SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame. Proceed at your own risk.
Despite its shiny, glib exterior, the MCU is no stranger to tragedy. Long before the Snap, characters like Bucky Barnes, Scarlet Witch, Gamora, Nebula and even Tony Stark suffered a great deal as a result of circumstances outside of their control. But of all of them, Natasha Romanoff‘s might just clock in as the MCU’S most tragic story. Her death in Avengers: Endgame was the last in a long line of selfless acts committed to erase the stain of a past she wasn’t completely responsible for.
Though she was one of the few Avengers without any superhuman abilities (depending on how you define ‘superhuman’), Black Widow’s path models itself after a lot of superheroes. She had her abilities thrust upon her more or less as a child, and in adulthood eventually decided to use her ‘gifts’ to fight the forces of evil. Like some of her Avengers teammates, she also had misdeeds to make up for. The only difference between her and the Winter Soldier is that she was broken free of her programming offscreen, so when we meet her, she’s already begun the long journey towards making up for her past misdeeds carried out as part of the KGB.
Ultimately, nearly every (flawed) hero in the MCU has found redemption that’s searched for it, but none of them paid with their lives (permanently), and without first finding peace and happiness. And none of them had as lonely a life as Nat.
“You Are Made of Marble…”
Most versions of Black Widow’s origins in Marvel comics resemble the backstory she got in the MCU. She was an orphan trained as a Russian assassin/spy from an early age. Eventually, her relationship with Hawkeye allowed her to break free of the mind control and she flipped her allegiance to the Avengers.
The backstory the MCU adopted saw an orphaned Nat sent to the Red Room assassin training camp. As schools go, it clearly wasn’t a bad one in terms of sending skilled alumni out into the world – Black Widow emerged a polyglot gymnast with high levels of expertise in a wide variety of martial arts and tactical weaponry. Her marksmanship is unmatched, save for maybe Hawkeye, and she’s clearly adept enough at strategy and management that she leads the Avengers for five years after the events of Infinity War. But all that training came at a serious price, both physically and mentally.
One of her backstories in the comics refers to the fact that she was brainwashed by her instructors to think she was actually attending an elite ballet school when in reality she started training as a killing machine before the age of 10. During her fever dream flashback in Avengers: Age of Ultron, we get a glimpse of her schooling at the Red Room under the firm tutorship of Madame B (Julie Delpy).
The images flash back and forth between ballerinas practicing barre work in perfect unison to girls ruthlessly sparring with each other, Nat practicing shooting on live subjects and finally, to her sterilization. The fluid progression between these sets of images indicates not only the indoctrination Nat underwent at the Red Room, but it also reflects her difficulty in facing a past version of herself that stands in stark opposition to the life she would eventually choose.
Her transformation into a killing machine robbed her of her humanity and enabled her to commit heinous acts that would later haunt her when she switched allegiances to SHIELD.
“I Got Red in My Ledger…”
We don’t really need to see what Nat got up to during her time with the KGB. Her considerable skillset makes her a dangerous enough weapon to earn a place on a team of superheroes and gods. Her place on the Avengers and her identity as arguably the most unflappable member of the team should indicate just how ruthless and effective a killer she was during her time on the dark side.
During her conversation with Loki in The Avengers, the Asgardian attempts to throw her by bringing up specific events from her past (“Dreykov’s Daughter, Sao Paulo, the hospital fire”), and while, at first, the memories seem to sting, it turns out her emotional display only serves to make Loki underestimate her and reveal his plan to use the Hulk in his takeover of Earth. But despite her playing off her history in that moment, the “red in her ledger” is undeniably one of her main personal motivations during her work with SHIELD. She might not seem to live as tortured an existence as Bucky does when his programming begins to slip, but her past is something she can neither forget nor escape and it clearly informs her present. Her entire life is one long redemption arc.
“We Have What We Have When We Have It.”
