Performing Persona: Black Widow and Hawkeye

Considering the Avengers Superheroes

Performing Persona: Black Widow and Hawkeye

“Our personas represent the roles we play on the worldly stage; they are the masks we carry throughout this game of living in external reality” (Whitmont 14). All superheroes are superficial persona as well as the subconscious brought to light. The world knows them as patriotic Captain America, mighty Iron Man, unerring Hawkeye. This is truest for Black Widow, a name with associations far beyond her character.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Widow first appears as “Natalie Rushman,” paralegal (and Fury’s spy!) in Iron Man 2. In almost her first moment, she throws Tony’s boxing instructor to the ground. However, along with her languages and paralegal training, she also has a past as a supermodel in Tokyo, complicating her feminine strength. As Tony objectifies her, pleading, “I want one,” she instantly becomes his assistant, a sort of arm candy complete with revealing cleavage. After a scene changing in the backseat, complete with Happy Hogan staring at her (and by doing so, inviting male watchers to do likewise), she changes into a black catsuit, and shows off her amazing fighting skills. Perfectly controlled, not wasting a blow, she pulverizes a building full of guards, while the male chauffer comically defeats just one.

Despite her strength, her role as sexy star reassures viewers that she’s less of a threat to men’s power in superhero flicks. “That contemporary action heroine actresses are routinely drawn from the ranks of ex-models (Milla Jovovich, Rhone Mitra, Pamela Anderson, Natassia Malthe, etc.) or actresses known foremost as sex symbols (Halle Berry, Uma Thurman, Jennifer Garner, Kiera Knightly, etc.) ensures that any connotations of butchiness are offset by their status as undeniable feminine ideals” (Brown 203). Thus once more she balances femme and fatale.

Many critics have analyzed excessive femininity as performance, a way of reassuring the men by burying aggression, strength, and dominance in sweetness. Psychoanalyst Joan Riviére analyzes this type of disguise in her 1929 essay “Womanliness as Masquerade.” She suggests flaunting exaggerated femininity in this manner is a type of mask adopted by women “to hide their possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she were found to possess it” (38). Any strength must come through lipstick and seduction – this disguise grows so profound that it becomes a definition of femininity in itself. Natasha on The Avengers pretends to cry, gets tied up and acts helpless, wears a skintight bodysuit (to say nothing of her modeling shots on Iron Man 2). All this seems artificial, a way of captivating men as a Black Widow in truth.

The heroine who has had too much weight from society placed on her may have extreme difficulty finding herself among the too-strong persona or personas society demands. “Under each jacket is another jacket: the naked selfhood cannot be reached in the cold atmosphere of a mere reflected reality” (Whitmont 16). Natalia “Natasha” Alianovna Romanova has had many names and many identities, from ballerina to wife, agent, double agent and spy. She’s had a myriad of costumes and lovers through her fifty-year history. As she slides through multiple roles in multiple films – a femme fatale, a soldier, Steve Rogers’ confidante and fellow rebel, she emphasizes her flexibility. The truth behind the spy has not yet been revealed. The audience has never seen the real her, and it’s possible Natasha hasn’t either.

Black Widow first appeared as an Iron Man villain in Tales of Suspense #53 (1964), as the farthest thing possible from an action heroine. In a low-cut emerald dress with webbing over her cleavage, she charms Tony Stark on behalf of her Soviet masters. Literally everyone she encounters describes her as “beautiful.” She’s also a superficial character, as she happily dwells on Tony’s good looks and wealth. She’s easily distracted by a jewelry display in a shop. “Cunning and ruthless though she may be, Madame Natasha is a woman…and as such, she loves pretty things!” the caption announces (Tales of Suspense #53). She steals his antigravity gun until of course, he stops her. On a second encounter, her crocodile tears of repentance earn Tony’s forgiveness.

