Outside of the old serials from the '40's, I'm not what you'd call a connoisseur of super-hero movies. I've seen a few, mostly under protest, like Superman: the Movie, and, most recently, Iron Man (because, believe it or not, the Good Mrs. Benson wanted to see it). But I've given a pass to nearly all the others. But I don't live on the dark side of the moon, either, so I know that the upcoming sequel Iron Man 2 includes a large part for the character of the Black Widow. There has been a lot of buzz about this, over the actress who portrayed her and how she looks in black, skin-tight latex, and the prominent rôle that Natasha Romanoff has in the film.
It's things like this that make me realise how the mind-sets of comics fans change over the generations. You see, I remember when the Black Widow was little more than a supporting character, and that was a step down from being a villainess. She was one of those characters that, no matter how the writers honed and tweaked her, could never quite break through to the big time. At least, not during the Silver Age.
There was certainly nothing fresh or novel about her original concept. When the Black Widow debuted in "The Crimson Dynamo Strikes Again", from Tales of Suspense # 52 (Apr., 1964), she was a Soviet agent. In those days, the Iron Man series was steeped in Cold War intrigue and virtually every other story involved some Communist plot to steal Tony Stark's newest invention or destroy Stark Munitions outright (back when being an American arms-manufacturer was looked upon as a good thing). Madame Natasha came right from Central Casting's idea of a female spy: raven-haired, sultry, exotically beautiful, and dressed to kill in a satin evening gown, arm-length gloves, and a fur stole.
Like I said, it wasn’t new. The femme fatale is a long-standing convention in literature: From Nicole Wallace to Sumuru to the Dragon Lady, all the way back to the Biblical Delilah. But having established Tony Stark as a womaniser, tossing an evil seductress his way certainly seemed appropriate. In Tales of Suspense # 52, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev seeks vengeance on Professor Vanko---the former Crimson Dynamo, who defected to America after losing in battle to Iron Man a few issues earlier. Vanko now works for Stark. The scheme is to divert the playboy industrialist’s attention long enough for a Commie operative to infiltrate his plant and assassinate Vanko. For this mission, the premier assigns the seductive Black Widow and the brutish Boris.
As “Madame Natasha”, the Black Widow brazens her way into Stark’s office and seduces Tony into taking her to dinner. This leaves the way clear for Boris to track down Vanko in his laboratory. Instead of killing the defector on the spot, Boris takes things into his own hands. He kayos Vanko and dons the professor’s old Crimson Dynamo armour. He then proceeds to destroy the plant, hoping to lure Iron Man to the scene. After Stark Munitions lies in ruins and Iron Man is defeated, Boris expects to return to Mother Russia a conquering hero.
Plainly, Boris was a mite lacking in the strategy department. If he had simply killed Vanko, as ordered, and left the plant, no-one would have discovered it until morning. But smashing machinery and demolishing buildings tends to get noticed, and word gets back to Tony Stark. Despite her wiliest wiles, Natasha is unable to keep Stark from leaving her behind, to change to Iron Man and return to his factory while he still has one. Unfortunately for his dreams of glory, Boris doesn’t prove to be half the Crimson Dynamo that Vanko was. Comrade Boris buys it in an explosion, and the Black Widow takes it on the lam, afraid to face her government’s retribution for her failure.
It was essentially a secondary rôle for the Black Widow, with Boris doing nearly all the dirty work. It was a bit unusual, given the Widow’s cover-featured debut. (On the other hand, the blurb “Introducing the Gorgeous New Menace of . . . Boris!” wouldn’t quite have the same zing.) But when she returns in the next issue, Tales of Suspense # 53 (May, 1964), it’s her show all the way, as depicted in the title, “The Black Widow Strikes Again!”
Hoping to get back in Khrushchev’s good graces, Natasha plots to steal Tony Stark’s newest invention, an anti-gravity device. Dressed in her slinkiest gown, she goes to see Stark. He is aware that she is a Soviet spy, but the ol’ lover-boy figures that he can out-schmooze her and proudly shows off his anti-gravity apparatus. The Widow cranks up the charm, though, and with all that blood rushing out of his brain, Tony falls for the old “Oh, I feel faint” routine. Natasha gives him a dose of paralysis gas and makes off with his anti-grav device.
Natasha contacts the Kremlin. Khrushchev tells her that all will be forgiven if she brings Stark’s invention back to Russia. Oh, and kill Stark and Iron Man first. Apparently, Comrade K is one of those guys who wears a belt and suspenders, because he dispatches a squad of Commie musclemen to America, to make sure the Widow gets the job done. They aren’t too high in I.Q. points, though, and their ham-fisted interference attracts Iron Man. Ol’ Shellhead makes quick work of lot of them. Still, it’s not a clean sweep for the good guys---the anti-gravity device is irreparably damaged and the Black Widow gets away.
Somehow, between this defeat and her next appearance, in Tales of Suspense # 57 (Sep., 1964), Natasha manages to persuade her Red bosses to give her a third chance. They set her up in spacious Long Island mansion, complete with wall-to-wall scientific equipment. It comes in handy when she rescues Hawkeye the Marksman from the police. The archer, mistaken for a thief in his first costumed outing, needs a place to hide out.
