Black Widow might be the most important Avengers to never get her own movie. Played by Scarlett Johansonn, Natasha Romanoff transformed from “sexy secretary” into a three-dimensional character with complex motivations over the course of five movies, leading up to what should be a pivotal role in Avengers: Endgame. Sure, she’s set to get her own movie in Marvel’s Phase 4, but it might as well be a sequel considering the wealth of Black Widow material we already have.
Viewed separately, her time in the MCU might look like nine years of cameos (starting with 2010’s Iron Man 2), but woven together, those moments tell the story of a deeply damaged person smart enough to keep searching for something to fight for, whether that’s Captain America’s moral compass or the compassion she feels for her fellow heroes.
In the final days before Avengers: Endgame, Inverse is celebrating some of our favorite heroes who never got their own stand-alone adventures. By tracing their evolution over the course of Marvel’s 22-movie tapestry, we hope to reveal something new about these underrepresented characters and the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large. Plus, it’s a fun new way to rewatch the 11-year saga one more time. Along with this story, you can read Corey Plante on Hawkeye and Eric Francisco on Rocket Raccoon.
Iron Man 2, or, How Not to Introduce a Female Avenger
Introduced in 2010’s Iron Man 2, Natasha Romanoff doesn’t make the best first impression. She shows up as Tony Stark’s mysterious new assistant in a low-cut top. By the end of the movie, she’s established herself as a deadly, undercover spy working for S.H.I.E.L.D., but she still never gets much depth or even a backstory.
Johansson herself put it best at a recent press event for Avengers: Endgame.“This character started as a sexy secretary with a skill set on the side,” she said. “The next time we saw her in Avengers, she was one of the boys, for better or worse,” adding that Black Widow’s character was able to fully develop as the Marvel Cinematic Universe became more diverse and less of a “testosterone fest.”
It wasn’t necessarily a perfect evolution. Marvel’s sometimes stumbled in its portrayal of Black Widow (particularly in movie posters and toys over the years, but the character’s been on a slow, upward, and sometimes uneven trajectory ever since, giving Johansson the freedom to grapple with some heavy issues that most other characters typically gloss over.
The Avengers Does the Bare Minimum
We have to talk about Avengers, but to be honest, the less time spent on this movie the better. It’s true that Joss Whedon’s first Marvel movie is a step in the right direction for Black Widow, but it’s still got plenty of flaws, many of which carry over into Age of Ultron. In truth, the only Marvel directors who actually know what to do with Agent Romanoff are Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War, plus Avengers: Infinity Wars and Endgame).
When we meet Black Widow in The Avengers she’s reprising her sexy, undercover spy role from Iron Man 2. (Maybe Whedon thought fans wouldn’t recognize her without a revealing outfit?) This time, she’s being interrogated by a group of Russian enemies, but, as we soon learn, she’s the one doing the interrogating. After getting the call from S.H.I.E.L.D., she makes quick work of the Russians and jets off to recruit Bruce Banner.
There’s not much to say about this scene, aside from the romance it sets up for Age of Ultron. In the meantime. Later, we also get a very brief peak into Romanoff’s motivations as a reformed KGB agent looking for redemption and repay a debt owed to Hawkeye for sparing her life.
“It’s really not that complicated,” she tells Loki. “I’ve got red in my ledger. I’d like to wipe it out.”
This is actually Black Widow’s best scene in Avengers. Loki has been captured, but he’s clearly planning something. No one can figure it out until Black Widow steps in and outsmarts him, deducing that his plan was to get captured all along so he could unleash the Hulk on Nick Fury’s helicarrier. Despite Romanoff’s best efforts, that still happens, meaning her most important scene in the movie amounts to nothing.
Thankfully, Johansson is about to get a lot more plot to chew on in her first Captain America movie.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier Shows Us Black Widow’s Emotional Side
Directed by the Russo Brothers, Winter Soldier may seem like a movie about Captain America grappling with the realization that S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually HYDRA and everything he thought he knew is wrong, but the only person who actually makes a difficult decision in the entire movie is Black Widow.
After all, the ice is still melting off Steve Rogers’ cryogenically frozen body when the truth comes out, and before that happens, he’s already starting to question Nick Fury’s new plan. By comparison, Romanoff’s pretty much based her entire personality on her devotion to S.H.I.E.L.D., and when the truth comes out, it stings.
“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,” she tells Rogers as they flee from the bad guys. “I thought I knew whose lies I was telling, but … I guess I can’t tell the difference anymore.”
This is a pivotal scene for Black Widow. It’s the moment she loses everything she once knew and simultaneously finds something new to believe in: Captain America. The “first” Avenger’s pure morals and his refusal to sacrifice them clearly resonates with the long-term assassin.