She soon meets Hawkeye, a circus performer known as “The World’s Greatest Marksman” accused of theft, and running from the police. He plunges into her getaway car, sees her, and exclaims, “This is one dream I don’t ever want to wake up from,” while the caption describes “the daring, dazzling, dangerous Black Widow!” (Tales of Suspense #57). His desperate love for her makes him her willing pawn.

Black Widow, meanwhile, soon sheds her gown for a supersuit. Natasha’s superiors decide, “Lady, you need a costume” and in Tales of Suspense #64 (1965), she wears a blue skintight suit with something of a fishnet pattern. With the new costume, complete with clinging boots and weaponized bracelets, her role changes – she’s physically capable through her gadgetry rather than wheedling men into doing her bidding.

Once again, she charms Hawkeye into a partnership. She adds a mask to her own costume, imitating her subordinate rather than the reverse in confusing iconography. “All that remained was to design a mask! And I made one to resemble yours, Hawkeye...For you shall again be my partner!” she tells him (Tales of Suspense #64).

In the film of course he becomes a shadow of himself as Loki hypnotizes him into compliance. “You ever had someone take your brain and play? Pull you out and stuff something else in? Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?” he asks Black Widow.

“You know I do,” she replies. Neither character reveals a full backstory onscreen, though both hint at one that mirrors their history in the comics as partners working for evil. In the comics, Black Widow was the one to corrupt weak-willed Hawkeye. In the film she has a different backstory:

Loki: Is this love, Agent Romanoff?

Natasha: Love is for children. I owe him a debt.

Loki: Tell me.

Natasha: Before I worked for S.H.I.E.L.D., I uh...well, I made a name for myself. I have a very specific skillset. I didn’t care who I used it for, or on. I got on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar in a bad way. Agent Barton was sent to kill me, he made a different call.

Natasha is a spy, best behind the scenes rather than in battle (perhaps that’s why she’s outmatched against the Hulk and Chitauri, and functions best when interrogating Loki or going in alone to turn Hawkeye back to the side of goodness). Clint asks Natasha, “You’re a spy, not a soldier. Now you want to wade into a war. Why? What did Loki do to you?” Her only response is, “I’ve been compromised. I got red in my ledger. I’d like to wipe it out.” She, like Hawkeye, killed decent people once and now intends to spend her life doing good, saving innocents in at least an attempt to battle the scales.

It certainly can be argued that being one of the smallest members of a superteam with grandiose powers is not the best use of her skills. Nonetheless, she suits up and heads into war. Black Widow’s suit is tough black, popular with cosplayers for its powerful, sexy simplicity. While Black Widow in the sixties blended in as a spy in alluring gowns, the suit is more of a superhero costume. As such, it proclaims that the wearer is someone dangerous, with powers beyond those of ordinary mortals. In essence, wearing it makes her a superhero. She dons it in all three movies when she heads into battle. Scarlet Johanssen notes of the outfit:

It’s totally empowering because once you get on the belt and the gloves and the bracelets and your guns and the boots, it looks great. It’s bad-ass! And when I have my legs wrapped around some giant stunt guy’s head, and feel totally ridiculous hanging on for dear life… it sells it. [The costume] totally sells things that would otherwise look absolutely absurd. It changes the way you stand; it changes your posture. You’re more aware of your body, obviously. I think when you walk on the set everybody’s like, yeah, it’s the Widow: looks good. I’ve grown to love it. First, I was terrified of it; and now I embrace it because it embraces me, actually. (Blum)

She first dons the famed skintight black costume in Stan Lee’s The Amazing Spider-Man #86 (July 1970). After an encounter with the Red Guardian, who is actually the Black Widow’s husband whom she presumed was dead, she wants to make a change. She proclaims, “In order to erase every last vestige of that past...I’ll begin by designing a new costume for myself.” As she explains to herself, surprising readers by washing the black dye from her long, red hair, “I’ve got to become…the Black Widow once again. I’ve got to do what I do best…to fulfill my destiny…to help me forget…the haunted past!” She goes maskless, emphasizing that her face, like her costume, is an outward persona used to manipulate others.