Despite her upbringing and the scars it left, it’s worth noting that Nat found a great deal of solace in creating a family for herself in the Avengers. Not only did her membership in the organization offer her the chance to right some of her considerable wrongs, it also gave her a support system, the likes of which she’d never had before. Like Nebula and Gamora, Nat grew up in a horrifically abusive environment, and while it gave her the strength to go toe-to-toe with gods and monsters, it also left her with the ability to see the humanity in others — albeit not in herself.
During Avengers: Age of Ultron, she and Bruce Banner come the closest they’ll ever get to a romantic relationship. While holing up with Hawkeye’s family, they confront their feelings for one another, and Banner’s refusal to believe they can make a relationship work. He insists that, essentially, he’s a monster, and as much as he might care for her, he can’t expose her to the Hulk. Layering tragedy upon tragedy, it’s quite heartbreaking that in Avengers: Endgame, Banner is shown to have found a way to reconcile both halves of himself to become the Professor Hulk we’ve seen in the comic books, an amalgamation of both alter egos that amounts to the best of both personalities. Not only has the time for a romantic relationship between the two come and gone by Endgame, sadly, but also, as we are to learn, Nat isn’t long for this world.
Nat’s response to Banner’s withdrawal from her in Age of Ultron marks the moment we get a true glimpse into the self-loathing she still harbors. She admits that as part of her graduation from the Red Room, she was sterilized to eliminate the last possible threat to her objectivity. We’ve just watched her bond with Hawkeye’s family and when she reveals that she’ll never be able to have children of her own – a fact she clearly puts in the “Yup, I’m a monster,” column in her head – it’s devastating on a level Nat would never disclose. The fact that we know it’s in there underscores how much she’s fighting for everyone else in her life. The idea that she’s finally found a family that doesn’t encourage her to dismiss her humanity is undermined by her own belief that she needs to keep atoning before she’ll love herself the way she loves them.
“I Have No Place in the World.”
One of the most interesting elements in Nat’s story is her lack of agency. It’s ultimately what makes her quest for atonement so heart-rending. During her time with the KGB, she only knew indoctrination at the hands of people who forced her to kill from an early age. But for someone who makes herself as powerful as Black Widow does and who considers her skills a huge part of her identity, admitting anything along the lines of “I was being controlled when I murdered and tortured people for a living” comes across as contrary to her personality. But it’s impossible for us to ignore the fact that there was a time when she didn’t have choices about things like who to allow in her life and what to do with her abilities.
This is partly why she and Clint have the relationship they do and why she feels as though she owes him right up until the very end, when she sacrifices herself in his stead. Clint freed her from the KGB and in doing so allowed her the opportunity to live a life of her own choosing. He also represents what was probably her first real, human relationship. Clint honors this by introducing only her to his family. She’s an honorary aunt to his kids, friends with his wife, and ultimately a member of a loving family unit. Clint gave her that life and coaxed her away from everything she knew. But she’s so dogged by guilt for her actions that she immediately devotes her existence to helping others – often at her own expense.
When she and Clint go to Vormir to obtain the Soul Stone, and are confronted with what it takes to secure the requisite gem, it’s not a question in either of their minds that they’re not going to be the sacrifice. Not only does Nat emerge the victor in their competition to win out over the other in meeting their demise, but she also truly believes the sacrifice should be her.
For Clint, his efforts to beat Nat to the Grim Reaper’s blade — or rather, the Stonekeeper’s craggy depths — are more a case of wanting to save the tragic friend he rescued once before, rather than an innate belief that he needs or deserves to die. Indeed, Nat knows that in her sacrifice redemption is finally within her reach — not only can she save Clint from becoming tortured anti-hero Ronin, by giving him back his family and his happiness, but she can also ensure half the universe comes back to life. That clears that ledger of hers right up.
What’s tragic, of course, is that both Clint and the audience know that her ledger is already clear. That’s another part of the reason Clint fought so hard to stop her, so that one day she might see that she’d already paid for her misdeeds — over and over again. What’s saddest about Natasha is that she never believed in her own redemption until she was falling off that cliff. It’s also likely that it’s this act that is what it takes for her to be fully free — liberated from her tortured mind and the pain of her origins.
“Whatever It Takes.”
