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The Treatment of Black Widow is Marvel’s Great Shame

Marvel needs to learn from its decade-long mistreatment of its original female Avenger.

NOTE: This post contains a multitude of spoilers for Avengers: Endgame. If you are not one of the millions of people who saw this film last weekend, turn back now, or risk being spoiled in the next paragraph.

Avengers: Endgame is a period point. It is a film seeking resolution for a group of heroes that turned a once-inconceivable idea into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Whether it was Tony Stark’s sacrifice, Steve Rogers’ time travel-aided retirement, or Thor’s destiny as a swashbuckling space pirate, each of the original six Avengers all found closure for their journeys, paving the way for the next generation of heroes.

Not all closure is created equal, however. Just ask Black Widow.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 3

Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff, played with steely resolve by Scarlett Johansson, has had a tricky history in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She began in 2010’s Iron Man 2 as a mysterious assistant to Tony Stark, ostensibly meant to distract the superhero at his lowest point, but was revealed to be a stone-cold assassin under Nick Fury’s employ. Her role was fleshed out in 2012’s blockbuster The Avengers, serving as a formidable on-the-ground force during the great battle before Grand Central Station, and further in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as she helped Steve Rogers take down SHIELD after it was infiltrated by Nazi regime HYDRA. 2015’s Age of Ultron decided that a romance was in the cards, not by building on her genuine chemistry with Steve, but with The Hulk instead. It was a storyline that was met with a collective head-scratch, and was made worse by the revelation that their incompatible relationship could work because she had been sterilized during her assassin training.

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Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Avengers: Endgame

That tone-deaf arc was indicative of the larger issue with Black Widow’s role in the MCU: Marvel seemed unable or unwilling to fully engage with her character. Unlike every other Avenger (Hawkeye notwithstanding), Natasha didn’t have an origin film, even though there was enough unknown character history to warrant one. Natasha’s character – her wants, desires, and motivations – were built on the sidelines while her male counterparts drove plot. Despite Johansson’s best efforts, Natasha was always shortchanged, never given the space to develop into a fully realized character. Natasha’s best character arc came in Captain America’s second solo film. She ultimately came to represent Marvel’s most glaring flaw: its abysmal record on meaningful representation and diversity across gender, race and sexuality.

The progress that Marvel has made on two of those fronts (there are no canonically queer superhero characters yet in MCU) boded well for Black Widow’s role in Endgame, which she headed into as one of the key survivors of Thanos’ snap. With half of the world’s population erased, one would assume that Natasha would finally have something more to do than play second or sixth fiddle. The possibilities were plentiful. How would she cope with the reality of the snap? How would she rise to the occasion and help reverse it? And, if this is supposed to be the end of the line for this iteration of the Avengers, where does it leave her?

The Russos’ answer was simple: at the bottom of a cliff at the end of the second act.

Maybe not simple, but certainly convoluted. The beginning of Endgame appeared promising (as an apocalyptic event could be). Five years after the team failed to reverse Thanos’ snap, Natasha had taken on the mantle of Avengers leader after Tony absconded with Pepper to the woods, Steve began crisis counseling, Thor became Jeff Bridges, Bruce got better CGI and Clint became a grieving Hot Topic cliché. While processing her own feelings of loss (through highly relatable peanut butter sandwiches), Natasha appeared resolute in pushing forward to protect the world, as Nick Fury trained her to do all those years ago. When Scott Lang was freed from the Quantum Realm and proposed a time-traveling solution to reverse the snap, Natasha was game. Even as the team slowly reformed to test out the time travel theory, and Natasha became shifting from the forefront, there was still a sense that she was the glue holding the group together.

Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner in Avengers: Endgame

The team went through the Quantum Realm and split to different points in time and space to claim the Infinity Stones and revers Thanos’ genocide. Clint and Natasha were tasked with claiming the Soul Stone, which audiences know from Infinity War lives on the planet Vormir and requires a living sacrifice to obtain. One of them would have to die to get the Stone. It should be noted here that, in the five years since Thanos snapped his entire family, Clint had become much less heroic, committing savageries that turned War Machine’s stomach and put him on Natasha’s permanent yet distant watchlist. Clint lost a lot, but it wasn’t an excuse for callous murder. He understood that, which is why he was ready to make the sacrifice for the Stone. So why did Natasha end up landing with a vicious thud at the bottom of the chasm, after a silly race between the two of them? Endgame would like you to think that it was part of her “whatever it takes” determination, or that she wanted to give Clint a chance to be with his family again.

In reality, it was a copout. There was no narrative necessity for Black Widow’s death, especially when there was a better candidate willing standing right next to her. Clint sacrificing himself would’ve offered him atonement for his post-snap sins, and could’ve given Natasha an opportunity to continue the work she was doing on a more intimate scale, by looking after Clint’s family as he asked. With her battle expertise and experiences on the team, Natasha could’ve been a powerful mentor to his daughter, who we saw training during the cold open, presumably to take his place as Hawkeye. It would’ve been a fitting resolution to a rather poignant character point that was developed earlier in the film, that the Avengers had become the family that she thought could never have (stemming from that plot point from Age of Ultron). What a lovely path for Natasha that would’ve been, to step into the role of parental figure, affording her both a resolution and a path forward. Instead, her path was destroyed in favor of a character that people either dislike or feel apathy for. In death, Clint could have achieved a classic hero’s denouement. In life, he pretty much just existed.

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Chris Evans in Avengers: Endgame

Natasha’s sacrifice is a particularly egregious case of “women in refrigerators” syndrome (where female characters – typically romantic interests – are sacrificed to serve as motivation for male characters). For Natasha, the only original female Avenger, to die so carelessly while her male teammates escape largely unscathed (some even emboldened) was a slap in the face to the character. That the mourning period amounted to some crying during a lakeside regroup (Steve’s tears from the trailer were really for his fallen girl Friday) was a disgrace. After declaring that her death must not be in vain, the five remaining male superheroes go on to complete their mission without her, rendering Natasha, like many female characters before her, a line item on the list of heroic motivations for men. Her death wasn’t even deemed worthy enough to occur in the final act, relegating her to a second act afterthought. Her death didn’t drive the story; whether she lived or died, the Avengers were going to reverse the snap. And of course the guys succeeded and headed into the blockbuster final battle, which then had the audacity to include an all-female team-up against Thanos’ army without the founding female Avenger. While Captain Marvel and company made for one of several thrilling moments in the third act, the utter disrespect shown to Black Widow cast a pall. Marvel could talk the talk about female empowerment and representation, but they refused to walk the walk and give a most deserving woman her long-overdue moment.

Marvel’s official explanation for sacking off Natasha and reducing her to even more of a plot device than she already was doesn’t wash. Black Widow always suffered from a deep lack of interest and investment, and Endgame only extended that. Even when studio executives finally came to realize that women (and people of color, for that matter) deserved to be heroes in their own right, they didn’t bother applying that insight to her, when even just a spark of imagination could’ve yielded a truly satisfying character arc. Instead, audiences saw Natasha, never allowed to blossom, completely wilt in a garden rich with opportunities.

There is a Black Widow film finally in the works – it’s safe to say it’s a prequel – but it won’t snap away the years of neglect that her character suffered through. Black Widow’s blood didn’t just stain that chasm on Vormir; it’s a stain on Avengers: Endgame and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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