September 9, 2012 by Devin
I went into The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) with the expressed desire to not compare it to The Avengers. After all, I really enjoyed The Avengers, and no matter how good TDKR was, it would not match up to the level of hype and excitement that I had for The Avengers.
Still, I’ve recently come to the realization that comparing the two movies could lead to a greater understanding of them as movies and what they say about humans. The movies have similar themes and events, but go in incredibly different directions. I am not going to say which movie is better, but I do want to analyze how they approach their given subjects of interest.
This is intended as a multi-part series, with the first entry dedicated to how the two movies treat their femme fatales: Catwoman and The Black Widow.
(just to be clear, there will be serious spoilers for both of these movies)
Catwoman and Black Widow both fill the role of the token female character in their respective movies, but they do so much more than that. They are eye-candy, and fully aware of this fact, but they also exist as characters with lots of flaws and imperfections. They differ deeply in these imperfections, and their struggles to overcome those imperfections provide a fascinating look at how humans look at redemption. While they are similar in a lot of ways, including how they use their appearance as a weapon, they differ in where their weaknesses are and how they overcome their faults.
Not So Helpless Little Girls
The biggest connection between the two characters is the appearance of helplessness. When Black Widow is introduced, she is apparently being interrogated by a Russian mob boss while tied to a chair. In another universe, Catwoman has dealings with a mob boss as well, and he also appears to have the advantage, calling Catwoman’s bluffs and forcing her into a deal she does not like.
And then, in both movies, the positions are suddenly reversed. Black Widow reveals that she was the one doing the interrogation and beats up several men with a chair. Catwoman subtly frames the mob boss and walks away unscathed, hiding behind the disguise of a damsel in distress. In these situations, both characters use their appearance as a tool to throw off and fool their enemies.
This is not an uncommon technique. In some ways, it is a bit backward in its thinking. It plays off the assumption that women are supposed to be helpless, and when they are not, it is a surprise. If the appearance of helplessness was the one trick that these ponies knew, as female characters in other movies often are, they would be boring and flat.
Somewhat Helpless Little Girls
The fascinating aspect of these characters, and where they begin to diverge in their interpretations, is where they show weakness. Showing weakness in female characters is a tricky business; show too much weakness and they will seem completely helpless, while show too little and they are flat characters indistinguishable from the muscle-head male characters.
In The Avengers, The Black Widow almost seems like she cannot be hurt for most of the movie. She is played as strong and confident, not opening up to anyone with her only hot button topic being the fate of Hawkeye. She even managed to deceive Loki, the god of trickery, and by extension, the audience. Despite her first appearance, we believe that she is a broken individual who is cut deep by Loki’s words. Her turnaround of the situation is one of the most unexpected and enthralling parts of the movie. But later we find out that she was, for all her tricks and fake crying, actually affected by Loki. “I’ve been compromised,” she tells Hawkeye. Her weakness is in her past, something Loki had managed to tap into. She was a very bad girl, and she’s trying to get past that. She looks secure, but in a lot of ways, she is insecure about her ultimate salvation, whether she is really a “good” person or not.
In TDKR, Catwoman’s weakness seems to be her judgment. Whether she is “good” or not is really not the issue. Bruce Wayne seems to think that she is good, and thus the audience assumes that she is, at her core, good. But she’s misguided. She chases after one thing, believing it to be her salvation, only to find out that it is filled with empty promises. She thinks the mob will save her, but they do not. She thinks Bane will save her, but he does not. She wants to get rid of her past, much like Black Widow, but not because she is concerned about the morality of her past actions. She does not see any contradiction in stealing and murdering to erase her past record of stealing and murdering. Instead, she is fundamentally concerned with the question, “How must I best live?” Is the mob going to provide he out to best live? Is Bane’s new political structure going to give her the best life? Or is her best life something she has to create for herself? Ultimately, her arc is about her exploring the different answers to this question until she comes to find a savior.
That Red Ledger
As I have been hinting at, both characters are primarily concerned with getting rid of their past, but they go about it in vastly different ways. Catwoman is primarily concerned with how her past affects her. She is not keeping track of her past fouls; someone else is, and if she can wipe that slate clean, she believes that she will be free.
Black Widow is a lot more noble in her intentions. She is, by most accounts, free. She does not seem to be in trouble with the law anymore, and even if she was not able to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. due to a forced employment, she clearly does not want to. For her, redemption is both more personal and more social. She is concerned with how her past affected others. She is not trying to get rid of the red on her ledger by getting rid of the ledger, as Catwoman is, but rather by covering up the red with black. Redemption, for her, is not a single action, but rather a process.
The biggest difference between Catwoman and the Black Widow’s quests for redemption is that Catwoman finds it. Batman is essentially Jesus in this movie; a man who gave up his life in order to erase the sins of those who believed in him (to give Catwoman the clean slate). Her arc is about finding redemption by finding relationships. In the beginning of the movie, she is essentially a sociopath, which explains why she is not concerned with the morality of her actions and only how they affect her. But her relationship with Batman moves her away from this sociopathic nature and toward one of actual empathy. She never quites sheds her sociopathic nature completely, but she does show, by the end of the movie, that she can care for someone other than herself.
However, there is no Jesus in The Avengers. Black Widow, at the end of the movie, still has a lot of red in her record, and even though she helped save New York City and possibly the world, I doubt she considers herself redeemed. Instead, her quest for redemption will likely be never-ending, a perpetual state of trying to make up for past wrongs. In this way, she is more honest with herself than Catwoman (did Catwoman truly make up for her past actions?), but she is also put in a near-hopeless state of seeking forgiveness.
In a lot of ways, these characters are vastly similar. Both are strong female characters in otherwise male-centered movies that prove that they are more than just pretty faces. And they both have a similar need–redemption. However, both of these characters show completely different aspects of redemption. Catwoman looks at it from the exterior, that redemption is about people not having anything against you, while Black Widow looks at it from the interior, that redemption is about doing more good than wrong. Both views touch on different aspects of the human condition and reflect not only on how we can be saved, but also how we must live.
So what do you think? Did you find Catwoman and Black Widow as similar or different as I did, and was there anything I missed about the characters? Let me know in the comments below.