The Intricate Evolution of Black Widow

With a ledger dripping red, how does the sole female member of The Avengers' Original Six get her due 11 years later?
Black Widow Feature

After more than a decade of intense crisscrossing stories and immense build-up, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has closed a chapter for some of its most recognizable heroes with the release of Avengers: Endgame. Whether the overall conclusion to various highly-anticipated character arcs pleases avid fans remains contentious online. However, there is no denying that finding closure for every member of The Avengers’ original six becomes a murky business when we consider those who haven’t always had adequate screen time to explore their own origins.

Tracking the likes of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and even to some extent, the Hulk, from their roots to Endgame feels more or less fulfilling, due to their more elaborate, dedicated individual narratives. But what about the remainder of the group, namely perpetual side characters like Hawkeye and Black Widow?

Arguably, it’s been a rocky road for both Scarlett Johansson‘s Natasha Romanoff and Jeremy Renner‘s Clint Barton. The former has always commanded a bigger spotlight than the latter by far. Black Widow’s inclusion in many of the MCU’s biggest arcs evidences this. Plus, as the only woman in the original six during a time when Marvel’s female representation was absolute garbage, she undeniably stood out.

Black Widow is thus a high-stakes character and Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo certainly had a great responsibility to ensure that her journey is ultimately worthy of someone so groundbreaking. To really find out if the film is up to the task, we must dig deep into Romanoff’s past and track her from day one.

Romanoff begins her tenure in a mixed-bag of an MCU movie. In Iron Man 2, we meet her as “Natalie Rushman,” Tony Stark’s new personal assistant hired in the wake of Pepper Potts’ promotion to CEO of Stark Industries. Immediately, her first appearance entails an uncomfortably sexualized scenario that includes her future boss looking up photographs of her as a lingerie model. There’s a fair bit of ridiculous flexing from Stark and his pal Happy Hogan when they attempt to get her in a boxing ring, too. Ultimately, they are altogether astounded at Romanoff’s expert skills in one-to-one combat.

Iron Man 2 does plenty to establish Black Widow as a master seductress, which can detract from her actual identity as an empowered super spy. For example, when Romanoff observes Stark mulling over his own mortality during a birthday party, she plays into a sultry image while lending an ear. Much later, even after she is revealed to be a capable agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Romanoff is still subjected to a leery male gaze. She is inappropriately watched while changing in Happy’s car on the way to infiltrate the headquarters of Stark’s rival company.

Thankfully, we do witness Black Widow’s prowess once she gets to singlehandedly beat up a string of bad guys. The astuteness she displays in this scene carries her throughout most of the rest of her Marvel tenure, as well. Despite an unnecessary focus on her looks throughout her MCU debut, Romanoff proves multiple times over that she does have agency over her actions. She takes charge of the sensuality that men dismiss her for and is a perfectly brutal assassin when need be.

Black Widow next appears in The Avengers with a more robust arc, complete with a suitably mysterious haunted past. She continues to weaponize her femininity as tools of her trade but we know the deal by now: her sharpness and predisposition for violence are to be feared. Furthermore, Romanoff develops emotionality in The Avengers as her loyalty is both tested and demonstrated.

This makes her one of the most important characters in the film. Black Widow is the only one capable of sneaking up on the trickster Loki, extracting valuable information about his grand scheme to unleash a then-uncontrollable Hulk on the team’s helicarrier. When facing off with a brainwashed Hawkeye — friend, co-worker, and maybe something more — Romanoff’s pledge to save him is intermingled in her own personal convictions about a debt that she owes him.

