GLASS CEILING

04.28.15 9:20 AM ET

The Avengers’ Black Widow Problem: How Marvel Slut-Shamed Their Most Badass Superheroine

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Scarlett Johansson’s badass agent Natasha Romanoff is once again used to service the storyline of a male hero.

The thing nobody wants to admit about Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, and the Great Superhero Slut-Shaming of 2015 is that, PR crisis aside, the BroVengers were right.

Not for calling Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow a “slut” and a “whore” in the most casually offensive way possible; Renner also managed to sneak in a “prosthetic leg” comment that earned him a side of ableist complaints to go with those heaping cries of sexism. What was lost in the outrage over their feminist-baiting fratty misogyny is that Avengers: Age of Ultron’s macho twosome hit the nail on the head regarding Marvel’s persistent problem with women.  

Namely, that even Marvel’s most badass female characters keep getting exploited—and utterly wasted—just to prop up the men around them. And it’s Marvel that keeps fortifying that glass ceiling.

In 11 Marvel Cinematic Universe films thus far, strong female co-leads have only appeared in larger ensemble team-ups, primarily as lethal and emotionally impenetrable femme fatales who double as love interests (shout out to Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora).

Meanwhile, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America have fronted multiple stand-alones as complex superheroes with their own extended individual journeys to explore, but it’ll be another nine movies before Marvel finally rolls the dice on its first female-led superhero movie.

When time finally does come to enfranchise the women of Marvel with the same big-screen platforms that their white male counterparts have enjoyed for nearly two MCU phases, it won’t be Johansson, one of the Avengers’ most bankable movie stars and the only one to score a $458 million global hit last year (Lucy) in her superhero offseason, who gets the shot.

Instead, that honor will go to Captain/Ms. Marvel, Marvel’s 1970s-era “modern gal” borne from/for the women’s lib crowd and an occasional presence in the Avengers comics. Of course, her history comes with its own controversial baggage. (See: “The Rape of Ms. Marvel.”)

Over the course of four movies, including Avengers: The Age of Ultron, Scarlett Johansson’s token lady Avenger has been positioned as a seductive foil to as many different male teammates. And although her Age of Ultron flirtation with Bruce Banner is the first to be confirmed as a canonical romance, Marvel’s orchestrators have never been subtle in shipping her all the way around the Avengers block.

That wasn’t always the case. Black Widow had a playful introduction to the franchise in 2010’s Iron Man 2 in a scene that jokingly admonished Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, and by extension, the fanboy audience, for reducing the deadly secret agent to an object—before Natasha Romanoff (undercover as Natalie Rushman) drops a flying armbar on Happy, even Pepper Potts warns Stark that the comely redhead is a “very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit” waiting to happen.  

After exposing her true S.H.I.E.L.D. agent identity, the former Russian spy then paired off in 2012’s The Avengers with Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye for a storyline that tore the stoic archer’s walls down for the audience’s benefit, and hinted that there was more to their shared history than just battlefield camaraderie.

Just two years later in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’d think Black Widow earned the right to brawl and battle her own demons, just like the boys. Nope. Playing sultry therapist to yet another Avenger, Black Widow was partnered with Evans’s Steve Rogers/Captain America in service of pulling the hero out of time into the 21st century. They even shared the franchise’s fan-baiting first Avenger-on-Avenger kiss.

Age of Ultron sees Black Widow yet again employing her feminine charms to help advance a fellow male teammate’s personal growth. The Hulk can now finally control his rage-outs, but her soothing female touch and cooing ministrations are literally the only things that can calm him. In exchange, the nerdly Bruce Banner ignites Romanoff’s long-suppressed lady feels, or something—Whedon gives his favorite character the kind of female troubles only a man can write. The result is an overdue character exploration for Black Widow that still manages to reduce the baddest bitch in the MCU to a shell of a superheroine who’s sad she can never be a complete woman.

In a 2013 Newsweek interview, a post-Avengers, pre-Age of Ultron Whedon expressed his frustrations that the Hollywood machine is designed to not support female superheroes—regardless of how much power players like him want to diversify the landscape. “Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, ‘You see? It can’t be done,’” he said.

“It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, ‘My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, of course they were.’ I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’”

Fast-forward to 2015: Even Marvel Studio’s favorite Avengers auteur seemingly couldn’t manifest more female representation in his own merchandising. Disappointed fans created the hashtag #WheresNatasha after discovering that only three of 60 licensed Marvel/Disney Age of Ultron products featured the Black Widow character—this, despite the fact that Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige deflected persistent Marvel lady questions last year by insisting that Black Widow “has a central leading role” in Age of Ultron. Good enough?

Not really, according to the legions of little girls looking for Black Widow toys on shelves and going home empty-handed:

Feige’s been getting the Black Widow scrutiny for so long his evasiveness on the glaring lack of Marvel stand-alone superheroine vehicles has its own narrative. In 2009, he put it on the Marvel fandom to vote with their dollars for a ScarJo-led stand-alone: “She’s signed on for all of those should we be lucky enough to have an audience that wants to see them.”

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First there was a “back up on the runway” in the crowded MCU. Years of media deflection later, he said a Black Widow stand-alone was still on the table but only in the development stage. “I very much believe in doing it,” he teased again last August. “I very much believe that it’s unfair to say, ‘People don’t want to see movies with female heroes,’ then list five movies that were not very good, therefore, people didn’t go to the movies because they weren’t good movies, versus [because] they were female leads. And they don’t mention Hunger GamesFrozenDivergent. You can go back to Kill Bill or Aliens. These are all female-led movies. It can certainly be done. I hope we do it sooner rather than later.”

This month, he stoked the flames of hope once more: “In my mind there’s room for plenty more Black Widow and certainly more—I think I could see her in a stand-alone film,” he said during the Age of Ultron press tour.  

Even Whedon and Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn couldn’t predict how soon we’ll really see a female superheroine movie. “Captain Marvel isn’t slated for a couple of years yet,” Whedon told The Daily Beast when asked if we’ll see a female president before Hollywood gets a female superhero film. “But hopefully all of it [will happen]. We haven’t seen enough.”

Feige and Marvel may not be ready to green-light a stand-alone around Black Widow, a hero with more grounded powers than her high-flying, tech-enhanced, godlike brethren, whose personal arc might not propel the grand MCU-building scheme along with cataclysmic repercussions. Audiences are hungry for more Johansson. After all, she is the only superheroine we’ve really got. Why not watch the world’s deadliest assassin motorbike off into the sunset to do some soul-searching of her own? 

If only to have something to do other than what studio press notes describe of Black Widow’s role in the sequel: “Balancing out all of the testosterone of the Avengers.” In other words, a fate far too trifling for Earth’s Mightiest Superheroine.