Who would have believed that a recurring background character in a 1964 ‘Tales of Suspense’ run would become (arguably) Marvel’s most notable female Avenger?

In the comics, the Black Widow was trained in the Red Room, a Russian program to develop their very best spies and assassins.  She became a spy at Stark Industries at one point, falling into the Avengers circles, until she broke her brainwashing and moved on to the side of the angels.  It’s an origin that has been much-retconned and much-revisited, and gives her an unusually rich background – not least being that, in the comics, the Black Widow was experimented on as part of super-soldier programs, making her a lot older than she looks.

Black Widow cool

In the movies, Black Widow was introduced to us as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Infiltrating Stark Industries on the orders of Nick Fury, she wound up playing a key role in ‘Iron Man 2’, with a truly excellent action-sequence in which she dealt with a whole host of enemies – while Happy struggled to out-fight one guy.  We were introduced to a superb spy, a skilled combatant, and a woman who gave every sign of being ruthlessly efficient.

Iron Man 2 Black Widow

Marvel kept the look – sleek, sexy, wearing a catsuit with the zipper pulled down ever-so-slightly.  This was a woman who knew she was hot, and who used it to disarm her opponents – her beauty was a weapon that she wielded with as much skill as she fires a gun.  As the movies went on, the look became slicker, with an added dose of Stark-tech for ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron‘.

It fell to Joss Whedon to build upon this in ‘The Avengers’, and he did so with a twist.  In her first scene, she’s captured and vulnerable, and then – when she learns she’s needed – she proves herself once again.  She plays upon men’s expectations of vulnerability, and then turns the tables with brutal speed.  We saw the same in her manipulation of Loki, in which she coaxes a subtle hint out of him that gives her insight into his plans.

Black Widow Loki

But that was the scene that really showcased Black Widow’s character.  When she talks with Hawkeye later, her comment about red being in her ledger calls back to her dialogue with Loki.  It tells us that the vulnerability is as real as the brutal kick-@$$ female – she’s more than just a strong woman.  Just as a strong man knows when he needs to be weak, so Black Widow displays the real vulnerability of her character, actually allowing her enemies a glimpse of the wounded woman she really is.  What makes her truly remarkable is that, at will, she basically snaps the defences back up and proves that she’s stronger than they think.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is probably one of the most defining moments of Black Widow’s life.  She learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. was compromised all along, that far from flying on the side of the angels, she’s been doing the bidding of the demons.  How many of her covert ops over the years helped Hydra?  How many of the killings she thought were in the name of good, were actually done to further Hydra’s cause?  The sickening thing for Black Widow is – she’ll never know.

Black Widow in Winter Soldier

And then, as the rollercoaster ride continues, all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets are published on the Internet.  That includes their personnel files, and certainly countless mission reports that dealt with her on one side or another, and so her secrets spread across the world.  The Black Widow – the assassin, the master of subterfuge, the figure who moves through the shadows – is exposed for all the world to see, and even stands, somehow confident, before the US Senate.

For a woman who, beneath all the masks she wears, remains broken because of what she has done, this must have been torture.

And so we come to ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’, and to a woman whose façade is breaking completely.  The building romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner is left-field, and startled viewers with its vulnerability; but I’d suggest that surprise is because the viewers haven’t always understood who the character they’re watching really is.  Beneath the shell of supreme confidence and tremendous combat skill is a woman who is filled with pain and regret, and the Scarlet Witch’s spell twists the knife of pain still deeper.

Scarlet Witch manipulates Black Widow

We’ve been trying to watch a character who’s a strong woman.  Instead, Marvel have been trying to build a strong person.  A person who, while capable of moments of surprising vulnerability, is also a relentless and unstoppable action hero.  And, lest we forget, it’s the action hero who comes out on top.  In what Bruce Banner would doubtless have seen as a moment of betrayal, she knows that – when the chips are down – she needs the other guy.

Black Widow is one of Marvel’s better, but more subtle, creations; a woman of very real complexity, more sophisticated than a formulaic Lara Croft figure.  The films have taken a comic-book icon, and have twisted it in a very interesting way.

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