“I want one” is something you might expect to hear about a new gadget or sports car. But in 2010’s Iron Man 2, it’s what Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark says about Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) after he meets her for the first time, setting the tone for the way characters would treat The Sexy Avenger for much of the franchise.
Her introduction over a decade ago continues to be why Natasha, aka Black Widow, is a polarizing figure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She’s the first woman in the Avengers, a former Russian spy and assassin who’s been through hell and back. But the way Natasha was written for the majority of her time in the MCU plays into the comic book world and big budget action movies’ worst habits: She’s hyper-sexualized, sidelined, and treated as little more than support for the real (i.e. superpowered and super-suited) heroes.
Prior to Black Widow, out Friday, the character appeared in nine MCU movies: Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok (in shown footage), Captain Marvel (in a mid-credits scene), Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame. That’s just one fewer movie than Chris Evans’ Captain America and Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. And yet, she had less combined screen time than both Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, who didn’t make their MCU debuts until 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Marvel fans have called for a solo Black Widow film for years, and now, Nat finally gets to tell her own story. But with her death in Avengers: Endgame, it feels a little inconsequential. After limiting Black Widow as a sexy sidekick for multiple films only to kill her off moments before the Avengers’ biggest battle ever, why go back in time to tell us what she was up to when she wasn’t standing in Iron Man’s and Captain America’s shadows?
Because, frankly, Marvel owes her at least that much.
Her lack of a solo film in the last 10 years is frustrating enough, but the MCU’s Black Widow problem is bigger than that. It’s easy to forget some details in hindsight, so I dug through all of Nat’s previous appearances in the MCU to chart the ills of the franchise’s past.
The Worst of It: Iron Man 2, The Avengers, & Avengers: Age Of Ultron
In Iron Man 2, Nat is solely sexualized; she plays the Marilyn to Pepper Potts’ (Gwyneth Paltrow) Jackie. When Tony initially Googles her, he breezes past her education to ogle an image of her modeling lingerie on a bearskin rug — a practice he continues every time they share the screen. Iron Man 2 also introduces her signature fighting move (which Johnasson has called the “crotch throat grab”), her sexy landing pose (which Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova hilariously eviscerates in Black Widow), and her most impractical look: skin-tight suit, hair-sprayed prom curls, and ample cleavage.
In The Avengers, co-written and directed by Joss Whedon, Nat is first shown in a low cut dress with her hands tied behind her back, a position and get-up that emphasize her breasts as she fights. She is often lit from below, to highlight the way her skin-tight suit hugs her rear and, at one point, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) calls her a “mewling quim,” a sexist barb that means “whining vagina.”
Despite her clear physical prowess and status as one of Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) most trusted associates, Nat isn’t treated like a hero. She plays the support role by keeping the quinjet running while the Avenger men fight and serving as her buddy Clint Barton/Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) emotional anchor. Twice, she’s rescued by her fellow Avengers, and at one point, she tells Cap to stay back because he, like her, can’t keep up with the “gods” like Iron Man and Thor. Cap goes anyway, proving his mettle, while Nat is left behind with an asterisk next to her Avenger membership.
In Age of Ultron, Whedon strikes again with perhaps the most infamous moment of Nat’s early characterization. After acting as a babysitter for The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and developing an uncharacteristically nervous flirtation with his alter ego Bruce Banner, Nat pleads with him to run away with her. Bruce says he can’t because being the monstrous Hulk prevents him from having a family. Nat responds that Bruce isn’t “the only monster on the team” because she was given an involuntary hysterectomy during her spy training. The line still infuriates many fans, as it callously implies that a woman who can’t bear children is an abomination. After that awful exchange, Nat ends up in a cage for most of the movie’s climax. Bruce rescues her.
Better, But Not Great: Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, & Avengers: Infinity War
Once the Russo Brothers get ahold of the character, Nat starts to become less sexualized. There are still plenty of sexually-tinged hijinks in 2014’s Winter Soldier: Cap holds Nat up against a wall to interrogate her. She coos, “Hey, sailor,” at a henchman before killing him and kisses Cap to keep the enemy from spotting them. However, there’s a noticeable shift in how she’s treated by her fellow heroes. Cap clearly regards Nat as an equal, seeking her advice and trusting her to hold her own in a fight. Nat walks away from a fight against Bucky/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) with just a few bruises.
