I sent this over an email to a friend, and I wanted to post it somewhere more public as well.
Natasha is an interesting animal because I don’t believe that most of what we see of her, ever, is actually her. She’s someone who inputs and reflects the behavior of those around her or gives those around her what she calculates they want from her: we see this in most of IM2, with Tony and then with Pepper. We see it in scenes in Avengers, in her intro scene, with Bruce, with Loki, though I think Avengers is maybe where we see the most of what is honestly Natasha in her interactions with Clint.
I’ve seen several people say that TWS is where we are “finally seeing the real Natasha” but I don’t know how much I buy that. She’s being what she thinks Steve needs her to be— jokey-flirtatious, and her brand of sarcasm in this movie is a bit drier, a bit more like Steve’s, than the sarcasm we saw from her when she was bantering with Clint in Avengers. I think she’s reacting to his signals.
Johansson has this one particular quirk she adds to Nat’s character that I particularly like, that I tend to think of as Natasha’s lizard look. You see it in every movie: a point where she goes entirely expressionless, blinks, and looks like she’s processing like a computer. It reminds me of those sort of blank looks lizards often have. Those are the moments when I think Natasha is not sure, is processing, making a decision about which Natasha she’s supposed to be. They’re incredibly vulnerable and fascinating, because they’re not always at the points where the character is otherwise behaving vulnerably: the very first one is in the scene where she piledrives Happy, when she’s introduced in IM2. She has a few in TWS, most notably just when she asks Steve if he trusts her, and again at the end when she’s disseminating the classified info.
I think those moments are the times when we actually see the most of what Natasha, stripped away, is really like: those, and the scenes with Clint in Avengers, and maybe that breathless “Don’t do this to me, Nick.” She’s someone who functionally knows how to be a person, but it’s all layers of learned behavior. And I don’t think they’ve stripped those away from her yet in MCU.
This is really great meta!
I agree that I think Natasha is often presenting the face the characters around her want or need to see. I discussed briefly yesterday how some moments in Cap 2 irked me because they didn’t seem consistent with what we saw of Natasha in Avengers, especially her sense of humour, so I really like the idea that she picks up on cues from people and adjusts her behaviour accordingly. She asks Steve who he wants her to be, but in a sense she’s already giving him that. There are moments where we see what could be called the ‘real’ Natasha, there have to be, otherwise her whole arc feels hollow; but they’re all very subtle. I think that makes sense for Cap 2, because in the end it’s a solo movie, so a lot of what we see is from Steve’s POV.
That’s why the lack of a Black Widow movie is so frustrating (apart from the obvious “why is there no movie with a female lead WTF Marvel”). There are still so many layers to Natasha that we haven’t seen in the MCU. I’m sure we’ll see more in Avengers 2, but it would be amazing to devote two hours of movie to her character.
YES YES YES YES Y E S
When they talk about what a big role Natasha has in other Marvel movies, they’re talking about time on screen, not perspective. She’s certainly a key player in Cap2, but at the end of the day, we see her through Steve’s lens, and we see her being the person she thinks Steve needs her to be. We see Steve’s Natasha, rather than Natasha.
Honestly, I think that this is one of the things Marvel doesn’t realize in how important it is to have a Black Widow movie. The existing movies all have vastly different voices and circumstances, but they all come from the same place of privilege; every protagonist and point of view character for an individual-led Marvel film is a straight white cis man, and seeing from their vantage point is the default. It means there’s a lot we’re missing in understanding the experiences of any character who doesn’t fit that profile, and it’s something I’d love to see further explored in the MCU.