Black Widow does fill a traditionally feminine role in The Avengers by operating as a source of emotional support for several male characters. Nonetheless, she is fueled by the practicality, bravery, and wit of her fellow Avengers, anyway. Romanoff isn’t imbued with otherworldly superpowers nor is she armed with a slew of Stark-grade tech and weaponry. Regardless, she earns serious hero stripes when she fights tooth and nail to protect the people of New York during the Chitauri invasion.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Romanoff continues her work with S.H.I.E.L.D., partnering with Captain America on various missions. Their friendship visibly deepens as she aids Steve Rogers in navigating modern-day life. However, rather than simply assuming the role of a male Avenger’s personal therapist, Romanoff has an excellent arc to follow in The Winter Soldier. She must closely examine her various allegiances to get to the root of who she is.

For a portion of the film, we’re inclined to question whether Black Widow’s fairly sketchy moral compass can be entirely trusted, despite the fact that she has been working for “the good guys” for years. Withholding information about her classified S.H.I.E.L.D. duties from Rogers while he runs point on their missions naturally creates friction between them. Eventually, they are brought together after the untimely “death” of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, whom Romanoff looks up to as a mentor.

Fury’s neutralization puts Rogers and Romanoff on the run. And once the division is revealed to have been infiltrated by the terrorist organization HYDRA, she is left to reevaluate plenty of her choices and priorities. Her spy life is irreparably disrupted. Luckily, Black Widow, Captain America, and finally Falcon, begin to build a system of trust with one another that will become invaluable in later movies.

At the end of The Winter Soldier, Black Widow performs her bravest stunt yet by leaking HYDRA documents to the public. She does so at her own expense, fully prepared to put aside her own personal interest for the greater good, as well as her newfound Avengers family. Romanoff then goes off the grid for a period of time and per other canon MCU literature, undergoes some soul-searching.

Before long, the original six reassembles in Europe to tackle a growing HYDRA threat in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This movie should have been a prime opportunity to explore the subtleties in Black Widow’s dark and difficult history. Instead, her arc is decidedly undermined by outrageously misogynistic screenwriting.

In terms of re-establishing Romanoff’s place in the already imbalanced gender equation of the Avengers, Age of Ultron turns an unduly judgmental eye towards everything the character stands for. Rather than lend credence to the important relationships that she had fostered between characters like Hawkeye and Captain America, the film waters down these complex dynamics through ill-advised “jokes” about Romanoff’s supposed flirtatious ways.

The introduction of a shoehorned “beauty and the beast” romance between Romanoff and Bruce Banner presents yet another problem. It culminates in an egregious comparison between both of their assumed “monstrous identities,” which does nothing but undercut the resilience that Black Widow has demonstrated time and time again in the face of hardship.

In actuality, the revelation of the Red Room and the trauma of Black Widow’s early life are vital to her onscreen canon. Age of Ultron severely impairs the potential of these events when it strips Romanoff of agency over her mind and body.

The seed is planted when a bunch of macho dudes makes fun of her “womanly wiles.” The point is annoyingly driven home via a cliched, out-of-character, and frankly offensive sterilization plot. Even ignoring the fact that Romanoff once proclaimed that “love is for children” and had shown zero interest in child-rearing preceding Age of Ultron, the idea of reducing women to heteronormative bodily functions is just plain icky.

As I attempt to pinpoint moments of growth in this piece, Age of Ultron sticks out as a notable regression. There is no doubt that Romanoff’s more pragmatic viewpoint continually morphs the more she acknowledges that love is worth fighting for. Despite attempting to tap into her emotional journey, Age of Ultron deals with this cognizance poorly.

When Romanoff’s innate conflicts resurface in follow-up movies, her characterization picks up again. Unfortunately, she is not afforded the luxury of screen time from Captain America: Civil War onwards. The MCU gets too crowded. At the very least, the Black Widow we manage to encounter is kept on track. Her interest in self-preservation is now irrevocably linked to the well-being of her teammates as she slowly shapes up to be the character we finally see in Endgame.

In Civil War, although Romanoff shocks the likes of Captain America and Falcon by agreeing to sign the Sokovia Accords — thus allowing superhero activity to be closely monitored by another potentially shadowy agency — she does so with clear and stringent personal beliefs. As Romanoff understands it, keeping the Avengers together is a top priority amid constant global perils.