In Civil War, Nat is in every war room discussion with Tony and Cap. She reps the Avengers in key political arenas alongside diplomats and senators. She keeps up with her fellow supers, tackling giant brutes in full body armor while donning civilian garb. She becomes the lynchpin in the Team Cap and Team Iron Man confrontation when she follows her gut and helps Cap, Sam (Anthony Mackie), and Bucky escape.
But in Infinity War, Nat’s development hits a wall. She’s no longer dressed to cater to the male gaze, but she’s again treated as support for Cap, who gets his own dramatic introduction set to the Avengers theme. The other original Avengers each get their own set pieces in the film’s big battle, but she shares hers with a group of MCU women in a slightly patronizing girl power fight against Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon).
And while this is all certainly an improvement from her earlier characterizations, it’s clear that Nat is in need of a promotion.
Close, But No Cigar: Avengers: Endgame
Endgame ups the ante ahead of Black Widow, but closes her narrative arc with a whimper. She has fully shed her femme fatale look, instead donning tactical gear and finally pulling her hair back in a sensible braid. When she talks about her dark past, she’s less self deprecating and rather expresses gratitude to have found family in her fellow Avengers. She leads the Avengers and cracks the strategy for time heisting Infinity Stones — but Cap, not Nat, delivers the big, inspiring speech about their plan.
The real problem, however, is the way Nat is killed off. Her final scene, a full hour before the biggest battle in MCU history, is shared with Clint as they seek the Soul Stone and realize that one of them must die to retrieve it. Nat wins, Clint begrudgingly releases her, and she falls to her death. On one hand, she died a hero, willing to sacrifice herself for the chance to save the world. But her last moment on screen is brief, quiet, and shared. There’s no final showcase of finely honed combat skills, no tearful funeral during which Fury finally shows some damn emotion. Just a quick scuffle and a sudden death accompanied by a swell of music.
Even when her fellow Avengers gather to mourn her, the scene is less about honoring Nat and more about establishing the rules around her death and Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana), who also died for the Soul Stone in Infinity War. Yes, Hulk throws a bench in his rage and Clint is spurred on to perform extra heartily against Thanos. But Natasha’s farewell is basically exposition and a slightly evolved version of fridging, a comic book trope in which a woman’s death is used to deepen emotional motivation for male characters’ heroism.
Redemption: Black Widow
The events of Black Widow take place after 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which puts the film in a bit of a narrative pickle. How do you give weight to Nat’s story without letting any of the action change what’s already happened in the MCU? The answer: Go back in time to rewrite the history of Black Widow, not as a sexy spy story, but as a harrowing tale of a young woman who fought back against abuse after being forced into a murderous profession. (Oddly enough, the MCU’s first woman-led superhero movie Captain Marvel faced a similar fate, as it took place in the ‘90s.)
Johansson said that her own growth helped inspire Natasha’s final evolution, leaving behind the sexpot who first strutted into Tony Stark’s private boxing ring in 2010.
“Obviously, 10 years have passed and things have happened and I have a much different, more evolved understanding of myself,” she recently told Collider. “As a woman, I’m in a different place in my life, you know? And I felt more forgiving of myself, as a woman, and not — sometimes probably not enough. I’m more accepting of myself, I think. All of that is related to that move away from the kind of hyper-sexualization of this character.”
Black Widow is fairly successful at reframing Natasha’s once mottled narrative. In her solo film, Natasha is a fierce leader, instrumental in the downfall of a disquieting villain. The film also offers hope for the fates of the women leading Marvel’s Phase 4 in the form of Nat’s younger sister Yelena. As Black Widow takes her final bow in the MCU, we finally know Natasha Romanoff is not The Sexy Avenger. She’s a survivor who opened the door for other women heroes and, in the end, left the Marvel world a better place.