Here’s the thing about action heroines on film, they work or they don’t. Audiences will buy them right away or dismiss them as silly and unbelievable. Same thing goes for their male counterparts. It’s a tough sell to begin with, the idea of a costumed super hero especially, and movies have about thirty seconds where an audience will make their decisions. Yesterday, I saw Iron Man 2, and Scarlett Johannson is on screen for almost the entire film as her secret identity, a buttoned-up hyper intelligent assistant to Tony Stark and Pepper Pots. So when she finally shows up in her trademark black catsuit near the finale and starts doing her real job, it only took me a few seconds to love it.
I’ve never been a Johannson fan. I’ve never disliked her, but she’s never won me over in other roles. She was most convincing in, “Match Point”, but she did have a tick that has always bothered me. She, along with Julia Stiles and Kirsten Dunst, doesn’t often act with her eyes. She doesn’t express herself from the chin up very well, and as picky as that is, it’s always bothered me. But yesterday it worked. Becasue it was her job to play it cool and collected, an action heroine that’s been trained to fight and doesn’t panic in the face of danger. So the trait that has always bothered me in her other films actually worked really well in this case.
Also, this is one of the first times I’ve seen her in a role that requires her character to act and not simply be acted upon. Her role in, “He’s Just Not That Into You”, her helpless clone in, “The Island” and many others she’s taken have cast her as a pseudo villain, a victim, or a girl you yell at through the screen, “You’re doing the wrong thing!” Frustrating characters that we just want to push in the right direction. So seeing her alongside an also more active and likeable Gwyneth Paltrow was a great step in the right direction to making her more accessible for people like me who have never really been able to get on board with her before. Together, those two roles created a more balanced Iron Man movie for me, creating the level-headed antonyms to Tony Stark’s spontaneous hyperactivity. (Which I also loved, Robert Downey Jr. can do no wrong onscreen.)
I’d run into the Black Widow a few times over my years of comic book reading, but I never really was a great fan. Again, didn’t dislike her, just didn’t see her often enough to form much of an opinion. Which also worked in the film’s favor. When your favorite makes the leap from comic book page to movie screen, the pressure is always on. But when a virtual unknown, in my case, the Black Widow, makes the jump, you can relax and enjoy the show. And that I did. Tremendously. I cheered for crying out loud.
So in a way, Johannson and the Black Widow were tied together, making this either a break-through role for the actress or a flop. I see it as a break-through performance, even though it was such a small part of the film. Johannson has seen a lot of critical success and is already an A-lister. But it takes a special kind of sensibility to pull off an action role, and I think she fit in really well with the rest of the down-to-Earth, you could run into these people on the street cast and Favreau’s fun and relaxed directing style.
When Black Widow finally has a job to do, her action scene is intense and exciting. Instead of just punching and kicking, she (thanks to an incredible stunt woman and some great work by Scarlett Johannson) has a fighting style all her own. It involves a lot of sliding around, a lot of graceful martial arts, some dirty tricks, and a good old fashioned can of mace.
In fact, there was something almost humorous about her attack style. At one point, she punches a man in his nether-regions…which usually annoys me because it’s a cliche. But what do we always hear at self-defense class ladies? Eyes or groin. Also, the fact that the Black Widow carries a can of mace just tickled me. She’s not above using the same tried and true self-defense tactics that we have to use. Why? Because they work!
There was something extra empowering about seeing a cat-suited action heroine up there on the big screen defending herself the same way that we regular Janes do. Though God forbid we ever have to do so, it was almost a wink and a nudge, or so it felt, to an appreciative (in my case) female audience.
A trained super agent would use her natural advantages, such as her grace of movement, if she lacked super strength or any other super power. The same things that I love about Batman (I know, different universe) made me appreciate the Black Widow. She’s just an ordinary woman with a lot of dedication and discipline, and okay, some nifty gadgets on her utility belt. Now that’s an action heroine I can get behind. Because I’m not familiar with her comic story lines, I don’t know how true to her origins she is, but I like that she’s not imbued with any supernatural powers.
I also appreciate the casting of Johannson for another reason. Even though I felt that she was far skinnier than she usually is, at least the woman has some curves! I’m so sick and tired of, as Bridget Jones would say, American stick insects being the only actresses to get the action parts. What’s wrong with having a shape for crying out loud? I love it when people are fit, and my goodness they have to be in roles like this, but I also appreciate it when a woman is allowed to have an hourglass figure and a chest!
I’d love to see the aesthetics of beauty shift back to the 1950’s. I’d even take the early 90’s. What if action heroines started looking like Jane Russell instead of Madonna-bots? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Though the last time that happened was Alicia Silverstone in the unfortunate, “Batman and Robin”, and she was leveled as being “fat”. Which she wasn’t, she was simply closer to normal. If the movie had been salvageable in any way critically, I wonder if the response would have been different somehow?
I just hope that the next trend in beauty is shape and form and not just over-exercised spindles with veiny arms. There, I said it. Rant over. The point is that I approve of the Black Widow having hips! At least she’s got something for her trademark belt to rest upon!
Before I saw the movie, I saw a quote from Johannson somewhere talking about how she hoped audiences liked her so she could get the Black Widow her own movie. To which I say, bring it on! If an over-critical nit-picky geek like me can get with the program in this case, then by all means, give that woman her own movie. I’m starved for action heroines. The ratio of male to female action-centric movies is still grossly ill-proportioned in favor of male stars. With the geek community growing as it is, trust us movie studios, the female audiences want their own action stars, and not just in bit-parts and cameos and not just as tortured love interests!
What about you, what did you think of the Black Widow?