But she is also quick to realize the detrimental effects that the Accords have on the Avengers’ dynamic. During the climactic clash at Flughafen Leipzig-Halle, Romanoff allows Rogers and Bucky Barnes to escape arrest, choosing kinship over practicality that could hurt the people she cares about. Despite being alienated from Stark for a period of time, Romanoff is now armed with a cleaner conscience and purer motives by the time she goes underground with Captain America and Falcon.

So comes the two-part denouement that is Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel, Endgame. Honestly, Romanoff barely appears in the former, except to fight some aliens; as a matter of fact, she has very few lines in the movie. Nevertheless, examining the mirrored images and juxtapositions in Infinity War and Endgame reveals that her character truly comes full circle, albeit in heartbreaking ways.

Avengers: Endgame Spoilers Below↓

Endgame portrays the softest Romanoff we’ve ever known and that is far from a bad thing. In contrast to her more familiar battle-hardened state, a deeply compassionate yet equally resilient woman emerges five years after Thanos’ fatal snap. Black Widow remains at the Avengers compound and keeps it running by herself for a couple of reasons. On one hand, her role as a protector is set in stone and she clearly embraces it as the job she was always meant to do. On the other, the film colors what is ostensibly a purely utilitarian task with a heap of Romanoff’s complicated emotions, particularly grief.

Endgame is a big movie with too many storylines to do every single character justice, but it depicts Romanoff’s humanity in an unexpectedly quiet and honorable way. Her aspirational qualities that are on display at the beginning of the MCU — physical strength, wit, and perseverance — are now tethered to a grounding sense of conscience and relatability.

In the MCU timeline, Black Widow spends half a decade clinging to the relative familiarity of her old job in order to counteract her feelings of guilt and regret over the success of Thanos’ plan. Acknowledging Hawkeye’s cruel vigilantism but refusing to seek him out until she absolutely must represent her internal war of responsibility, as well.

Finally, Romanoff’s love for her comrades leads her to her most controversial choice: trading her life in place of Hawkeye’s in order to acquire the Soul Stone from Vormir. Now, speaking in general storytelling terms, having a woman die in service of the narrative, especially when it’s the only female character in a core lineup, ought to be avoided at all costs.

Yet, as I watched Romanoff kick herself free from Barton’s grasp as they dangle off the edge of Vormir’s sacrifice mountain, it still felt like a powerful statement, a choice that makes sense for her character. Just as Scarlet Witch reluctantly kills Vision in hopes of stopping Thanos in Infinity War, Romanoff elects to save the world by saving the ones she loves most.

On Vormir itself, her unbreakable, deeper-than-friendship bond with Hawkeye is front and center. However, the Avengers as a unit has allowed Romanoff a life and a second chance that she never thought was possible. In comparison to the second death of one of the original six — Tony Stark — later in the movie, Romanoff’s ending is equally heroic.

Whether this satiates the controversy over her demise is dependent on viewer preference. On my part, the sheer finality of Black Widow’s death will forever inspire a sense of sadness over what could have been. Her lack of screen time over the last 11 years becomes a sorer spot when all that time wasted on illogical romance can’t be undone. (Yes, my anti-Age of Ultron is showing.) This makes it harder to accept that of the first six Avengers, Romanoff had to be one of the sacrificed.

But I wait with bated breath for the Black Widow solo project, which we can probably safely assume will be a Captain Marvel-style prequel now. If Marvel Studios does right by the film, it would be one hell of a final hurrah for the premier female Avenger who very often deserved better.

Without a doubt, though, Black Widow absolutely grows and changes for the better over the course of the Infinity Saga. It was a tumultuous ride that didn’t always reap desirable results. But Romanoff manages to find absolution in the debt of her crimson ledger paid.

Sheryl Oh: Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)