Ultimately, Endgame itself treated Nat as the real tragic figure in the movie, not Tony Stark. Iron Man died a noble, if sad death, but before that he got to chill out for a few years with Pepper Potts and have a daughter. He got to know that he’d found peace, happiness, and fulfilment. He also got to reconcile his issues with his dead father when meeting him in the 1970s. Nat saw her best friend completely ravaged by the loss of his family, and knew that it came down to her to bring him back in. She bore witness to the loss of her own family — the Avengers — even as she desperately tried to hold some semblance of the team together.
Despite literally doing everything in her power to stop Thanos, she clearly took the Infinity War defeat to heart — enough to refuse to cut her hair for five years. Everything she can’t stop eventually goes on Nat’s ledger, and the Snap was no different. She’s seen every battle plan, she’s seen every strategy, she’s seen literal gods fail before her. So, when she has a moment to take control, she does and barely gives a second thought to sacrificing her own life to do it.
After the battle is won – due in no small part to her unflinching commitment to duty — Nat doesn’t even get a funeral. Visible mourning for her in Endgame is scant, with Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch making comments that Vision — who perished in Infinity War — and Nat somehow know they won. Directors, the Russo Brothers, have said that Nat’s lack of funeral went along with her identity as a spy with a black-ops life, but we can’t help but feel that after her death, some more acknowledgment of her sacrifice was warranted. In that way, the movie itself takes her for granted when she’s been the most consistent Avenger in terms of performance and commitment from the start.
We don’t know where Black Widow’s story goes from here. It feels like it would be even sadder to give her an origin story that only leads up to her death, so maybe the Black Widow movie will hint at a possible return? But that won’t change the fact that Nat never got over the idea that she somehow deserved to die for what she’d done in the past, even though she’d made up for her former life by the events of Endgame. If making up for that kind of thing is even possible. Ultimately, she’s the most tragic character in the MCU because her greatest moment of victory was a needless act of self-sacrifice, and one which she was doomed to make.
Tributes To a Fallen Hero
Fandom’s Marvel Cinematic Universe community have shared their eulogies to an Avenger who will be much missed… until, of course, we meet Nat again in the Black Widow movie, which may or may not be a prequel.
One fan — and they’re not alone — believes that Marvel Studios could be teeing up a return from the dead for Natasha Romanoff: “I think she’s spectacular!” says Spenpiano. “I hated when they killed her off like that. Some people like me believe she might come back alive. I don’t believe she’s gone.”
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. Hayden Hatch thinks her ending was the perfect way to go out: “To me, Black Widow’s story in the MCU is her change from a spy/assassin to a hero. She learns lessons about trust, choice, and sacrifice throughout the movies. Her ultimate sacrifice for the greater good was the perfect way to end her story and show how she learned to be a hero.”
Tom396 thinks we all owe a debt to Nat: “She wasn’t just my favorite female character or hero, she was also my favorite Avenger. If she hadn’t sacrificed herself for that damn stone, I wouldn’t be here. The future of the MCU won’t be the same without her.”
For Ashtonleighh, Natasha’s appeal in is her determination to break free of her background: “I just love Black Widow. She’s always been a favorite of mine. I love how she embodies the phrase ‘Your past does not define you’.”
Some pinpoint the fact that she wasn’t a ‘powered’ hero as the reason she was so special.
WrigglyAura says, “In my opinion what makes her so good is she has no powers. She isn’t afraid of super powerful aliens because she is strong. She’s a fighter and will never give up as we see in Endgame. She is still fighting to give the snapped people a second chance.”
ChristineNOTChristina, meanwhile, says, “Natasha was never truly super-powered. These were skills instilled in her by the Red Room, and there’s something special about non-powered superheroes. The Avengers wouldn’t be as it is now if it wasn’t for her, either, as she was technically the first one of them to work for SHIELD. Even though she was always a lone wolf, she developed relationships with the team and that was beautiful. Literally my favorite line from her is ‘I only act like I know everything, Rogers!’ Now I just need to know what happened at Budapest…”