Even after he became a bona fide super-hero, Hawkeye wasn’t a deep thinker, but here, at the dawn of his costumed career, he never stood a chance. The Widow bats her eyelashes and thrusts out a hip, and the archer’s brain is on auto-pilot. He’s so smitten with her that he quickly agrees to clobber Iron Man for her, never bothering to question just why the Golden Avenger would be her “mortal enemy”.
Using some of the gadgetry from her lab, Hawkeye crafts some high-tech arrows and then goes to beard the lion in his den. He openly invades the Stark factory and confronts Iron Man. Incredibly, round one goes to Hawkeye when he nails the hero with a fusillade of corrosive acid arrows. One spare set of iron duds later, though, Shellhead comes back with a vengeance, sending the bowman scurrying for cover.
Almost down for the count, Hawkeye unleashes an explosive-tipped shaft. Iron Man’s armour withstands the brunt of the resultant blast, but the concussion injures the Black Widow, waiting near-by in hope of the hero’s defeat. Hawkeye quits the battle to rush his fallen lady love to medical help and Iron Man is too dazed from the explosion to stop him.
Evidently, the Widow wasn’t hurt that badly because Tales of Suspense # 60 (Dec., 1964) shows her back to plotting her evil Commie schemes and Hawkeye still her faithful lapdog. She sics the love-stricken archer on Iron Man again, with the same outcome as last time. Natasha attempts to aid Hawkeye, but before she can do so, she is abducted by a cell of American-based Commies. She is taken back to Russia, to be “re-educated” by her masters, fed up with her constant failures.
This final sequence reveals something telling. Until now, the Widow has been manipulating Hawkeye, coldly playing him like a Stradivarius. But as the captive Natasha is ferried back across the Iron Curtain, she realises that she feels something for the bowman, after all. It also marks the last time we see her in her femme-fatale incarnation---which wasn’t working out all that hot, anyway.
A new Black Widow is unveiled in Tales of Suspense # 64 (Apr., 1965). A flashback brings us up to date on what happened to her after Soviet agents dragged her back to Russia. To her astonishment, Khrushchev does not order her death. (Khrushchev appeared so frequently in the early Iron Man series, you could practically list him as a supporting character.)
“I cannot have you shot! It would be an admission that my plan failed!” barks the Soviet premier.
Instead, he orders her to attack Iron Man, again. But Natasha’s eyes have finally opened to the downside of working for a government in which a firing squad usually accompanies a negative work evaluation.
“I won’t! No matter what you do to me!” she replies defiantly. “I’m through serving your evil purposes!”
But if there is one thing the Commies are good at, it’s motivational techniques. Comrade K trots out Natasha’s mother and father at gunpoint. “Surely you don’t want the State to treat them as the parents of a . . . traitor!” he points out.
(I know, I know . . . later, a revised history of the Black Widow established that she was orphaned as a child, and no doubt this scene was explicated away, but I deal with how it was then. And then, she had parents.)
Natasha relents, and she is subjected to a total make-over. She is given a costume of a black bodice set off with black mesh, black gloves, and a snazzy black half-length cape. Among the stylish accessories are a pair of black boots equipped with special suction devices which enable her to walk on any surface, even ceilings. And a bracelet which fires a nylon line, suitable for swinging from rooftops.
And she is given her marching orders: “Return to America . . . and this time Iron Man must be destroyed . . . by any means at your disposal!”
Once back in the Land of the Free, the Widow returns to Hawkeye and admits that she has developed feelings for him. She also confesses to being a Communist agent. Hawkeye is overjoyed to have her back, but balks when she asks him to help in her mission. He won’t betray his country. But when Natasha gives him a little pout and tells him that she’s only asking for one teeny-tiny, eency-weency, little thing---destroy Iron Man---the besotted bowman’s resistance crumbles.
Given how the last two times they tried to defeat Iron Man turned out, the Widow and Hawkeye decide to stack the odds a little in their favour. They kidnap Tony Stark’s loyal employees, Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts, holding them hostage to ensure the Armoured Avenger’s compliance. Iron Man outwits the pair, however, and frees Happy and Pepper before squaring off with his foes.
It’s a more pitched battle than the previous occasions. Hawkeye manages to damage Shellhead’s armour with acid-arrows again and, armed with her new weapons, the Black Widow takes a more active hand in the conflict. For once, the hero has to sweat a little. In fact, there’s an even chance that he’ll come out on the losing end. In a desperate tactic, Iron Man zaps the Black Widow with a transistor-powered electrical bolt.
Just as when Natasha was injured on their last encounter, Hawkeye drops everything to rescue her---as Iron Man expected. The Widow protests, ordering the archer to finish off Iron Man, but Hawkeye will have none of it. He snatches her up, puts her in a car, and drives off. With his armour damaged, Shellhead is unable to pursue them.
Next time out, we’ll take a look at the Black Widow’s gradual decline to also-ran status, despite Stan Lee’s attempts to keep her a viable character.