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Is Black Widow as close as we’ll ever get to a female James Bond?

This week’s Galaxy Brains considers how Black Widow expands the potential of the female spy on screen.

Graphic featuring Daniel Craig as James Bond and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

Even if my good friend and co-host Jonah Ray doesn’t agree, James Bond is cool. He’s the gold standard for the spy movie genre, and all other spy films are compared to the Bond legacy, which spans nearly 60 years. But through that entire history, Bond has never been portrayed by a woman. That’s mainly because the character was conceived as a snobby Englishman, but also because of Hollywood’s long-standing aversion to putting women at the center of big-budget action franchises.

Marvel’s Black Widow does its best to reverse this archaic notion, and places Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh at the center of a globe-trotting espionage adventure. They run, they fight, and they jump off various things from very high places. It’s certainly it’s own thing, a meditation on the meaning of family in a chaotic world, but it’s still indebted to the legacy of Bond. It’s so indebted that Natasha Romanoff sits down to watch the Roger Moore Bond film Moonraker — a sly nod to the absurd, galactic shenanigans that both that movie and the Marvel films share. And, a significant number of the stars of this film — David Harbour, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel Weisz — have an either direct or indirect connection to the Bond franchise. So, is Black Widow as close as we’ll ever get to a female James Bond? Should we even have a female James Bond?

In a new episode of Galaxy Brains, I’m joined by Amanda Ohlke, the Director of Adult Education for the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., who digs into the history of women in the spy game and helps me decide whether or not there will ever be a female James Bond. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation (which has been edited for clarity)

Dave: I want to ask you about gender in this film and gender in the spy genre in general. It’s very rare that we get a cinematic portrayal of a female spy. And there’s been a lot of talk on the Internet about how maybe we should have a female James Bond, but hopefully maybe this movie will kind of scratch that itch that people have for a female James Bond. Do you think that that’s the case?

Amanda: Well, it’s never going to scratch the itch entirely. But we wouldn’t want a woman to be like Bond. He was accused by M, long ago, of being a chauvinistic dinosaur. And so it’s very, very intriguing and cool to see Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in the film. And they are empowered women. But I hated the many, many women who are the minions in this, all those weirdos that fanned out around the globe and happened to be incredibly amazing looking.

Dave: Interesting that you bring that up. It did remind me of the fembot from Austin Powers, which we discussed last week. But we talked about in this episode the idea of free will and the idea of who is the owner of a woman’s body. And obviously in this movie, they’re very explicit things where these people are being controlled with a serum. You know, they’re brainwashed. Essentially, they don’t have agency over their own bodies. And so the movie is about two women rescuing a group of women

Amanda: It really is. I totally agree with you. I thought, gosh, all these women, they’re being coerced against their will. They’re under the control of one elderly white guy, you know, and he’s just calling all the shots and pulling all the strings. But I love the relationship between the two sisters, and then I just love that they were going to do this mission because it sounded like it was going to be fun. And I had a smile on my face for a lot of that. It felt like real women talking to each other and very capable people who are, you know, maybe what they do is kill people, but they’re really good at it. And, you know, they’re proud of their skills. And now they’re going to use these skills for something good and something meaningful. And that is a really cool turning of the tables.

Dave: I’m glad you mentioned the idea of fun, because I think in most spy fiction, the job of the spy, the espionage world is seen as fun. You know, it’s seen as kind of like a swingin’ cool thing to do, especially in the 1960s, when the James Bond archetype ruled every single spy film that ever existed. It was only after the Bourne movies came along that I think Hollywood really started to see the interest in a more gritty, kind of unpleasant gray picture of the spy film. So how close is the idea of the fun, boozy, exciting spy world to the actual real spy world?

Amanda: Our former director at the Spy Museum, Peter Earnest, comes to mind. CIA veteran of the clandestine service who never understood why I love the following story so much. But he was at a cocktail party and he knew he had to plant a listening device, a recording device in the office of the man who is hosting the party. His wife at the time was on lookout. Peter’s wearing a tux. He slips out of the party unobtrusively, goes downstairs, spreads his pocket handkerchief across the top of his suit, lies on the floor, gets under the desk. Drills in this listening device to the bottom of the desk where it won’t be noticed, gathers up the handkerchief where the shavings from the drilling have fallen, so they’re not on him and they’re not evidence. Peter puts that in his pocket and returns to the party for I’m sure, another martini shaken, not stirred.

Dave: So that sounds fun to me. I would do that.