The Top Avenger: It’s Not Who You Think It Is

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So,  The Avengers has come out and it’s amazing, brilliant, a tour de force and vindication for Joss Whedon, blah blah blah. We’ve heard all that, yeah? I’d like to talk today about one aspect of the film that has been up for debate on the internet and weigh in with my opinion.

Who is the top Avenger? That is to say, who is the big dog in this pack of superheroes? The answer for me is equally obvious and surprising. Let’s take a look at the heroes in the film.

Captain America signs on because he’s a soldier. Fury said jump, Cap asked, “How high?” He takes orders and doesn’t really do much unless other people tell him to. He doesn’t even take command in the climactic battle until he’s told to do so by Iron Man. Even though he got the most screen time and is one of my favorite heroes, he’s just not the top dog.


Thor is even worse. He only shows up halfway through the movie and then only complicates things. His initial solution is to take Loki to Asgard without looking back. Great job, Point Break. Did you stop to think your wily half-brother, the god of mischief, would have agents set in motion? No? I’m not surprised. Sadly, Thor doesn’t even get a great emotive scene to himself. We see him verbally spar with Loki (where he is hopelessly outmatched) and we get to see him hit a bunch of stuff with a hammer (where he is undoubtedly the superior combatant). Well, hey, he played to his strengths. The god of thunder isn’t our leading man, either.

Bruce Banner is a compelling choice for lead at first. He plays nice and works with SHIELD to find the Tesseract. He’s helping! Banner’s even fairly charming with his wry demeanor and dry wit. Leading role material, right? Well, no. His problem, as always, is the Hulk: a blunt instrument that causes problems rather than solving them. We see more Hulk than Banner when the chips are down in the latter third of the film. In his first big action scene, the Hulk is the primary threat to the safety of the the SHIELD helicarrier. Props to Bruce for sticking with it, though. Showing up on a busted-ass moped in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan was actually the most heroic moment in the film.

Do we even need to talk about Hawkeye? I mean, the guy was a villain after, like, ten seconds. Don’t get me wrong, he’s cool and I am really looking forward to seeing him in more stuff but he really isn’t lead material in a team film.

Iron Man has to be our guy, right? He’s charming! He’s suave! He’s a genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist, right? Correct on all counts. What about that is heroic, though? He’s pretty lacking in the heroism department and that’s kind of necessary to be the big dog in a pack of supers. “But saved Manhattan by redirecting the nuke up through the portal!” Also true but also kind of my point. Consider this: Tony never makes his own move, never formulates his own plan. He’s purely reactive. No one expected SHIELD to nuke New York. Tony just took an opportunity and ran with it. I’ll give him this much: he finally understood what it meant to be a hero. He understood sacrifice and the greater good. His character growth was at least the most compelling in the film.

That leaves a single Avenger: the Black Widow. Let’s check out her résumé in the film, shall we?

She’s the first hero we see take successful action. Sure, we saw Hawkeye in action before we meet Natasha. What’d he do? Oh, yeah. Dive out of the way of a couple death rays and then get turned into Loki’s personal flying monkey. What does Black Widow do in her first scene? Interrogates a corrupt Russian general and then beats the crap out of three armed men while tied to a chair. How do you spell badass? B-L-A-C-K W-I-D-O-W. Incidentally, that scene also establishes one of the strengths of the character: using an apparent weakness or disadvantage, and the assumptions of more powerful male opponents to her advantage.

So not only does her first scene establish that she is a badass, it also shows us she’s a resourceful, intelligent, and highly observant agent. That’s a pretty good first impression when the first scenes for the other heroes have them getting turned into goombas, trying to weasel out of the action (two of ‘em!), dealing with personal demons, or actively working against the rest of the heroes.

Black Widow is also the most trusted agent in Nick Fury’s command. How do we know this? He gives her the most difficult and dangerous assignment imaginable: bring in Bruce Banner to help. You see, you can’t just bring in Bruce Banner. When you bring in Banner, you bring in the Hulk. Fury sends Black Widow to deal with the most volatile and dangerous metahuman on earth. Why? Because he trusts her and he knows a lesser agent wouldn’t have the necessary skills. With the stakes this high, Fury leaves nothing to chance.