Winter Soldier may ask some big questions about the nature of power and who deserves to wield it, but the only character who really grapples with that question is Black Widow. Unfortunately, Agent Romanoff is about to fall right back into Joss Whedon’s clutches.
Avengers: Age of Ultron Reduces Black Widow to a Sick Joke
Once again, Whedon proves adept at creating superhero spectacle but terrible at writing for Black Widow’s character. This could have been the turning point, a big team-up movie that put Johansson front and center after fleshing out her character in Winter Soldier. Instead it somehow manages to be a low point for the only female Avenger in the film.
In Age of Ultron, Black Widow oscillates between serving as eye candy for the male Avengers and being degraded in a series of disturbing flashbacks that serve no real purpose. In one early scene, a party at Avengers headquarters, Romanoff somehow ends up behind the bar, serving drinks and flirting with Bruce Banner. Moments after she leaves, Captain America swings in to encourage Banner to “go for it.”
Later, when Ultron recruits Scarlet Witch to hypnotize the Avengers, we’re treated to a look at Black Widow’s muddled backstory. We see the Russian agent trained to kill unsparingly. Then, most disturbingly, we watch as she’s carted away for a forced sterilization procedure that moves her on step closer into becoming an emotionless killing machine.
It could have been a powerful moment, but instead, director Joss Whedon uses it to remove Black Widow’s humanity. In another scene with Banner, she shares her history before telling him “You’re not the only monster on the team,” as if her inability to have children makes Romanoff less than human. The Hulk is literally a giant green monster capable of leveling entire cities. Equating that with Black Widow’s forced sterilization is a huge insult to both her character and all the female fans watching these movies.
Black Widow still gets a few great moments in this movie. Forcing Banner to transform into the Hulk for the final fight scene is a highlight, but for the most part Ultron is a step backwards for Johansson’s character that manages to botch her backstory.
Captain America: Civil War Reveals the Actual, Smartest Avenger
The Russo Brothers Captain America movies both follow a similar formula. Introduce a big, complicated issue, and then simplify it with an even bigger bad guy. In both Winter Soldier and Civil War, Captain America never really has to grapple with anything. He always knows he’s right, but Black Widow is often the only one forced to make a tough decision.
That’s particularly true in Civil War when she sides with Iron Man and a U.N. decree that the Avengers need more oversight. This somewhat surprisingly puts her at odds with Captain America, who’s still refusing to compromise his values.
Once again, Johansson gets one pivotal scene to explain her character’s complex motivations:
Natasha Romanoff: Maybe Tony’s right.
[Tony looks at her, surprised.]
Natasha Romanoff: If we have one hand on the wheel, we can still steer. If we take it off —
Sam Wilson: Aren’t you the same woman who told the government to kiss her ass a few years ago?
Natasha Romanoff: I’m just … I’m reading the terrain. We have made … some very public mistakes. We need to win their trust back.
Tony Stark: Focus up. I’m sorry, did I just mishear you or did you agree with me?
Natasha Romanoff: Oh, I want to take it back now.
It’s hard to argue with Black Widow’s logic, and as soon as those words are spoken they make Iron Man look like the logical leader in Civil War. But when it becomes clear that Captain America is fighting for something more than just his personal freedom to fight bad guys (it’s a supervillain, because Marvel movie), Romanoff switches sides just in the nick of time.
Again, she’s the only character who ever really consider the issue this movie claims to pose. Should superheroes be controlled by the government? And if so, what should be the limits of that oversight? While everyone else is happy to duke it out, Romanoff actually seems interested in engaging with the questions.
Avengers: Infinity War Gives Black Widow a Feminist Moment
Infinity War isn’t really a movie about Black Widow. There’s no question to debate. It’s just a question of stopping Thanos, and Romanoff dutifully follows Captain America (who also doesn’t get much screentime) in a quest to save the universe.
There’s really only one moment worth discussing, and it comes in the final battle when Black Widow steps in to save Scarlet Witch from Thanos’ henchwoman Proxima Midnight. Just when things look darkest for Wanda Maximoff, Black Widow arrives with some help from another powerful woman, Okoye. What follows is a thrilling fight scene in which the three female heroes work together to stop their powerful enemy.
As you know, in the end, it’s all for nothing. The Avengers lose and Thanos wipes out half the universe, but Black Widow’s survival ensures she’ll play an important role in Avengers: Endgame. With a three-hour runtime and strong rumors that the story could hinge on complex concepts like time travel, alternate dimensions, and the very nature of reality, Natasha Romanoff may be better equipped than any other remaining character to make the most difficult decisions.
After nine years and six movies as the only character actually making the tough decisions Marvel’s movie’s claim to pose, Black Widow is better positioned than anyone else to make the final and most important call in the fight to save the universe.
Avengers: Endgame hits theaters on April 26, 2019.