Avengers Analyzed: Barton and Romanoff

It’s time to talk about Marvel’s The Avengers once again. We finished with all the superheroes so what’s left to look at? Why, the regular human characters of course!

With four incredibly larger than life characters eating up screen time how are we supposed to relate to anything in this film? Are they even relevant in this story? On the other hand, why do normal people even need superheroes anyways? To help us examine these questions The Avengers gives us Agents Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton, AKA The Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Now before I get into an analysis of these two characters, a quick aside to address the elephants in the room. First, I’m tackling these two characters together because their stories kind of go together and Barton… doesn’t get that much development. The second is the tendency of the fanbase to pair Hawkeye and Widow romantically. I don’t really understand this pairing, I suppose it may have a basis in the comic books but for the most part, in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I don’t see it. These two characters seem to share more the brother and sister relationship of Romanoff and Captain America in The Winter Soldier than serious romantic leanings and I don’t think they would be a good fit. Sure, they share skills and a history but these two things do not a romance make.

Honestly I think the two characters in the MCU that would make a good romantic fit for Romanoff would be Cap or Banner, as their strong moral centers and stable personalities would make a good balance for her shrewd disposition and apparent lack of a strong direction for herself. Barton looks to need someone very assertive and fun, things Nat plays at but don’t appear to be a part of her core personality. I can’t think of an MCU person who fits that mold so I’m not really sure who would make for a good match for him at the moment.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that this is not an analysis of these two characters together in that sense.

Background 

Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton are Agents of SHIELD, one of Marvel’s many, many organizations with somewhat forced acronyms for names. Neither one has been the central character of a movie, in fact both have been peripheral characters in previous appearances. Romanoff was assigned to help SHIELD keep an eye on Tony Stark after his first outing as Iron Man, Barton helped Phil Coulson sort out what was going on with Thor during his first trip to earth. Unfortunately, both characters got little development beyond highly trained spy characters.

Conflict 

Here’s why I think Romanoff and Barton belong together for analysis. I think they share the same conflict – characters vs. god. The personal conflict these two have is against a force utterly beyond their ability to oppose. Even with all their incredible training, equipment and personal willpower neither Barton or Romanoff score a clear win over Loki before joining up with the rest of the Avengers. In this way, these two characters show Earth’s need for the superhero team and at the same time affirm that regular people have a place on that team.

Barton’s Introduction 

Clint Barton is an expert marksman. He specializes in dealing with problems from far away and he frequently does so in a very lethal fashion. He has a distant personality that matches his skills and we see this by the way he distances himself from those around him at the beginning of the movie. We first see him standing on top of a catwalk far away from the rest of the people at the facility he’s tasked with guarding.

Barton doesn’t really fit in with other people but that may be appropriate given rather ghastly nature of what snipers are capable of with modern weaponry. The fact that he says he’s more comfortable watching things from far off only adds to the image of a man who would rather stay at a distance than get too involved in what’s going on. A simple introduction for a pretty simple character. But simple doesn’t mean ineffective.

Barton vs. Loki 

Barton is one of the first characters to confront Loki in The Avengers and he looses. Badly. This creates what is known as the Worf Effect, Hawkeye’s defeat and subsequent loss of free will establishes Loki’s menace in two ways – first, he defeats a highly trained SHIELD agent handily and second he robs that agent of free will as a consequence. In the first five minutes of the movie Clint Barton goes from one of SHIELD’s trump cards to a pawn in the service of the enemy. Not fun times.

Romanoff’s Introduction 

Where Barton is introduced as a loner, distant from all those around him, Natasha is introduced as the center of attention. It’s just not good attention.

Black Widow’s projecting weakness to manipulate those she meets and subsequent defeat of several large men via hand to hand combat skill establish that she is also a formidable individual. She’s also the opposite of Barton, working best up close and indirectly, rather than at a distance and in violent opposition.

I’ve already talked about her first encounter with Bruce Banner at length in Banner’s post, there are a few things we learn about her through this exchange. First, she has great personal courage. She goes to meet the Hulk even though he clearly scares her. Second, she can’t seem to set aside her lies and tricks. Even when Banner proves he sees through her by saying why she’s there – SHIELD does want the Hulk and Romanoff did bring a full team with her – she sticks to her story until Banner forces her hand. Third, while Romanoff is good at lying she’s not always so good at seeing through them.