In the next panel, Black Widow dons the tight black outfit, adding, “It may not be as fancy, but this new costume will be more in keeping with the swingy seventies! … And with the modern image of the new Black Widow.” As she also notes, her costume will “be the envy of my jet set crowd from Jackie on down!” It’s powerful as well, sporting wristbands that shoot a “widow’s line” wire for swinging, tear gas pellets, and a “widow’s bite” electric stinger. She adds a golden chain belt to hold her “spare web-line” and “the powerlets for my widow’s bite.” She ends the comic by deciding, “I have my own unusual powers, my own style of combat, and my own strange destiny to fulfill! So whatever dangers lie ahead … I’ll face them my way … as the Black Widow!”

“At the time, I think this elevated Black Widow to the level of icon,” says Nathan Edmondson, the writer behind the current Black Widow ongoing series. “The suit was like an invitation, a uniform offered to the character as she was escorted into the halls of fame—or infamy, as the case may be. Comics are a medium—and isn’t all of storytelling?—that is built upon iconography, and that means, for superheroes, a suit” (White). With a few changes through the year, the iconic black is the suit she wears today.

In her new outfit, Black Widow led her own series in Amazing Adventures #1 (1970), written by Gary Friedrich and drawn by John Buscema. Beside the Inhumans, Black Widow became the first female Marvel superhero with her own ongoing monthly series. “As the lead character in her own ongoing adventures, the Widow gained a level of competence and expertise rarely afforded to guest stars. She even gained a supporting cast of her own in Ivan, her confidant and driver. It’s here in these issues that Black Widow goes from being a femme fatale to a force of nature by combining her new weapons with an updated and ferocious fighting style” (White). In The Ultimates comic, Hawkeye and Natasha dress identically in body-concealing black armor with long leather dusters, belts stuffed with spy-tech, and sunglasses. In The Avengers, both their outfits are more tight and revealing.

“When her amazing adventures came to an end after eight issues, Black Widow had irreversibly transformed into the powerhouse character we now see today in comics, cartoons, and films” (White). Unlike most of her contemporaries, who must be aged up or rebooted every decade, the Black Widow of the comics is seventy years old. As a young spy, she was given a drug to prevent her aging. Thus she is static, unaging as she watches the decades going by. On the film she lacks this augmentation. The computer identifies her as born in 1984 – either it is mistaken or she’s far younger than her comic counterpart…though it’s unclear why the KGB would program her in the 1990s.

Black Widow doesn’t come out well in Avengers. She’s good at interrogation, but against the superpowered Hulk, all she can do is run until Thor steps in to save her. She saves Hawkeye, but he is a normal human, the weakest Avenger of the bunch. In The Ultimates comic, by contrast, Natasha performs truly superhuman stunts, leaping from one building to another to snatch a rifle from midair. In Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, she charms allies and enemies as apparently her greatest superpower.

By contrast, Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees her as a more competent spy. However, as she banters with Steve, he complains that she isn’t trustworthy, as she’s dishonest in every moment.

Natasha Romanoff: Nobody special, though?

[Steve chuckles]

Steve Rogers: Believe it or not, it’s kind of hard to find someone with shared life experience.

Natasha Romanoff: Well, that’s alright, you just make something up.

Steve Rogers: What, like you?

Natasha Romanoff: I don’t know. The truth is a matter of circumstances, it’s not all things to all people all the time. And neither am I.

Steve Rogers: That’s a tough way to live.

Natasha Romanoff: It’s a good way not to die, though.

Steve Rogers: You know, it’s kind of hard to trust someone when you don’t know who that someone really is.

Natasha Romanoff: Yeah. Who do you want me to be?

Steve Rogers: How about a friend?

[Natasha laughs softly]

Natasha Romanoff: Well, there’s a chance you might be in the wrong business, Rogers.

