Like everyone else in the world, I saw the Avengers this past weekend. And like at least 75% of the world, I emphatically implore you to go see it now, because it is everything a superhero team-up movie SHOULD be. Superheroes who war their uniforms with no sense of shame or awkwardness, being heroic without being cheesy, being realistic without being average…it was just a fantastic and fun time. And yes, obviously, stay until the end of the credits.
So, this being a Joss Whedon flick, there were Strong Female Characters. No surprise there. (Here’s where I tell you up front, I’m a big fan of Whedon’s work, so, FYI.) The most notable is Natasha Romanov, a.k.a Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. I absolutely loved how she was portrayed in this movie, for a number of reasons. One, I don’t think I’ve really ever seen Johansson in much, and didn’t have a real idea of her acting ability. She does a really solid job in this movie with a role that has considerable nuance required for it. Kudos to Johansson for her work here.
Black Widow also gets an impressive chunk of screentime, something I feel was a huge plus for this movie, and something that had a very Whedonesque touch to it. In this breakdown of screentime per major character, Black Widow comes in third, in fact. Considering her small role in Iron Man 2 and that she is the token female superhero here, as well as one of the only ones without a full movie of her own like most of the male heroes, I didn’t expect her to be doing a whole lot in Avengers. Boy was I wrong, and I am so glad for that.
It’s not just that Black Widow is well-acted, nuanced, and plays a large role that makes her a great character. It’s also that she does so by being a Badass Normal. Whedon’s most recognizable heroine is, of course, Buffy Summers. The twist with Buffy is that instead of a buff man being the Big Damn Hero, it’s the slight and petite blonde girl, the cheerleader, the one who usually dies in the first half-hour of the horror movie. She is the one with the superpowers, she is the one kicking ass and doing the heavy lifting, and yes, she is still very much a feminine character, through and through. Neither her strengths nor her weaknesses stem from her gender.
But she has superpowers, so I’m not here to talk about her. And Black Widow has extensive martial arts training and access to military-or-better-grade weapons and other resources, so I’m only kind of here to talk about her. She’s an Action Girl, which I may address in a future TT, but being without superpowers, she’s also a Badass Normal.
Badass Normal: “In a World with supernatural dealings or superpowers, this character is the one who is able to keep being useful through intellect, martial arts abilities, general ruthlessness, or just being Crazy-Prepared.”
The ultimate and go-to example is Batman. Batman is a superhero, but only because he’s insanely dedicated, trained, smart, and rich. Not because he was blessed by the gods, or comes from another planet, or anything else like that. He’s as mortal and human as you and I, but no one’s about to treat him without the same respect they give Superman or Wonder Woman. Black Widow falls into this vein as well, thanks to the resources she has, and while watching her lay waste to bad guys far more powerful than she, my favorite moment of hers had nothing to do with physical prowess. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
In a scene with Loki, Black Widow attempts to bargain for Hawkeye’s life and release from his magically-indentured servitude. She tries explaining away that she’s got “red in her ledger”1, bad deeds she wants to make up for, and that Hawkeye spared her life once when he could’ve killed her, so she owes him this. Loki rips into viciously, trotting out knowledge of all the awful things she’s done, that they can never be made up for, mocking her for what he assumes to be love for Hawkeye, and that he’ll make sure Hawkeye kills her slowly before Loki kills the man himself. Black Widow gasps, looks tearful, turns away at his words and then the second he slips up and admits what he’s really after on their ship, the tears, the gasps, the shocked look, are gone in a second and she walks out with the intel she in fact came for. She pulled a friggin’ fast one on Loki, THE trickster or tricksters!
This is the kind of Badass Normal I really love to see. The one who knows they are outmatched in one glaring area, yet using what they know about their opponent and the expectations put on them by their opponent, they
turn it around to use it against that person. Black Widow plays on Loki’s arrogance and his assumptions about her as a woman and a close colleague of Hawkeye to get him to let slip important information. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t help much in the end for their situation, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a well-executed move.) This can work the other way too: who doesn’t love how Indiana Jones just shoots the guy with the crazy sword skills, a tired look on his face, in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Indy, too, is a fantastic example of the Badass Normal.
A good portion of my love for this trope comes from me being who and what I am, I know: a woman who tops out at 5’3″ and is no athlete. But I’m no idiot, either, and I’m also just shy of a black belt in America Jiu Jitsu. I hope I never have to use it to defend myself, but I take some comfort in knowing that anyone who might ever attack me is not going to expect that from me. What can I say? I want to think there’s a Badass Normal lurking inside me, too!
1 For an interesting take on Black Widow’s character and what she (and her “red ledger”) represent, check out Pete Fenzel’s article at OverthinkingIt.