After all, Banner’s a rank amateur in comparison and she fell for one of his bluffs.

First Bridge 

Most of what Barton and Romanoff do in the first half of the movie, besides playing of the four superheroes at the center of things, is show their skills by taking care of things the superhumans can’t. Romanoff flies Captain America to the confrontation in Stuttgart, Barton finds stuff for Loki and plans how to steal it.

These demonstrations serve to reinforce both how skilled these characters are and how little they seem able to accomplish against Loki. For all his skills Barton didn’t even make him break stride and Romanoff relies on the superior firepower of the Quinnjet during the Stuttgart battle. Things don’t really get much better once Loki is captured.

Romanoff vs Loki 

Much like Tony, Romanoff confronts Loki in a way that’s not directly adversarial. When he’s locked up in the Helicarrier she goes to try and get information out of him and she does so in her usual way. She plays him, pretending to want to know where Hawkeye is, pretending to be guilt ridden, pretending to be weak and vulnerable, all to find out what, exactly, it is he wants on the Helicarrier.

Most people assume that Romanoff wins this confrontation because Loki mentions the Hulk, Romanoff seizes on this fact and then the Hulk proceeds to go wild in the Helicarrier. This assessment is a little weird. Loki is so good at deception that he’s considered an embodiment of it and we never get any indications that he was on the Helicarrier for the Hulk. In point of fact, Loki’s play wasn’t the Hulk at all. His entire purpose on the Helicarrier was to keep the Avenger’s attention focused on him while his mind controlled minions seized control of Stark Tower and prepared to summon the Chituari.

In other words, while Romanoff is a good liar she’s not very good at picking them out and this, combined with the fact that Loki hits three nerves all in one conversation (Barton, Widow’s past and the Hulk), keeps Natasha from noticing she’s being played even as she tries to play Loki herself. Of course, Loki’s intent was not to focus Romanoff’s attention on the Hulk or anything else, but rather to keep her attention squarely on him and not on what others were doing. That’s fitting, since he is a master trickster, and his success in doing so only serves to reinforce how regular humans, even those who are very good at what they do, are ill suited to fight Loki and his minions.

Second Bridge

We enter the third act of the film with the Helicarrier brawl and it’s at this point that Barton is finally broken free of Loki’s mind control. Romanoff helps him get his bearings again and the two agree that they’ll make up for the slip-ups they’ve caused by going out and pounding Loki like the red-headed stepchild he is (metaphorically speaking, of course). Don’t miss the significance of it being Captain America who shows up at the end of the scene and calls them to action, however. These two are going to action again but this time not just as a pair of SHIELD agents but as members of the Avengers.

Conflict Resolution – The Battle of New York 

Some might argue that the reason Barton and Romanoff failed against Loki because they acted against him alone. Not so. Barton was a part of a group during his confrontation. Some might point out that the agents of SHIELD could have figured out what Loki was up to if they had more time to unpack it. Maybe so, but the problem was they had to work faster than Loki’s timetable. Most people can overcome a given problem if they have unlimited time and resources to work with the key to a good story, particularly an action or adventure story, is to limit both.

The point of these two characters is not that they need help overcoming Loki. If that was all it took then SHIELD was in place already. The world didn’t need just any team, it needed the Avengers.

Thus it’s fitting that the two of them are at the heart of wrapping up the battle of New York. While Tony saved New York from over zealous human intervention it was Widow who actually shut down the portal the Chituari were using to invade. Barton was the one who tracked each threat as it came through and made sure it was contained before it could cause too much damage. The Avengers could not have won without them. Yes, the “super” heroes (except for Hulk, who was special) were each able to draw with Loki in their own encounters with him, none of them were able to win alone and Loki backed by an army is even worse.

The point of Barton and Romanoff in this movie is to show that the existing methods for fighting threats to Earth were not up to the task of stopping Loki. Their inability to fight him personally reflects the depth of his power and the limits of their abilities, serving as a microcosm of the problem at large. Once the Avengers existed as a coherent team the conflict is resolved – superspies alone are not equal to the task but all of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are.

So that’s the end of the analysis, right? All the main characters and conflicts are covered, aren’t they? Well, no. See, even with the Avengers all assembled there has to be someone to lead. Next month, in our final installment, we’ll take a look at the leaders of the Avengers. See you then!

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