At first, it’s hard to imagine anyone leaving Marvel’s newest superhero epic, Avengers: Infinity War, wanting more.
Even accounting for the fact that Infinity War doesn’t offer a definitive ending to the Avengers saga (that should be coming next year, with the untitled fourth Avengers picture), it does offer a lot: most of the major Marvel Cinematic Universe characters, mashed together in one huge battle (which is to say, several big battles) against the equal-opportunity genocidal maniac Thanos. Not everyone is equally served; how could they be, in a movie so big it has six MacGuffins? But the character who should have a greater influence on the future of this universe doesn’t even have that many lines. That character isn’t any of the superpowered or super-suited folks mentioned above; it’s Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, as played by Scarlett Johansson.
I’m not talking about the fact that Black Widow deserves her own movie, though of course she does, and it should be a centerpiece of whatever phase Marvel puts together next — Black Panther 2, another Spider-Man, and Black Widow, please and thank you, with bonus points if they hire Steven Soderbergh or Amy Seimetz. But even if Marvel makes Black Widow before Johansson tires of the role, the MCU should do more than just give fans one particular movie they’ve wanted for a while. They should look to Black Widow for cues on how to pull back from the brink of comics-infatuated mumbo-jumbo.
Infinity War, of course, seems designed to bring the material to that brink and then rocket well beyond it. The movie is massively ambitious, sometimes to the point of hubris, in the way it harnesses all-star spectacle and mythology that’s been building for 10 years and almost 20 movies. Marvel seems hellbent on raising the stakes of their interconnected on-screen worlds. Yet apocalyptic portent is not an easy shortcut to dramatic weight. That’s something that, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier carries in far greater supply than Infinity War, a movie so willing to potentially kill off major characters that it threatens to turn itself into a self-impressed game of Clue.
Though Black Widow is one of the most mortal of Marvel’s big-screen superheroes — her powers are created not through a super-serum or fantastical technology, but a spy’s brutal training regimen — she doesn’t figure much into this corpse-roulette game one way or another. She’s treated as one more soldier in the fight against Thanos and his minions, in large part because there are no major Black Widow plotlines to weave into the feature-length quest for Infinity Stones. Her backstory, glimpsed mainly in a dream sequence in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is more seasoning to her character than all-important mythology. Black Widow isn’t interesting because of that backstory; she’s interesting because of how or why she acts in the moment. Her presence in the first two Avengers movies and second two Captain America movies doesn’t feel like a footnote to further MCU history. She has an immediacy in those movies that she lacks while stuck in the background of Infinity War.
Much of Black Widow’s presence comes from the performer playing her. Johansson is a master of opacity, and elsewhere has specialized in characters who operate at some kind of remove from humanity, whether in a bizarre science-fiction sense (the alien in Under the Skin; the woman with insanely enhanced brain power in Lucy; the inquisitive AI of Her) or in a more thematically alienated sense (the dissatisfied young women of Ghost World and Lost in Translation). This quality carries over to Natasha, who certainly isn’t prone to emotional outbursts. In the context of so many other superheroes, this quality becomes oddly refreshing.
Most of the Marvel men operate some kind of charm offensive, successfully conveying the human frailty beneath their phenomenal powers. But, by virtue of appearing in so many movies, sometimes getting stuck repeating their arcs, like Tony Stark forever retiring and un-retiring from the Iron Man business, or Steve Rogers repeatedly fighting against his own government like an eternally disavowed Mission: Impossible operative. Black Widow isn’t especially well-developed as a character when she’s introduced in Iron Man 2 as, essentially, a sexy badass disguised as a sexy office worker. But there’s a great sense of discovery when Joss Whedon’s Avengers writes her as a bit more dry-witted and pragmatic, or when she becomes an important colleague and confidante to Captain America in Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War.
Though Natasha’s background is outlandish by “normal” standards, Johansson grounds her Marvel material with a strong sense of an individual who may be exceptional in her skill set, but nonetheless still needs to make sense of the fantastical world around her. (Though the movies don’t make a big deal of this, she’s also a working woman in a (super) man’s world.)
What we don’t see of Black Widow is almost as interesting as what we do, and while she has plenty of kickass fight scenes, many of her best moments — playfully questioning Cap while they go on the run in Winter Soldier, attempting to counsel T’Challa after the death of his father in Civil War — go beyond genre requirements. Johansson has been knocked for a flat affect, but that signature ScarJo look is kind of a magic trick. She has the charisma to draw audiences into her orbit before revealing subtleties of her humor or empathy.
There’s little room for any of these quieter moments in Infinity War, a movie that very much wants to be bigger and more important than its predecessors. The trouble is, a movie that’s more important to the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t necessarily more important to ours. There’s enjoyment in its world-ending, Marvel-brand spectacle: Quips! Crazy planets! Fun character combinations! But when the movie fails to give Johansson more than a handful of close-ups, it sleeps on one of its least expensive, least insular special effects.
Black Widow isn’t the only such budget effect in the MCU. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye has a similar role in Age of Ultron, and Black Panther’s instant fan-favorite Shuri (Letitia Wright) has superhuman intelligence without bombastic physical manifestations of her power, to name two. Obviously, a whole universe of now-intergalactic superhero action isn’t going to re-orient itself to focus on professional spies, wise-ass scientists, and archers. But as the MCU gets bigger, crazier, and more cosmic, it ought to hold the line on characters who don’t wield impossibly massive weapons or take routine trips to space — the ones who can bring these stories back to earth.
Infinity War may be the biggest Marvel movie, but it’s far from the best. It turns out the spectacle of teaming up every possible superhero at their disposal can’t match the sparks of superheroes, big and small, attempting to relate to each other.