Black Widow’s rise to badassery arguably began in 2004, when Richard K. Morgan wrote a miniseries that revamped her backstory and gave her a much stronger inner life. And now that we’re all talking about Black Widow in the wake of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Morgan has some thoughts about how to achieve her full potential.
We were already talking to Morgan for our list of brilliant but flawed novels (for which he suggested True Detective, a “novel” on television.) And the conversation turned to Black Widow, and Morgan’s thoughts on why she’s so difficult to capture on the big screen. We found out so much interesting stuff, we wound up turning this into a separate interview.
When you took on Black Widow in 2004, what were you told about the character? What were you able to glean from reading Devin Grayson’s earlier miniseries, or her appearances in Avengers or Daredevil?
My then-editor at Marvel, the very dynamic and kick-ass Jenny Lee, sent me a whole slew of stuff to bring me up to speed. But what I gleaned was mostly pretty depressing — basically, Natasha was the Marvel Universe bike; wheeled out whenever some other (male) superhero needed an edgy love interest, bent into whatever contorting shape suited a classic male gaze.
Even the few stabs at Selfhood that had been attempted tended to construct her as a sort of Bridget Jones beneath the catsuit — yeah, sure, she’s a kick-ass super spy, but underneath it all, she’s just a girl like any other; lonely, wistful, longing for lurrrve……. It’s the equivalent of having Batman peel off his gear and sit obsessing about his Facebook status or if his mates down the pub really like him. Which of course you’ll never see, because, hey, Batman is a male. Male superhero angst translates into strength, not weakness. Those are the rules. As a female, the Widow had just never been given the right to that — somehow HER angst must always weaken her, soften her harder edges — in other words, make her palatable to the fanbase as a woman.
What is so great about Black Widow, in particular, as a character? Why is she uniquely great — not just as one of the few female superheroes to get a big role in the movies, but in her own right? What did you wind up liking about her?
Well, for me it was the sense of genuine moral ambiguity that the Widow carries around with her — a lot of superhero characters whinge on about some heavy burden or other they carry from their past, but this looked like the real deal. You work for the KGB as a field op, you’ve done some evil shit. No debate. And then, crossing over to the Capitalist West is pretty much an ultimate betrayal of your homeland and everything you once stood for, so there’s that to add into the balance. Long story short, here was a character you could really peel back from the cheap plastic morality that hangs around a lot of superhero fiction, and do something far grittier with instead.
Plus, there was the whole gender politics issue, as I already mentioned; Natasha grew up in the Soviet Union, which subscribed to the idea of gender equality, at least in political theory; plenty of women in the Soviet military as a matter of course, plenty of women in all types of work across the Soviet Union, so she would take equality as her due without giving it a second thought. And that was a powerful character base with which to challenge the base assumptions not just of male dominated society in the storyline, but at a meta level of male dominated comicbook fiction too. It looked, potentially, like a game-changer.
Black Widow had frequently been portrayed as a sort of femme fatale spy character previously — how did you approach breaking her out of that? And how is that similar to taking other noir archetypes and breathing life into them, as you did in some of the Takeshi Kovacs books?
I think noir is an immensely powerful — and elastic — lens through which to look at narrative and character. It seems to access something dark and true in us that other modes of fiction are often a bit prissy about touching. But the key to making it work as time and culture moves on is to use the elasticity, not just the power. Push the envelope, see what the form will give you.
The first thing I did in Homecoming was swap out the Widow’s sidekick status — SHE was front and centre now, and I gave her a male sidekick with an adoring (if somewhat sleazy) gaze. I also gave her a modern feminist outlook on her femme fatality, which is to say I gave her full control of it — it’s a weapon in her armory, she’ll use it where she needs to, but she finds the need distasteful, and that distaste was made overt in the narrative.
Similarly, with the spy stuff, the trick was for her to own it; she’s done some shitty things and she’s living with it — but that doesn’t mean a plunge into hand-wringing and tears about being a monster. You don’t see Wolverine doing that shit, do you? The damage in his past serves to strengthen him, not break him down. I just gave Natasha the same kind of strength, tinged with a wry noirish weariness — she’s sour, she’s tough, she’s seen it all, and it didn’t break her then so it sure as shit won’t break her now. She will not fucking cry.