Moving forward through the movie a little bit, we see her tag along with Captain America while he fights Loki. I’m actually a little unclear what her role there is, other than to be a supervising agent. It’s implied later in the film that she can’t fly the jet, though she was in a pilot’s chair all three times we see her in one. At any rate, Fury sends Black Widow as backup for the only truly successful super soldier experiment. To be clear: if the greatest success in the history of human augmentation fails, Fury trusts Black Widow to get the job done. If that’s not a vote of confidence, I don’t know what is.

She’s already eclipsed the dudes in the movie. Black Widow is clearly more competent and level headed than the rest of the superheroes before we even hit halftime. And the best is yet to come.

Back on the helicarrier once Loki is in detention, the supers devolve into petty squabbles and dredge up SHIELD’s secrets. Great guys. Way to play to Loki’s plan. Know who doesn’t get involved in that? Black Widow. Fact: she’s such a badass she’s the only one level headed enough to successfully interrogate the supervillain. How’d she do that? By outwitting the god of mischief. Not only did she get good intel out of him, she beat him at his own game. While the boys are all flexing and trading witty barbs, Black Widow’s gettin’ shit done.

All well and good but how does she she hold up in a crisis? Answer: pretty damn good. Of all the heroes, she had the worst predicament: trapped alone with the Hulk in the belly of a ship. She’s completely, hopelessly, hilariously outclassed. That’s obvious. No one can stand against the rage of the Hulk, which is kind of the point of the Hulk. So what’s she do? Uses her wits. She plays cat and mouse as long as she can, never uses direct force but instead misdirects and obscures. Black Widow plays to her strengths: speed, agility, and tactics. In short: she plays the game the best she can. Sure she gets backhanded across a room by the green guy but look at what happened to Thor when he tangled with Hulk! And that dude has actual superpowers.

The next scene is where people get Black Widow all wrong. We see her huddled in a dark corner, hugging her knees to her chest, and shaking uncontrollably with ragged breath. It’s a moment of weakness and not something we are really shown with the other heroes (though we do see Thor brooding in a field a bit later). Put yourself in her catsuit for a moment. Imagine you were just casually swatted across a room by a creature of power unimaginable. How shaky would your boots be after that? Her triumph, her strength, is getting up despite the terror and going on to successfully engage, defeat, and reclaim her team member Hawkeye. The combined forces of Nick Fury and Maria Hill couldn’t even touch Hawkeye and Black Widow took him down in a brilliant action scene that was both claustrophobic and acrobatic.

At last we come to the climactic battle. The chitauri spill forth from the portal to invade Manhattan. That’s pretty much a worst case scenario, you know? The Avengers engage the enemy in an attempt to stem the tide. A recurring theme of the film is that matching the enemy power for power simply isn’t enough. There are too many of the chitauri for the Avengers to have any hope of success. Manhattan will fall and the world will follow. It’s kind of hopeless.

Except one person understands there’s a different win condition: close the damn portal. Iron Man tried. I’ll give him that. But when his crude, violent, half-assed attempt failed, the testosterone kicked in and Iron Man went Cro-Magnon. C’mon, Tony! You’re supposed to be smart! Use that noggin for something other than a helmet rack. Black Widow understands the situation and takes steps to finish the fight. She gets to the top of Stark Tower and finds a way to close the portal. Think about this: if Nick Fury had been successful in stopping the nuke from being launched at New York, the only hope for Earth’s survival was Black Widow closing the portal. She is the only one whose plan involved actually saving the world and didn’t rely on some stuffy political dudes launching a thermonuclear attack on one of the most heavily populated cities on the planet.

Black Widow is the top Avenger because she’s cool, collected, and has her eye on the endgame even in the face of overwhelming odds or personal nightmares. She’s the only hero who doesn’t get caught up in petty squabbles and she always moves the team one step closer to victory. You know what? I’m perfectly cool with that.


