Post #25: Black Widow’s Latin
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Monday May 23 2016
Daring new devices will help us to succeed!
Better tools for living will meet our every need!
Incredible inventions through new technology;
Extending life's dimensions for all humanity!
Modern marvels rising around us
Bring progress in dazzling display!
So keep your eyes on that shining horizon!
Make way for tomorrow today!
--“Make Way For Tomorrow”, song at the Stark Expo in Iron Man 2
The recent release of Captain America: Civil War and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s strong ensemble role in it inspired me to re-watch Natasha’s first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in Iron Man 2. For some reason I had forgotten that Latin makes a small, though as we’ll see important, Stan Lee-like cameo in that film in a quotation spoken by none other than Natasha herself.
This got me thinking about the role that classical antiquity plays in the superhero genre. Obviously this was on my mind because of the premier of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in March with the first cinematic appearance of the Amazon princess Wonder Woman. Indeed, of the Big Two comics publishers, Detective Comics (DC) wears its classical influences on its sleeve. Wonder Woman, an Amazon princess who frequently interacts with the ancient Greek gods, is probably the most famous example. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, famously were inspired by, among other ancient characters, Hercules (see Wandtke 2012: 58). The 3,000 year-old Shazam’s name has classical references in Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. The super-fast Flash is based on Hermes/Mercury, up to his wide-brimmed, winged petasus helmet. Marvel superheroes, on the other hand, are decidedly less engaged with ancient Greece and Rome, perhaps because they were created in the 1960s and beyond, a time of declining Latin and Greek enrollments in the face of the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957. Well, we can always hope for Hercules to end up on the Avengers roster someday…
Of all the MCU films to date, antiquity appears only in Iron Man 2—ironic, given the technocratic focus of Iron Man. The lyrics quoted at the top of this entry speak to the Walt Disney-like optimism about technology and the valorization of the future. Iron Man 2 problematizes this attitude, since the villain of the film, Ivan Vanko, attacks Tony because Tony’s father was instrumental in getting Ivan’s scientist father deported from the US.
And yet: Latin. Tony meets the new head of his company’s legal department, Natalie Rushman, AKA Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, who, unbeknownst to him, has been embedded into Stark Enterprises in order to keep tabs on him for the secretive government organization SHIELD (figure 1).
As she pummels Tony’s assistant Happy Hogan in Tony’s private boxing ring, Tony Googles her and discusses her considerable language skills with his CEO Virginia “Pepper” Potts (figure 2).
TONY: She's fluent in French, Italian, Russian, Latin. Who speaks Latin?
PEPPER: No one speaks Latin.
TONY: No one speaks Latin?
PEPPER: It's a dead language. You can read Latin or you can write Latin, but you can't speak Latin...
After SHIELD chief Nick Fury reveals Natasha’s true identity as a covert agent (figure 3), Tony confronts her.
TONY: Is there anything real about you? Do you even speak Latin?
WIDOW: Fallaces sunt rerum species.
TONY: Which means…? Wait. What? What did you just say?
WIDOW: It means you can either drive yourself home or I can have you collected.
Scarlett Johanssen’s Latin in this scene is decent, though she pronounces species without the “i.” (A friend of mine in the USF History department, Dr. Chris Stroop, has lamented to me how bad Black Widow’s Russian is in 2012’s The Avengers—incongruous, given Natasha’s past as a KGB agent!). Natasha’s English gloss is not quite what her Latin means. Literally, the phrase means “The appearances of things are deceptive.” For a film as focused on technology as the Iron Man series, this Latin phrase is surprisingly central to its themes. Fallaces sunt rerum species applies most immediately in this scene to Natasha’s cover in Stark Enterprises, her and SHIELD’s power over Tony at this point, and Tony’s deceptiveness and mini-breakdown in Iron Man 2 as the result of his deteriorating health. More broadly, the Latin phrase also applies to the vulnerability of Iron Man’s armor in the first attack by Vanko in Monaco (figure 4), to the superficially legitimate CEO Justin Hammer employing Ivan, and Tony Stark’s mistrust intentions as a superhero (a news reporter at one point says, “When Mr. Stark announced that he was indeed Iron Man, he was making a promise to America. We trusted that he would look out for us. He obviously did not.”) Nothing is what it seems.
Now, Natasha’s Latin of course delivers on the promise earlier in the film that she’s multilingual. One can only imagine how and why an ex-KGB agent and current SHIELD operative would know Latin, but the scene certainly adds to the character’s impressive abilities. But Widow’s Latin becomes even more interesting when we consider its ancient source. Her phrase is an almost word-for-word quotation of the first-century AD Roman philosopher Seneca’s disquisition De Beneficiis (On Benefits) 4.34.1. I quote the relevant part of passage in Latin first, followed by an English translation.
“Multa” inquit “intervenient, propter quae et malus pro bono subrepat et bonus pro malo displiceat; fallaces enim sunt rerum species, quibus credidimus.” Quis negat? sed nihil aliud invenio, per quod cogitationem regam. His veritas mihi vestigiis sequenda est, certiora non habeo; haec ut quam diligentissime aestimem, operam dabo nec cito illis adsentiar.
“Many circumstances,” you say, “will arise that will enable a bad man to creep into the place of a good one, and the good man will lose favor instead of the bad one. For appearances are deceptive, and it is these we trust.” Who denies it? Yet I find nothing else from which to form an opinion. These are the footprints I must follow in my search for truth, I have nothing that is more trustworthy. I shall take pains to consider these with all possible care, and will not be hasty in granting my agreement. ... If I know that a man is ungrateful, I shall not give him a benefit. Yet if he has tricked me, if he has imposed upon me, no blame attaches to the giver because I made the gift supposing that the man would be grateful. (trans. Basore, Moral Essays Vol. III 1935: 275; modifications by Vincent Tomasso)
In this passage, Seneca is answering the objection by an imaginary critic of his philosophy that everyone should give others benefits without regard for personal gain. Here the critic points out that it’s hard to give benefits to just anyone, since it’s impossible to know whether recipients will turn out to be good or bad. Seneca responds by stating that we all must use our best judgement and re-asserts his belief that one should give benefits for their own sake and not for what may be received in return.
At this point, I’m not altogether certain whether Natasha’s quote was selected for its context in the De Beneficiis, but I’d like to believe that whoever chose it (perhaps screenwriter Justin Theroux of David Lynch fame??) did so because it reflected the main trajectory of Iron Man 2: that Tony Stark chooses to benefit society because he is Iron Man and that for him “to bestow a benefit and to return gratitude for it are [sort of] in themselves desirable ends” (4.1.2).
We can only hope Natasha’s Latin makes a resurgence in her future solo Black Widow film!
Header image photo credit: screen capture from Iron Man 2 (Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios).