(This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame)
Like everyone else affected by the Thanos (Josh Brolin) snap in Avengers: Endgame, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), is emotionally broken. The Avengers lost to the mad-Titan in Avengers: Infinity War, and five years later find it difficult to cope with the absence of their friends and family. But for Romanoff, the emotional toll is visibly heavier than the other surviving Avengers. This was not always her disposition, though.
Before Endgame, Black Widow was a hero imprisoned by singularity—an objectified attractive apparatus that had little substance or depth to offer—or so it seemed. As I studied her MCU history, her intentions became more apparent and the complexity of her character was deserving of intrigue.
Natasha Romanoff develops into a warm-hearted, loyal and tough fighter over the course of the ten Marvel Cinematic Universe films she’s featured in. Of course she fights bad guys and aliens, but her most impressive feat is the fight for her friends—The Avengers. Her moniker-duality is harder to separate than other Avengers, like Iron Man, though. She uses her superhero, super-spy abilities, not to satisfy an egotistical savior-complex ambition, but to better define her life in light of the relationships she’s built over time. For her, relationships best define a life worth living, fighting, and dying for.
Though we aren’t afforded the opportunity to see the full picture of Romanoff’s life (though a rumored Black Widow-prequel is in the works), it’s communicated and implied that Romanoff’s history is a tangled web of anonymity, carnage, and secrecy. Orphaned, and essentially trained from birth to be a Russian K.G.B. spy and assassin, she has no familial bonds nor any knowledge of her biological parents. Part of her “graduation” ceremony from spy school included sterilization to prohibit any chance of compromising a mission for the sake of family.
Natasha’s introduction comes in Iron Man 2 as Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) and Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) cold-hearted, yet attractively intelligent, assistant. When a depressed and drunken Iron Man asks her what she’d do if it were her last birthday, she responds, “I would do whatever I wanted to do, with whomever I wanted to do it with.” At first her answer seems enticing and seductive, but as we learn more about her character, hidden beneath her answer is a yearning to be connected—to have a family to celebrate birthdays with. Later in Iron Man 2 it’s revealed she is an undercover agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., tasked with covertly overseeing Stark Industries technological advancements. When Stark-adversary Ivan Vanko/Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) poses a threat to the public, Natasha Romanoff transforms into the acrobatically, martial-arts savvy Black Widow, taking down a platoon of agents effortlessly.
Black Widow’s enhanced fighting abilities help her entice and eliminate her victims, but leaves little room for building real relationships. Over time, she softens. She even has a brief romantic relationship with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but that ends when The Hulk disappears into space at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). So by the time we see her in Captain America: Civil War (2016), she’s a different person; more resolved to maintain the relational bonds she’s forged with The Avengers.
In Civil War a divide is drawn between The Avengers—particularly Tony Stark and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)—over the Sokovia Accords. The Accords would limit The Avengers sovereignty to protect the world as they see fit. When it came time to choose sides, Natasha sided with Tony Stark. However, her goal was not to force Captain America to accept the Sokovia Accords. Romanoff’s plan was to bring everyone together again—her chance at one big happy family. “Staying together is more important than how we stay together,” Romanoff tells an agitated Rogers, who is adamant about maintaining The Avenger’s freedom without government oversight. Here, Romanoff applies a higher purpose to her job that extends beyond completing missions. Now her job as Black Widow, an Avenger, means keeping her family together, no matter the cost. So when we see her in Endgame, and she tells Steve Rogers, “I used to have nothing, but then I got this. This job. This family,” her deepest longings—a desire for belonging, connection, and relatability—are made clear.
When Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) arrives at The Avengers headquarters from the quantum realm five years later and explains to Nat and Cap the possibility of time travel and reversing Thanos’s snap, she regards his theories with hope rather than speculation. As Lang’s theory is determined credible by the ingenious minds of Stark and Banner, the surviving Avengers need all the remaining heroes on board to complete the mission of retrieving the Infinity Stones. (The one who wields all six stones also obtains infinite power in the universe.) Natasha takes up this opportunity, to not only regather her family, but to also save one in the process.
