Scarlett Johansson on the scrutiny of Black Widow

Black Widow never has it easy.

Onscreen, Natasha Romanov has an agonizing backstory and is working like hell to do enough good to erase the red from her moral ledger, redeeming a history of bad deeds that we are only allowed to imagine with acts of heroism that defy belief.

Offscreen, much of what Scarlett Johansson’s character does is scrutinized through the lens of gender politics. As one of the few female protagonists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (until recently), some view her not just as an individual character but as a representative for all womankind. That’s heavy lifting even for a superhero.

Amid accusations that her story arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron was stereotyped and offensive — because, like Tony Stark, she expressed a desire to step back from saving the world (and maybe find someone in it to love, and love her back) — Black Widow became a lightning rod.

Some accused writer-director Joss Whedon of sexism for a storyline that involved Widow developing romantic feelings for Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner in the comic-book version of the Beauty and the Beast folktale. Others were outraged that Widow expressed regret over the juvenile assassin program that forced her to be sterilized. Still others took offense at that complaint, saying the desire to have a family doesn’t mean a woman can’t have a career (beating the hell out of evildoers, or otherwise).

NPR’s pop culture critic Linda Holmes astutely noted that even if you swapped out Widow’s story in Ultron with the arcs of any of her male co-Avengers, each would still “raise questions of whether the story was influenced by gender stereotypes.” If she was Iron Man, she’d be the problem-causer. If she was Captain America, she’d be the uptight one. If she was Hulk, she’d have out-of-control emotions. And so on…

Add to that the scarcity of Black Widow toys, which caused universal uproar, even from Ruffalo, who tweeted about the need for Marvel merchandising to do a better job of inviting young girls to play in this universe, and Natasha Romanov starts to emerge not just as a warrior but a battlefield.

Which brings us to Captain America: Civil War. Where does Natasha’s fifth appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe find her?

This time, she’s on the side of order, aligning — at least for a while — with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man in trying to get Captain America to honor the global Sokovia Accords that force “enhanced individuals” to operate under government control.

In one scene EW watched being filmed this summer, she and Tony Stark have a quiet moment after being given an ultimatum to bring down the rogue Cap — or else the U.S. government will do it in permanent fashion.

Stark rubs at the center of his chest, where his ARC reactor was once embedded. “You know the problem with a fully functional heart…? It’s stressful,” he tells Natasha.

She’s all business: “We are painfully understaffed.”

“It’d be pretty awesome if we had a Hulk,” he tells her.

But they don’t. And Widow, still harboring feelings for Bruce Banner, who was last seen venturing off into self-imposed isolation in the Avengers’ Quinjet — knows that better than anyone.

During a break in filming, we caught up with Johansson, and asked what she thinks of the tug-of-war over her character.

Where is Natasha’s head these days? In what state do we find her after the events of Age of Ultron?
My gosh, this is like a therapy session! When we last saw her I think the stakes were astronomical. And she basically had to make this choice between [duty] and what she probably deserves. I think up until this point, she has put the hours in and is ready for…

To be, or not to be, an Avenger?
[Laughs] You know, I don’t think she’s ever aspired to become an Avenger. That’s not really a choice that she made. It’s kind of like the events in her life led her to that point and when we see her [in Civil War], she’s finally capable of making a choice for herself. Which is kind of a milestone in someone’s life when they’ve not really participated in the decisions that were made for them. She’s finally at a place where she’s going, “Okay, I actually kind of know what I want. And I think I kind of deserve it.”

But she’s still in the fight. So is that what she wants?
Unfortunately the events that took place… she has this kind of greater calling and this huge pull towards doing what’s right for the greater good. And she chooses that, and it’s a really heroic thing that she does, I think.

Widow appeared to be leading the team of new Avengers we saw at the end of Ultron, gathered at their headquarters.
Yeah, I don’t know if she’s leading this team but she’s certainly, she’s — I think Natasha’s a very strategic thinker and that’s her strong point. Her superpowers, if you want to call them that, are her experience, her ability to make usually the right decision in a quick moment, in a tight minute. And she’s not personally invested. I mean, that’s what she tells herself anyway. And so that keeps her head kind of level and clear.

She seems to be leaning strongly toward Iron Man’s side of things.
I think when you find her in Civil War, she’s looking to strategize her position, putting herself in a place where she is able to let the powers that be fight it out or whatever amongst themselves. She’s always a little bit on the perimeter so she can have a better perspective of what’s really going on.

Divide and conquer?
She’s never been one to divide and conquer. I don’t think that’s her. She’s seen that and it never works. She would see this as a kind of, it’s more complicated than picking sides, you know?

In the scenes you shot today, is she angry at Cap over what he’s done, the way Tony is?
You know, I think she understands where everyone is coming from. And none of it really matters to her, you know? There’s a bigger problem at hand and she’s, I think, strangely, kind of the mediator. Which is not exactly how you would imagine her to be. But I think she really does see both sides of the coin and I think her strength is that she’s not personally involved.

Kind of like that party scene in Ultron where she doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate strength or purity by trying to lift Thor’s hammer? She’s not out to prove anything to others?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think she knows what her strengths are, and I think she has the ability to be a leader of sorts, but she works well in a team.

How did Bruce Banner going away at the end of the last movie leave her feeling, after she reached out to him and he turned her away — then ran away?
I imagine that there are a couple of ways you could respond to that. Maybe you want to call it abandonment or whatever it is, exactly. Vulnerability, rejection. I think that you can turn inward and be very hurt and bitter and that would have been an easier choice. But she understands that Banner did what he had to do. Certainly she’s not going to be the person to chastise someone who’s not ready to open up. I don’t think she’s taking it personally.

Is she kind of like, “Hey, your loss?”
I don’t think even it’s that. I think she’s just, it’s not the right time. It’s one of those things where you think of the person with a lot of fondness. You keep that in a warm place in your heart for them. It would have been very easy for us to take that and turn it into bitterness in this film and have her be reactive. But that would be out of character, I think.

Will that storyline continue?
I don’t know. There is little room for romance in Civil War; I think there is a lot going on that doesn’t really involve big heart-to-hearts. I mean it’s certainly in there and there’s references to it. But this is not the opportunity for us to explore the Widow’s deep, personal backstory.

What do you hope for the character as the Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps expanding?
My hope for the Widow is, we’ve certainly grown from film to film. We’re building these different layers of her character. And seeing her, I think we’ve kind of grown together. She’s very capable — and I think she’s emotionally capable. I think you’ll see her coming into her own in this story.

Do you get much input into what she does and what she says?
Of course. And what her motivation is for making the decisions that she does. I had a lot of conversations with Joss about what she sees in Banner. Or why is she, at this point in her life, able to be open in this way? We both followed that storyline with a lot of confidence that it was the right arc for my character up until that point.

What are your feelings about the scrutiny Widow’s stories get?
You know, I’m happy that people scrutinize the Widow’s storylines and care about it and are invested. I’d much rather it be like that than have a kind of “meh” reaction. For me to have people say that would be, ouch, you know? Everything that I’ve done with the Widow, to me makes sense. It’s in line with active decisions that I’ve made for the character. I’ve been able to develop this character very closely with Joss and [Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo].

So when people get fired up, you’re like, all right, we pushed some buttons?
Yes, of course! That’s better than the mediocre reaction, definitely. We expect that. The character is so beloved. You can only hope that people are going have opinions about it, you know? She somehow ends up always on top, even if you’re not always in agreement with how she gets there.