As her time within the Marvel Cinematic Universe officially comes to a close with Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson is taking stock of her superhero experience. And though most of it was amazing, there were some aspects of playing Black Widow that weren't so great — particularly the sexist way her character was introduced into the comic book canon.
Johansson was famously brought into the MCU in the 2010 film Iron Man 2 as Natasha Romanoff, an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent assigned to watch over the reckless genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) after the events that turned him into a superhero in the first film. Natasha is a skilled agent with a high intellect and superior fighting skills, but her ability isn't what gets her noticed in Iron Man 2; instead, most of the character's onscreen moments were spent pointing out desirable she was rather than demonstrating her impressive skill set.
It's taken some time, but after more than a decade in the MCU, the actress that brought Natasha to life is now able to verbalize her discomfort in the way she was introduced to the sprawling universe. During a group interview on the set of the film, Johansson opened up about Iron Man 2 and what she would have done differently knowing what she knows now.
“10 years have passed, and things have happened, and I have a much different, more evolved understanding of myself," she responded to a question from Hello Beautiful of her time in the MCU. "As a woman, I’m in a different place in my life”
With time and experience, she's been able to look at her position within the franchise through new eyes, and that vantage point shows just how problematic early treatment of Natasha was.
"You look at Iron Man 2, and while it was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualized, you know?" Johansson explained. "Really talked about like she’s a piece of something, like a possession or a thing or whatever — like a piece of ass, really. And [Tony Stark] even refers to her as something like that at one point...and calls her a piece of meat.
"Maybe at that time that actually felt like a compliment, you know what I mean?" she continued. "Because my thinking was different....my own self-worth was probably measured against that type of comment."
Thankfully, the role has evolved over time to be less misogynistic; since Iron Man 2, Natasha has come into her own as one of the founding members of the Avengers, leading the different personalities of the group and even sacrificing her life for them in the stunning Phase Three conclusion Avengers: Endgame. In Natasha's solo film Black Widow, we'll see even more character development, finally going back in time to the hero's origin story and learning more about the people who shaped her path to the Avengers. Through the nuanced storytelling that we'll (hopefully) see in her final MCU gig, Johansson ultimately hopes that young women and girls watching the franchise will be positively influenced.
"It’s changing now," Johansson remarked of the chance in the cultural tide. "Now people, young girls, are getting a much more positive message, but it’s been incredible to be a part of that shift and be able to come out the other side and be a part of that old story, but also progress.”
With a number of female superheroes currently dominating the MCU — including Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and so many more — it really does feel like the right time for Johansson to step away from the franchise because the MCU is in good hands.
This story has been updated with additional information.