things like martial arts and sneakiness and *knives*?!? What did he see onscreen instead of what was actually there?
- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon:
Or Scarlett Johansson in a catsuit, as superspy Natasha Romanoff, cocking her head just so as if to acknowledge that she’s the idealized fetish object of the 11-year-old boy within every so-called adult male.O'Hehir admits that
I saw “The Avengers” less than a week ago, and already much of it’s a blur-- so it's possible that he doesn't actually remember enough about this movie -- the one he was paid to watch -- to write about what was actually onscreen, as opposed to what was playing on the screen in his addled mind. Because as Rick Groen said, the trouble is that she's *not* the idealized fetish object they were looking for.
B. Ones that do not notice her many fight and/or conversation scenes:
- Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal:
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, fill out the sextet without adding much pizazz; Black Widow spends lots of time looking puzzled or confused.I don't actually know what he might possibly be talking about here, given that she spends most of the movie *fighting*. However, since he didn't think much of Mark Ruffalo's breakout performance as Bruce Banner, Sprog is of the opinion that he's probably a Skrull. It *is* the WSJ, after all.
- Christy Lemire, AP :
a great deal of time is spent having them talk a lot of trash and square off against one another to prove who’s toughest. There’s Iron Man vs. Thor, Thor vs. The Hulk, Hawkeye vs. Black Widow ...Did not notice that Hawkeye and Black Widow's fight is because they were, at that moment, on *opposite sides*, and that this was not about trash-talking or proving who's toughest, but the old "can you defeat your mind-controlled friend without seriously hurting him" dilemma, a completely different dynamic.
- Owen Gleiberman, EW:
Scarlett Johansson, with not enough to do
See list above; this is objectively ludicrous.
- Tom Long, Detroit News:
And who gets to tussle with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)? Poor little nonsuper human Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Ouch."Poor"? "little"? Moron, she will *cut* you.
C. Ones that are deeply confused: about the genre, about the English language, about what the hell they're talking about:
- Roger Ebert:
Then there's Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow. After seeing the film, I discussed her with movie critics from Brazil and India, and we were unable to come up with a satisfactory explanation for her superpowers; it seems she is merely a martial artist with good aim with weapons. We decided maybe she and Hawkeye aren't technically superheroes, but just hang out in the same crowd.This isn't delusional in the way the other 420s are, but it made me face-palm. Dear Roger: next time, try taking someone with a little more expertise. You can't evaluate a genre work unless you understand something about its premises and what the audience's understanding is likely to be.
- Bob Mondello, NPR:
martial-arts tyro Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)He does not know that the word "tyro" means "newbie". Dude, *you're* a n00b.
- Richard Corliss, Time:
In Marvel-land, there are always, and almost only, men. A cosmos created and illustrated by comic-book guys for comic-book boys, and brought to the screen by later platoons of males, is by definition homoheroic if not homoerotic. The movie’s tenderest relationship is between Captain America and his No. 1 fan, S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who asks nothing more than that the good Captain autograph the Agent’s superhero card set. There’s little room for women, except of the cartoon variety: the nasty spy Natasha, first seen in Madonna bustier and high heels, manacled to a chair in a sadistic interrogation. That she uses all these elements to secure her freedom is a nice Whedon touch, but also a tribute to the seductive gravity Johansson lends to her character.The worst part of this hot mess is probably the idea that Natasha is *more* of a "cartoon variety" character than the males are. The implication that it's only at the end that we see Natasha as a "good soldier" is frankly bizarre -- but then, the whole review gives the impression that he was throwing lumps of overdone prose against the walls to see what would stick. Bonus Fail Points for not knowing the difference between a "Madonna bustier" and a Little Black Dress.
At the end Natasha shows she’s a good soldier, vanquishing a regiment of cyborg soldiers and fighting off Loki’s biggest weapon
Overall, 24 of the 40 reviews mention Natasha/BW/SJ only in passing, in a single sentence; 3 others do not mention her at all. But look at Point 1 of the objective facts: Johansson probably has the second largest part in the movie, including at least *8* two-person scenes (if you include the Russians). Not mentioning her or not giving the impression that she's a major character maybe should qualify *all* those reviewers for the "420" designation, or at least for a couple of tokes.
As she was filling out the spreadsheet (her respect for the profession of "movie reviewer" plummeting), Sprog the Elder was struck by the fact that the review that was most like a fannish reaction post was the one that is most "professional": Justin Chang, in Variety.
Fury's whip-smart operative, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who more than holds her own amid all the chrome and testosterone, and gets more of a chance to flesh out her troubled backstory here than she did in "Iron Man 2." Specifically, she has a vested interest in breaking the spell Loki has placed on her old ally, Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, briefly glimpsed in "Thor"), a skilled archer with uniquely deadly arrows.Like the fan(mostly)girls we know, Chang doesn't have to answer the question "Do you want to go to this movie?" His audience, like the fandom one, already knows they're going, it's a given.
What the fans and The Industry alike want to know is what to pay particular attention to. Yes, we're (partly) there to enjoy the movie, but both groups are also thinking, "What does this tell me? How can I use this?" We want analysis: breaking the movie down in our minds as we watch, splitting off pieces to use in our own works, whether fanworks or other movies.
We're often not interested in the same pieces. Movie industry people may think a lot about how shots are composed, what kind of special effects are most convincing, or whether the music is well-integrated. Fans want to notice and discuss things we've learned about each character's personality or backstory -- or talk about shallow objectification via certain camera angles.
In either case, the first step is to see what's actually on the screen. I'll make a follow-up post in a day or so with some theories about why so many "Top Critics" were apparently unable to actually *see* The Avengers when it was put in front of them -- and especially how they couldn't see the woman in the story.