Unsure who Black Widow is? Having trouble deciphering the Hulk’s roar? Can’t tell the difference between Iron Man and the Iron Giant? In anticipation of the release of The Avengers on May 4, EW’s team of super geeks is here to help guide you through the mythos with our seven-part series of superhero primers, the recently declassified “Avengers Files.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a comic book connoisseur or a Nick Fury newbie — follow along this week as we deconstruct Earth’s mightiest heroes and pose the question: Which Avenger is the mightiest?
Name: Black Widow
First movie appearance: Iron Man 2, $312.4 million domestic, $623.9 worldwide
Portrayed by: Black Widow was a perpetual bit player in various Marvel cartoon shows, most notably in The Super Hero Squad Show, where she was voiced by Lena Headey (a.k.a. Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones). It’s fair to say that Scarlett Johansson’s role as the Widow in Iron Man 2 is probably the first time most people had ever heard of the character.
Origin story: The Black Widow was originally introduced as a Russian femme fatale, an orphan raised to be a seductive superspy and an expert martial artist. (Basically, remember the Rocky IV training montage where Ivan Drago gets turned into a superman by Soviet Science? Replace Dolph Lundgren with an attractive redhead, and you’ve got the Black Widow’s origin story.) After some early run-ins with superheroes, she quickly converted to the cause of justice/America and joined the Avengers. As the years have passed and the term “Soviet Union” has become somewhat less topical, Black Widow’s origin has been occasionally updated. Perhaps understandably, Iron Man 2 doesn’t deal with her backstory at all, and Johansson doesn’t even try for a Russian accent.
Weapon/Superpower: Classically, the Widow doesn’t have any superpowers beyond an action-star’s ability to fight several people at once. She does have some mean bracelets which contain a raft of weaponry, including some “stingers” — think Batman’s utility belt, but on her wrists. On the big screen, Widow usually just carries a gun or two.
Outfit: After some early missteps, including an outré bouffant-and-orgy-mask costume, the Black Widow adopted her skintight black-leather look in 1970.
Secret identity: Her real name is Natasha Romanoff (short for “Romanovna”), but like many of the supporting Avengers, Black Widow doesn’t really do much with her secret identity. She’s a full-time spy.
Love life: Where do we begin? In the comic books, Black Widow has been occasionally linked to Hawkeye — she seduced him back in her Soviet days and then actually wound up falling for the guy. Her most consistent relationship has been with Matthew Murdock, a.k.a. the blind superhero Daredevil. It’s difficult to explain exactly how Black Widow fell in with Daredevil — it was the ’70s, they both wore skintight outfits — and they’ve never really managed to make it work, possibly because she’s a Russian superspy and he’s a crusading lawyer from Hell’s Kitchen.
In Black Widow’s first comics appearance, she was trying to seduce Tony Stark — a plot point that Iron Man 2 neatly played with, introducing Natasha as an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent working for Stark. She didn’t try to seduce him, though, possibly because two ginger-haired love interests is just too much for one movie. However, Scarlett Johansson being Scarlett Johansson, it seems likely that Movie-Black Widow will have some love interest at some point.
Sample tweet: [Redacted].
Black Widow, In Charge: In the salad days of the go-go ’90s comic book boom, when every major character had at least four different monthly comic books and the industry couldn’t push out enough spin-offs, there was a period in time when the mainline Avengers comic book was mostly dominated by bit players like Sersei, the Black Knight, and Crystal — characters made even more anonymous by the decision to dress everyone in Avengers-trademarked Members Only jackets, which I swear to god actually happened. Anyhow, it was right around this moment that Black Widow became leader of the Avengers.
Why she might be the best Avenger: Like Hawkeye, Black Widow is a consummate supporting character. Unlike Hawkeye, who’s basically an eternally genial dudely dude, Widow has a livewire personality that has let her serve as a great utility player in various capacities for decades. She’s been a double agent and a stern commanding officer. She has the attitude of someone who can eat men alive, which oddly makes her a great go-to love interest. In stark contrast to the other Avengers, who are all defined with very vivid characterizations, Widow has managed to outlive her original Soviet context specifically by being a kind of chameleon. She always knows more than she’s letting on, which makes her eternally interesting, even though she doesn’t have any superpowers. Could it be that, in the end, having no superpowers is really the greatest superpower of all?
Why she might NOT be the best Avenger: The answer to my last question is “No.”
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich