Avengers Week - Black Widow: The Strongest Avenger
Welcome to Avengers Week here at Mirror Box! Each day, we’ll feature a piece from our incredible writers that highlights each original member of the iconic team and discuss the cultural impact and relevance these characters have on the big screen! Hudson Phillips gives us his own take on the big screen history of the redheaded (and sometimes blonde) Russian assassin herself, the Black Widow!
Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, aka Nat (to those closest to her), played by Scarlett Johansson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, first showed up in one of the worst MCU films, Iron Man 2, under the guise of Tony Stark’s personal assistant, Natasha Rushman. Natasha is, of course, revealed to be a SHIELD spy but unfortunately comes off as a bit of a Mary Sue in the film. She’s beautiful, talented, speaks multiple languages, holds her own in a fight against a hallway full of goons without messing up her hair … but there’s seemingly nothing there underneath it all, despite Johansson’s best attempts.
While the character (and the film) left a slightly bad taste in my mouth, in hindsight, I’ve also realized that Natasha is a spy who does what it takes to get the job done and in this case, that job was getting close to Tony Stark, who just happens to be into vapid women (with true love Pepper Potts being the exception). She needed to be a bit one note to get the job done. And if Natasha is good at anything, it’s getting the job done.
Then along comes 2012’s The Avengers with Joss Whedon at the helm. Whedon has a long history of writing smart and funny and vulnerable women, and he brings a new depth to Natasha’s character in the film.
We catch up with Black Widow while she’s “working”. Seemingly taken captive, she’s doing what she does best. Undercover spy work. She’s a master of convincing others that they are running the room when she’s secretly in control the whole time, as we see many times in this film.
In fact, you get the feeling that Natasha never enters a room without guaranteeing she’s in control. When she later goes to recruit the Hulk, she’s prepared with a small army surrounding the building. When she meets Thor and Loki, she tells Steve, “I'd sit this one out, Cap. These guys come from legend. They're basically gods.” She knows her limits.
However, after the Hulk is let loose on the SHIELD Helicarrier, Natasha is forced to move far past those limits. She finds herself in a situation where she’s no longer in control and coming face to face with the Hulk, she is petrified. Maybe for the first time in her life?
We also learn a bit of her backstory in The Avengers. An assassin in the KGB, Natasha killed the wrong people and SHIELD was tasked with taking her out and sent their top bow-and-arrow sharp shooter (and Nat’s future best friend), Hawkeye, to do it. Instead, he saved her life and recruited her into SHIELD. And for this, she owes him a debt.
She’s constantly plagued by her past. This “red in her ledger” that she’s trying to wipe out. And this seems to drive her story through all of these films.
Having faced down the Hulk and survived, we finally find Natasha standing side-by-side with her super powered team by the end of The Avengers, diving head-first into fighting aliens. A situation she has zero control over. Control issues feel much smaller when the world’s about to end.
In The Avengers, we learn that Nick Fury, head of SHIELD, has secrets. He keeps things from the team in order to manipulate the results. He is a spy after all. And Natasha, unlike the rest of the team, isn’t phased by this. She understands how the world works. She’s okay with lies. And this theme is fully explored when we catch up with her in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
There is no truth to Natasha. Truth is fluid. Truth is whatever it takes to get the job done at the time. But, after so many years of living lies, Nat ends up not knowing who she truly is.
After SHIELD is revealed to be secretly run by the terrorist organization HYDRA, the lack of truth starts to take its toll. Natasha says: “When I first joined S.H.I.E.L.D. I thought it was going straight. But I guess I just traded in the KGB for HYDRA. I thought I knew whose lies I was telling, but ... I guess I can't tell the difference anymore.”
And at the end of the film, she makes a choice to release all the secrets of HYDRA, and therefore SHIELD into the public. Including her own “ledger.” This decision is her ultimate acceptance of who she was and a defining moment in who she’s become.
We’ve seen Natasha the spy, we’ve seen Natasha the soldier, we’ve seen Natasha the friend. And by the time we catch up with her in Avengers: Age of Ultron, we get to see Natasha, the human being.