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9 thoughts on “The Top Avenger: It’s Not Who You Think It Is

  1. Pingback: Guest post at Monkey In the Cage »

  2. Great post. I loved Black Widow’s interrogation scenes. During the Loki scene I was getting so angry that they were making her seem so lame, then BAM! she becomes a badass again. So much toying with my emotions!

    Of all the Avengers, Black Widow was given the most developed character in the shortest about of screen time which is surprising due to the rest of the cast.

  3. Definitely a great evaluation of the Avengers and Black Widow. It really shows that Joss Whedon knows how to write female characters, especially since Black Widow is billed as second tier in the whole thing. Great job, Phil!

    Oh, and Robert doesn’t have emotions…

  4. I’m sure it has nothing to do with Joss being able to write female characters as it has everything to do with his ability to cater to women. Gender is a neutral construct of personality and is entirely social based. All this effort on Joss has shown he doesn’t make great female characters, he makes great alpha females that people perceive as normal females. That doesn’t require much effort since the social trust of our group cater dominance with males and Joss just so happens to be a guy. Aka, he knows how to make men trapped inside a woman’s body.

  5. This is one of my favorite articles on our site. I am so happy that we have such intelligent and articulate listeners!

    I can see what you are saying Alex about gender being socially based. Joss gets a ton of credit for writing strong female characters but what he is really doing is just writing strong characters and it’s society that is making the distinction that those characters happens to be female. The reason I think it gets pointed out so much is because not many creators, or rather, not many of the characters that get put out there are strong females. So it’s Joss’ characters have a way of standing out.

  6. this article is so on the money! i completely see how Black widow is top dog. This makes me want to see it again to catch all the examples used in the article. i think if people read the article and see the movie again they”ll see it in a completely different light. Thanks Phil great job!

  7. I disagree strongly. First off, to single out one lone avenger when ALL of them were needed is a redundant. The fact that Widow did her job and did it well doesn’t single her out as top anything. Without the other heroes each one of them would have been doomed and that was the point. The dysfunctional interaction of these usually singular heroes coming together to face something greater than any of them.
    Widow was a single cog in an experimental machine and she upheld her part admirably, but that’s only what she was trained to do. While the other heroes destroy small ARMIES by themselves she is sent to infiltrate and sabotage, which is her job set. To imply the other heroes were unable is incorrect, they were simply fighting to their strengths and slowly coming into their own. Could Widow have smashed those giant flying snake things? Not a chance.
    She was a brilliantly portrayed character and was very well written, as we expect from wheedon, but to my mind she does not outshine the others and they are in no way inept. Each of the other heroes is also just budding, learning and growing. Cap has never lead heroes before, but by the end of the movie his tactics and quick thinking help even the field. Stark learns to sacrifice, Hulk learns a little more control so on.
    And the argument in the helicarrier was orchestrated by Loki. Think back. His staff was prominent in that room all through the arguments, sowing sedition, thats why when Banner gets heated he picks it up, thats why Hulk goes so violent.
    Widow was a strong character but outmatched. She played to her strengths but was a small wheel in a very big machine.

  8. This is so god damned stupid. The writer clearly has some sort of boner for black widow and decided to pull specific instances from the movie in order to make her seem superior in some way. What a terrible article.

  9. you guys are missing the point of the avengers no one is the top dog they all have strengths and weaknesses that is the point. the avengers get together only to fights threats that one could not handle alone. blackwidow is a spy she is good at what she dose but hawkeye is just as good if not better their roles could have easily been reversed if she had been in charge of security of the Tesseract experiment (i dont think she could have done any better then hawkeye). and as for sending her to get the hulk i dont think it was because she was trusted more than any other it was because she was a woman how would you get a dangerous guy to come in. send a big guy that will cause a fight or send a smoking hot red head to talk him into coming in. of course these are just my thought and every one is entitled to there own

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