Natasha finds her counterpart and closest friend, Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), inflicting punishment and doling out retribution in Tokyo on Yakuza members (a Japanese organized crime syndicate) without due process. He doesn’t believe they deserved to survive Thanos’s snap. Prior to this, however, Barton enjoys a life opposite of Romanoff’s. He has a simpler life: a barn-house property in rural America, a wife, daughter, and two sons. Nevertheless, in the opening scene of Endgame his comforts are mercilessly ripped away when his family become victims of Thanos’s snap. When Natasha confronts Barton in the middle of executing his vigilante reign of justice, she cries. She weeps for what Barton allowed his pain to turn him into. But she also mourns her reflection as she knows of his pain all too well. What Hawkeye is doing is who she used to be. When Romanoff tells him The Avengers discovered a way to undo his family’s disappearance, he responds in embarrassment and frustration, “Don’t give me hope.” “I wish I could have given it to you sooner,” she laments, with sisterly grief.
The significance of Black Widow’s friendship with Hawkeye is one of the most meaningful in shaping who she is and what she accomplishes in Endgame. Natasha and Clint’s relationship dates back to their days as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Across the span of Avengers movie titles, they frequently recall a mission in Budapest. But what happened on that mission remains obscure. All we know is they both survived a—what seems to be—catastrophic conflict. “It’s just like Budapest all over again,” Natasha mentioned to Clint during the Battle of New York in Avengers (2012). Clint responded, “You and I remember Budapest very differently.” They mention it again in Endgame when they team up to acquire the soul stone from the planet Vormir.
When Natasha and Clint arrive on Vormir, they soon find out that the only way to obtain and prove one’s worthiness for the soul stone is to sacrifice a person they love at the stone’s altar. One of them will have to sacrifice themselves for the other to obtain the soul stone.
“Natasha, you know what I’ve done,” Barton tells Romanoff, attempting to convince her to let him sacrifice himself. “You know what I’ve become.” “I don’t judge people on their worst mistakes,” Romanoff assures him. “Maybe you should.”“You didn’t,” she reminds the guilt-ridden Barton. Hawkeye pins her to the ground and stifles her attempt to throw herself off the Soul Stone’s altar, but Natasha’s resolve overcomes his. Romanoff seizes the moment as an opportunity to make the tumults of her life purposeful, and shoots Barton with an electric shot. Her sprint to the altar’s edge is stopped by an explosive arrow Hawkeye shoots to Widow’s left, knocking her off her feet. When it looks as if Hawkeye will win the self-sacrificial battle, Widow jumps behind Barton and tethers him to the side of the cliff with one of his own arrows.
Black Widow and Hawkeye’s fight to sacrifice self before the other is a visible representation of “outdoing one another in love.” However, Hawkeye reveals the motivation for giving himself up for the stone is an opportunity to escape from self-guilt, failure, and shame. Black Widow’s motivation, though, is steeped in purpose and assurance. “Let me go,” she begs Barton as they both dangle from the side of the altar, sure of her decision.
Romanoff experienced the grace of second-chances and friendships. True recompense requires sacrifice emptied of self-gratification. I believe it is for this reason that Natasha’s determination, coupled with Black Widow’s superhero skillset, is able to outmaneuver Hawkeye for the determining self-offering for the soul stone.
The battle between Hawkeye and Black Widow—Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff—is unlike any fight in Avengers Endgame. It does not share the herculean nature of the final Endgame scene, but it is perhaps the most emotionally charged showdown of the entire “Infinity Saga”. Their fight embodies Christ’s words better than any other Avenger showdown: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” As they fight each other to take the irreversible leap of death so the other can take the soul stone back to the Avengers, only Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, is the suitable victor.
Her purpose-driven sacrifice is a representative microcosm of what it means to be an Avenger in the super-hero sense. But even closer to reality, Black Widow’s understanding of the gift of family enables her to use her abilities, skills, and talents to put herself in harm’s way, even offering the ultimate price of her life, so that others may live—especially her family. Because, for Natasha Romanoff, “Staying together is more important than how we stay together.” Hawkeye couldn’t comprehend this the way Black Widow ultimately lived it, which is also why she is the one who ultimately could die for it.