You introduced a lot of elements that have stuck with the character since, including her false memories of being a ballerina, the Red Room where she and other sleeper agents were trained — and the forced sterilization. What were the reasons for adding this backstory?
Yeah, it’s nice to know that some of Homecoming was long-term influential, especially since it sold so — by Marvel standards — appallingly badly at the time.
Again, I think my instinctive reaction to the existing backstory was “Ugh, what a load of regressive bollocks,” and so it had to go. As I said earlier, I was looking to do something meta with the arc, something that would really break the mould. So the ballerina schtick became exactly what in truth it had always been — a stereotypical little-girl dream-past, hiding far uglier truths.
By taking the Widow on a journey back into her past, I was inviting the reader to wake up to what had been done to the character over time, kick it all into touch, and join us right here in the 21st century. I was largely a newcomer to comics back then, so it never occurred to me that there would be huge numbers of comicbook readers who couldn’t or didn’t want to make that journey; that they liked their superannuated Tits n Ass and mawkish tearful femininity bollocks just fine, thank you.
Why was it important to you to have Black Widow unable to have children? How was this part of telling a feminist story about her, in your mind? Black Widow #5 starts with that horrific scene where Lyudmila tells Natasha that “pregnancy is a disease.” Did you worry that this was reducing Natasha to just her fertility or lack thereof? And what was your solution?
That narrative thread actually emerged not from any specific interest in children on Natasha’s part — my sense of the character is that she’s probably not keen on the idea — but because one of her fellow Widows was trying to have kids and had run up against the Red Room biotech that prevented it. So when Natasha finds this out, it’s almost a casual blow. But what’s telling, I think, is her reaction; there are no tears, no mawkishness, no collapse into becoming womanly distress — she’s just very (and dangerously) angry. And it’s important to realise why she’s angry — it’s not because she necessarily wants kids. She’s pissed off because she’s had the choice taken away.
It was always important to me that the Widow should be a genuine woman, not just a kick-ass guy-type character with T&A and legs-up-to-here glued on. And there’s no honest real-world vision of women that doesn’t take having babies into account; it’s what females have been designed for by millions of years of evolution, most women will feel the urge at some point in their lives, and remember I was positing Natasha as getting older — a woman in her late thirties minimum, so that urge might be getting urgent.
But that’s biology. Feminism begins after biology, and in this case it begins with what women do (and more importantly are enabled to do) about that biological urge. See, most women I’ve ever met either already have or at some point want kids, but there are still significant numbers who don’t, or at least don’t right now. But those variations are beside the point — the real point is that among all those women, having or wanting kids or not, I never met a single one who didn’t want the choice. Ultimately, I think, that’s what feminism is about — building a world in which women’s choices are not circumvented by someone (male) else’s agenda.
I read somewhere that you had a third Black Widow miniseries plotted out. What was that going to be about?
Well, to say it was plotted out would be dignifying the state of play a bit too much, I think. But certainly the second volume in the run, The Things They Say About Her, ended on a deliberate Act 2 low-point — the Widow and Matt Murdock both on Homeland Security’s Most Wanted List, Nick Fury banged up in Guantanamo as a traitor, corporate assholes in control of the White House and a puppet President, an ex-Navy SEAL assassin on the Widow’s trail, paid by Miami gangsters but driven by a personal thirst for vengeance (Natasha killed his father), and America spiralling into the grip of a Military Industrial Complex police state.
Quite how we were going to pick the bones out of all that in a further six issues, I wasn’t quite sure — and in the end never had to find out! — but salient factors were going to be the Widow assassinating the President, a dirty-deeds back-door CIA hit squad called INSERT, and the reappearance of Lyudmila from Homecoming with some helpful biotech tips and upgrades. Ultimately, superannuated Soviet relics were going to save America from its own worst excesses and help restore a modicum of democracy — neat irony, huh?