She becomes the one who helps Hulk get back to Banner with her “the sun’s getting pretty low big guy” lullaby. And of course Natasha would fall in love with the one guy who scares her the most. We’re teased of a romance between her and Banner: “He's not like anybody I've ever known. All my friends are fighters. And here comes this guy, spends his life avoiding the fight because he knows he'll win. He's also a huge dork.”
And in one particularly touching scene, as they discuss their future together, Banner says he can never have kids because of his affliction. And Natasha says she can’t either, having been sterilized as part of her training. “They sterilize you,” she says. “It's efficient. One less thing to worry about. The one thing that might matter more than a mission. Makes everything easier. Even killing. You still think you're the only monster on the team?”
A few people got up in arms claiming that she was referring to not being able to have kids as being a monster, when in reality she meant being made a killing machine, her humanity being stripped from her. Banner and Nat see a reflection of themselves in each other in this way.
Natasha is softened even more when we learn that Clint has a family. And she is a part of this family, with Clint even naming his unborn child after her (although it turns out to be a boy and the name becomes Nathaniel), and them calling her “Aunty Nat.”
By the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, after Natasha has yet again stood beside her fellow superheroes as an equal and yet again saved the world, she takes on a new role–that of leader–as she agrees to whip the “new recruits” of the Avengers into shape.
In Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are ripped apart after their actions come under scrutiny as the world continues to lose lives in the wake of their battles. They are asked to come under the guidance of a UN lead oversight committee, or live as fugitives, with Iron Man, War Machine, and Vision agreeing, and Captain America, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch refusing. Black Widow initially agrees, but also finds the grey in the middle, allowing Captain America to escape at a pivotal moment in the film.
Natasha is in Civil War what we all should strive to be in the world of politics. To be so vehemently on one side or the other means you lose all your humanity, turning friends into enemies. Yet, you’ll notice, the only one who shows up at Peggy Carter’s funeral to be there for Steve, is Natasha. She’s able to do what’s right for her friends, even if it doesn’t align with her beliefs.
By the time we get to the Infinity Saga (2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame), Nat must face the toughest question of all: What do you do when you are in charge of a supernatural army and even all the supernatural people can’t keep the world safe? Black Widow leads her team to battle … and loses, with big bad Thanos’s snap wiping out half the life in the Universe.
At this point Natasha has given her entire life atoning for her wrongs … and once she’s done that, with interest, what’s she left with? This is the only world she knows. But at some point it went from being a job to being a family. “I used to have nothing,” she says. “Then I got this. This job ... this family. And I was ... I was better because of it. And even though ... they're gone ... I'm still trying to be better.”
She throws herself into her job, leading a team, not just helping the world, but the entire Universe, with the likes of Captain Marvel and Rocket Raccoon under her leadership. And this is her entire world. She is plagued by the snap and feels the weight of it. No matter how many great deeds she does, she finds herself unable to atone for something so massive. Or does she?
When the two “men” (Ant and Iron) come up with a plan to time travel and collect the stones, it’s up to Natasha and Clint to collect the Soul Stone and undo Thanos’s snap. The two non-super powered Avengers travel to the far off planet of Vormir where they are put to the ultimate test. In order to get the Soul Stone and defeat Thanos, they must make a sacrifice. One of them must die. And after a brilliant, edge-of-your-seat battle between the two of them to commit suicide, Natasha ultimately wins and sacrifices her life for the soul stone. This act saves the world.
The thing that makes Black Widow such a great character is that as opposed to her other human counterpart Hawkeye (“The city is flying, we're fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow.”), Natasha never once considers that she’s NOT super-powered. She is right there standing toe to toe with them without blinking an eye.
And I think that’s because she does have a super power. That power is her humanity. Her willingness to sacrifice everything for the greater good. Her willingness to put her own desires aside to be there for her family. And that’s something we can actually strive for.
The thing about The Avengers is, I’ll never have a chance to build an arc-reactor, or turn into a green giant, or to be a god. But I can be like Nat.
Black Widow is our window into this fantastical world. She is human. She is vulnerable. She makes mistakes. But she might just be the strongest one of all.