This is a part of the series of articles on Deconstructing the Girlboss Trope in Women-Lead Movies. Find Part 1: “Wonder Woman 1984” and Part 2: “Promising Young Woman” here.
Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, was introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in Iron Man 2 in 2010. Since then, Scarlett Johansson’s character continued to play a pivotal role in the events leading up to Avengers: Endgame. 11 years after the character’s introduction to the MCU, Black Widow will be in theaters on July 9, 2021.
Marvel fans have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie since her introduction because of her storied and rich role in the Marvel comics. Natasha Romanoff was trained from childhood to be a lethal spy in a top-secret Soviet program known as the Red Room. She made a name for herself as a Soviet spy but then worked for S.H.I.E.L.D., an American extra-governmental intelligence agency.
While this particular aspect of her story was accurate to the comics, her past is only ever mentioned briefly and in short moments throughout her run in the MCU, particularly the scene with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in The Avengers, where she says, “I got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.”
Her arc throughout the MCU is guided by this same sentiment, leading her to help take down H.Y.D.R.A., the secret evil organization embedded within S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to making the ultimate sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame to save the universe. While Johansson portrays Natasha’s conflict with her past well, for more than ten years movie viewers only knew the bare minimum about her past and how she became the Black Widow.
Movie viewers learned a little bit more about Natasha’s past in the second Avengers installment, Avengers: Age of Ultron, but unfortunately, it was combined with some terrible writing and reduced her to a romantic interest and a damsel in distress.
Both the first and second installments of the Avengers series were directed by Joss Whedon, the renowned creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was lauded as someone who championed women and female characters through his work. But his career has also been marked by controversy over how he has treated those female characters, often taking away their agency or reducing them to solely their trauma.
Age of Ultron spelled doom for Scarlett Johansson’s character, as she was reduced to becoming a caretaker and romantic interest for Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk. In one particularly degrading scene, she calls herself a monster after revealing that she was sterilized as part of her initiation in the Red Room. Soon after, she is abducted by the villain and is not present in the climax of the film, where the most important decisions are made. Age of Ultron was the first film to acknowledge her place as the sole woman on the team, but it reduced what could have been a powerful moment for her character to serving as consolation for another.
Age of Ultron was already the weakest movie of the franchise, but the way Black Widow was treated brought it even more backlash. Scarlett Johansson went on to appear in three more movies in the MCU, but the romance between her character and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner was barely addressed again, to most fans’ relief.
The tragedy of her characterization is that she could have been so much more. Although she is more capable than the average human in combat, she can still hold her own in battles of massive scale while surrounded by superheroes, as is proven in Avengers: Infinity War. Natasha is constantly seeking redemption for what she had done in her past, but her growth in the films is unfortunately slow. Where she seemed to finally come into her own and become comfortable with who she was in Avengers: Endgame, that development was completely cut short by her sacrifice.
Endgame showed Natasha as the leader of the Avengers, after having brought most of the original six to the team ten years prior. She was finally moving past serving someone else’s plot in their movie and seemed to lay her tortured past to rest. They had lost half their team and their loved ones, with Tony Stark moving on to start a family, Steve Rogers retiring to become a counselor, and her best friend Clint Barton, Hawkeye, becoming a murderous anti-hero after losing his family to Thanos’ snap. But Natasha still pressed on to protect the universe, and “become someone better” as she herself puts it.
Endgame could have been Natasha’s final step towards redemption, with her moving past her guilt and accepting herself as a hero, before her long-awaited solo movie. But it was never meant to be, since Natasha ended up sacrificing herself for Clint.
The rest of the original six, all men, spend some time grieving her before moving on to save the universe, which was made possible by her sacrifice. When the Avengers finally decide who will wield the Infinity Stones to bring half the universe back to life, there are no women in the room. The woman who kept the team together for five years is never mentioned in the film by name again. She didn’t even get a funeral.
When all the female heroes do appear on the screen at the same time in the final battle, Natasha is not present. While it was an exciting scene as an indication for how far the MCU has come, it still rang hollow without the woman who started it all.
Black Widow’s limited role is representative of how Marvel treated its women for much of the MCU’s run. It has taken Marvel more than a decade to arrive at fuller, complex characterizations of their female protagonists. In 2018, Ant-Man and the Wasp was the first movie to have a woman in the title role, despite Black Widow existing as one of the original Avengers for nine years previously.
The characterization of female characters in the MCU has gotten much better. Black Panther had some well-written, complex female characters, depicted as the fiercest of warriors and deserving of respect. Thor: Ragnarok in 2017 had the MCU’s first female antagonist, Hela, played wonderfully by Cate Blanchett. Captain Marvel in 2019 was the MCU’s first movie to have a sole female lead.
This year, WandaVision received praise for how it depicted its titular character, Wanda, and how she dealt with her grief. WandaVision also introduced the MCU’s first Black female (human) superhero, Monica Rambeau. Later this year, Ms. Marvel, a series based on a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager, Kamala Khan, is coming to Disney+. Thor: Love and Thunder will have Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster become the female Thor. And of course, Black Widow will be in theaters on July 9 this year.
The MCU has improved far beyond the days of Age of Ultron, depicting more female characters and more diverse characters as complex women with agency. However, the way Natasha Romanoff’s potential was squandered, even after she had such a pivotal role in bringing the original six Avengers together, still hangs over the MCU’s future projects. Black Widow was a white woman, and while I love that there are more diverse female characters like Ms. Marvel (one of my favorites), I still am apprehensive of how the movies will do them justice. While the Black Widow movie is very late, I hope her complexity and power will finally be done justice.