Of course, it was insane to think that Marvel would ever have run with something like that, or that it could find a decently large audience in the core fanbase, not five years after 9/11, in the midst of the biggest and ugliest military misadventure abroad since Vietnam and with cheap chest-beating patriotism being stoked like crazy everywhere you looked. Truth is, I’m lucky they even let me get away with Volume 2! But like I said, I was a newcomer to comics back then, and painfully naive about it all.
Why do you think it’s so hard to do justice to a character like Black Widow on screen? How would you like to see her presented?
I think you’ll never do justice to Natasha, on the blockbuster superhero screen at least, because doing so would be inimical to the whole edifice of superhero fiction. That’s a boys’ club and anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. It’s a franchise machine for feeding the atavistic appetites of 12-14 year old boys and men who’ve somehow grown up retaining a 12-14 year old boy heart.
That’s why all this hating on [Age of Ultron director Joss] Whedon is so unfair, or at least unreasonable — it’s not like he’s writing into a vacuum here; he’s getting paid to do a job, which is to sculpt (and allow in turn to be re-sculpted with studio-level input) a narrative for pre-existing characters that fits in with the Money-spinning Superhero Franchise Machine. Any attempt to write something that didn’t fit within the desired parameters would just earn him a re-direct in notes, and get eliminated in the next draft. Because that’s how the machine works.
You want a Black Widow movie, one that really does the Widow justice, in which she’s Subject rather than Object, you’ve got to cut loose of all that. Superhero fiction is all about atavistic archetypes made flesh, and that shit’s no good for empowered women. Strong, smart, self-reliant women who don’t need men to define them only crop up in the human myth-base in one guise — the Wicked Witch. You’ve got to take the narrative somewhere else. My personal vision? — treat it like an indie passion project; drop the budget, so you don’t have to rely on the broad comicbook fanbase to make your money back, pitch the script for minimum 15 cert, shoot for the crowd who went to see Casino Royale, the Bourne movies, Noomi Rapace in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Angelina Jolie in Salt. Give it a real edge, give it some smarts. Dump the high camp paraphernalia of the Marvel universe and wipe off the perfect lipstick, go for a down and dirty vibe, blood and bruises and broken bones, vicious, desperate close-in combat, seventies-era spy paranoia and betrayal, and the Widow standing defiant in the face of it all. Get David Fincher or Paul Greengrass to direct, soundtrack by Health or Nine Inch Nails. Call it WIDOW: RUSSIAN STEEL, and backlight it in black. That, I’d pay money to see!
Did you read the David Hayter screenplay for the Black Widow movie that was in development in 2004? Rumor has it that it was very closely based on your comics.
I didn’t know that — but I’m immensely flattered. Like I said, my run on the Widow was an artefact of strictly limited appeal (Marvel were very gracious about keeping it going for a second arc when it was clear it was never going to do the numbers) — so it’s really nice to think that someone in Hollywood saw the potential and was prepared to run with it. Even if it was eventually canned!
When a female character has been around for decades, and has been largely defined as a sex symbol, or in terms of her relationships to the male characters, how do you extricate her from that? What’s the secret to breathing new life into a character like that?
Actually, it’s colossally simple — you just put yourself in her shoes and give her agency. The same privilege you’d accord any male figure you write. She’s not this chick whose bones you’d love to jump, however cool; she’s not this damsel needing some kind of rescue, emotional or otherwise, from or by means of a handy male insert; she’s not your mother, your sister, your daughter, however dearly loved. She is YOU — now go BE her, and make it good.
And finally, what are you working on now — and is the Altered Carbon movie still in the works?
Altered Carbon continues to advance steadily towards the screen with Mythology and Laeta Kalogridis; there’ve been some interesting developments in that connection, but unfortunately I’m not at liberty to discuss any of them right now.
Meantime — because it doesn’t pay to dwell too much on stuff like that - I’m keeping busy putting together a new noir SF novel called THIN AIR; it’s set in the Black Man/Thirteen universe but on Mars and some time further forward in the colonisation process. Expect savage neoliberal colonial economics, corrupt cops and seedy backstreet violence, and a protagonist every bit as fucked up as Marsalis or Kovacs. It’s my first shot at first-person noir narrative since Woken Furies — feels good to be back!