Her challenge here is sorting through her identity in a lifetime of lying and being lied to, using and being used. As she adds in the film, “When I first joined S.H.I.E.L.D., I thought it was going straight. But I guess I just traded in the KGB for Hydra. I thought I knew whose lies I was telling, but...I guess I can’t tell the difference anymore.”

She defeats Hydra by disabling their security protocols and dumping all their secrets onto the Internet. As a spy, she understands their weakest point. Their leader functions as her shadow – one with as much to lose as she has. Alexander Pierce tells her, “If you do this, none of your past is going to remain hidden.” She hesitates for a telling moment, then continues.

Alexander Pierce: Are you sure you’re ready for the world to see you as you really are?

Natasha Romanoff: Are you?

While she uses her spy powers, complete with disguise, to stop him, then punishes him with a spy’s worst fear, discovery, she has much further to go. As shown through her conversation with Steve, she hasn’t found real friends or lovers, only debts and allies. To form a meaningful relationship, she would have to share herself, a circumstance that seems quite unlikely. Until then, she will continue to wear her masks of badass fighter, costume-changing spy, and seductress, all artificial layers over whatever true self exists. She ends the movie noting, “I blew all my covers. I gotta go figure out a new one.” It seems her masquerade will continue. Perhaps this shallow surface is the reason she hasn’t been given a film, as writers can’t find anything to latch onto, no vulnerability or truth. All they can do is have her strike down foes or change clothes.

As Scarlet Johanssen notes, “It would be wonderful to have the challenge of doing a female superhero movie where the protagonist didn’t kind of rest on her feminine wiles and use every opportunity to strike a sexy pose in order to get the job done” (Blum). Kevin Feige describes her role in Avengers 2, saying: “We learn more about her past and learn more about where she came from and how she became in that film. The notion of exploring that even further in her own film would be great, and we have some development work with that” (Brew). However, to make a real breakthrough, the character would need to display honesty and vulnerability. Perhaps as Natasha continues to appear, viewers will discover what, if anything, lies below her perfect face.

This is adapted from Valerie Estelle Frankel’s book, The Avengers Face Their Dark Sides: Mastering the Myth-Making behind the Marvel Superheroes It guides fans through each of the Marvel films, exploring the psychological and symbolic trauma each character faces, along with a full set of the films’ easter eggs.

Works Cited

The Avengers. Dir. Joss Whedon. Disney Studios, 2012. DVD.

Blum, Matt “Scarlett Johansson on Black Widow’s Character Evolution, Solo Movie Chances, and Kicking Ass in The Winter Soldier” Geek Dad 3 April 2014.

Brew, Simon. “Avengers 2, and a Black Widow solo film.” Den of Geek 13 Feb 2014.

Brown, Jeffrey A. Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture. USA: University of Mississippi, 2011.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dir. Anthony and Joe Russo. Disney Studios, 2014. DVD.

Iron Man 2. Dir. Jon Favreau. Disney Studios, 2010. DVD.

Lee, Stan (w) and John Romita Sr (i). Amazing Spider-Man #86 (July 1970). Black Widow: The Sting of the Widow. Ed. Jennifer Grunwald. New York: Marvel, 2009.

Lee, Stan, N. Korok (w), and Don Heck (i) Tales of Suspense #52 (April 1964). Black Widow: The Sting of the Widow . Ed. Jennifer Grunwald. New York: Marvel, 2009.

Riviére, Joan. “Womanliness as Masquerade.” Formations of Fantasy. Eds. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1986.

White, Brett. “Marvel Women of the Seventies: Black Widow.” 7 July 2014

Whitmont, Edward E. “Persona: The Mask We Wear for the Game of Living.” Mirrors of the Self: Archetypal Images that Shape Your Life. Ed. Christine Downing. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. 14-18.

Valerie Estelle Frankel
Valerie Estelle Frankel
Read next: Best Customizable Games
Valerie Estelle Frankel
See all posts by Valerie Estelle Frankel