This article contains major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
When the Marvel Cinematic Universe first introduced Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, it left no ambiguity as to what audiences were supposed to make of her. In the guise of a notary, with dark red hair undulating around a skintight white shirt buttoned sub-sternum, she instantly reduces both Tony Stark and Happy Hogan to peacocking putzes. Natasha Romanova was a former KGB assassin, a world-class martial artist, and (apparently) a gifted hacker, but in Iron Man 2, it was clear that she was first and foremost a sex object.
“Where’s she from?” Tony asks Pepper. “She is from legal, and she is potentially a very expensive sexual-harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling her like that,” Pepper replies. While they’re conversing, Black Widow disarms Happy in a mock fighting bout with her signature fighting move, gripping his neck between her thighs and squeezing tight. As Tony Googles her, an image of Romanova posing in black lingerie on a white fur rug pops up on-screen. After Black Widow walks away with her notarized documents, he offers his final verdict: “I want one.”
You could say that the MCU has come a long way, baby, since its ickier early iterations. (I winced rewatching Iron Man 2 recently when Tony encounters a journalist whom he slept with in the previous movie and Pepper bitchily remarks that “she did quite a spread on Tony last year.” “And she wrote a story as well,” Tony counters. Ba-dum-bum.) Though it would take another nine years for a movie focused on a female character to actually materialize, Marvel movies introduced, in the meantime, Valkyrie and Okoye and Shuri and Hela, women who were warriors, prodigies, death incarnate. Then they debuted Captain Marvel, possibly the most powerful superhero in the universe, and one blissfully unencumbered so far by any romantic distractions.