Avengers: Endgame utterly fails Black Widow. For a movie that gives such a fitting send off to MCU founding heroes Iron Man and Captain America, allows Thor an exciting future with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and provides Hulk and Hawkeye with the stories they've always needed, it's shocking the founding female Avenger is given such a short shrift.
Natasha Romanoff dies halfway through Avengers: Endgame. During her and Hawkeye's part of the team's time travel mission to pluck the Infinity Stones out of the past, they realize one of them must sacrifice themselves on Vormir to attain the Soul Stone. After one of the pair's now-typical tussles, Black Widow ends up falling to her death just as Gamora did three hours prior. And, like Thanos' favorite daughter, come the movie's end, she remains dead.
Considering how much Avengers: Endgame gets right - make no mistake, it's a really great movie and certainly close to the best something so sprawling could be - its callous handling of Black Widow stands out. It's a sad end to one of the MCU's eternally underserved characters.
Black Widow Was Always Underserved By The MCU - And Avengers: Endgame Changes Nothing
Scarlett Johannson joined the MCU in Iron Man 2 under last-minute circumstances. The role had been offered to director Jon Favreau's first choice, Emily Blunt, but she had to pass due to Fox exercising a contract clause from The Devil Wears Prada to have her star in Gulliver's Travels. In came Johannson, who'd screen-tested for the part. From there, she became one of the core six in The Avengers, had a key supporting role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, then was once more an Avenger in Age of Ultron, Civil War and Infinity War. That's seven movies counting Avengers: Endgame.
If there was one word to describe Black Widow across these films (a run that lasts longer than Christopher Reeve's Superman), it's inconsistent. In pretty much each movie, Johansson was playing a different character: sultry spy in Iron Man 2; badass fighter in The Avengers; secretive trooper in The Winter Soldier; smitten captive in Age of Ultron; indecisive game-player in Civil War; limited support in Infinity War; and now plot-necessary sacrifice in Endgame. None of this is to say she's a bad character (although Joss Whedon's pairing her off with fellow "monster" Bruce Banner was a bad choice), but it's clear there's a lack of definition to Black Widow and constantly changing direction as new directors take her on or wider franchise concerns come in.
Avengers: Endgame could have been Black Widow's moment in the sun. The logline was that the characters who took a backseat in Avengers: Infinity War would get to shine in the second part, and while that's true of Captain America, Hawkeye and Banner (and Iron Man gets equal focus), Natasha - whose role in the first movie was to have shorter hair - is left with little. Following the time jump, she's leading the Avengers in lieu of a disenfranchised Steve Rogers where she gets to fully address how the family helped rehabilitate her, but that's a brief role before time travel enters the mix she takes a backseat; her reuniting with Hawkeye is just one slice of the pre-time travel pie. And it only gets worse when we go into the past.
Black Widow's Death Sees Avengers: Endgame Betray Infinity War
For reasons that are never explained, Black Widow and Hawkeye are the ones chosen to collect the Soul Stone from Vormir during Avengers: Endgame's time travel gambit. No matter that they're the two most grounded characters, they're off on a space mission on their own. Once there, they come across Red Skull, who namedrops Natasha's unknown father (oblique setup for her solo movie just as Thanos' father A'lars was for The Eternals) and then the pair are forced to contemplate how to access the gem.
So much here makes no narrative sense. From Nebula's confirmation of Gamora's death in Infinity War - "He took her to Vormir. He came back with the Soul Stone. But she didn't." - she clearly has an understanding of the trade aspect of this Infinity Stone, meaning she's willingly sending one of this pair to their death. For Clint and Nat to arrive without any knowledge of what awaits feels incredibly short-sighted.
But beyond that, for one of the Avengers to have to die undermines the entire point of Infinity War. Thanos won because of Captain America's militant decree "we don't trade lives", essentially the heroes' inability to display the unshaking will to become victorious; Doctor Strange gives up the Time Stone to save Iron Man and the decision to finally kill Vision comes too late. This was best seen in the Soul Stone scene where Thanos killed his "favorite" daughter without much pause. Yet when the Avengers get their counterpoint moment in Endgame, the solution is still to trade a life. There's no victory here, just the heroes sinking to the villains' level out of desperation.
Choosing Black Widow To Die Instead Of Hawkeye Is Arbitrary
Even accepting that choice, unexplained on a thematic level, there's an explicit choosing of Black Widow to be the one to die. Not all-devoting family man Hawkeye who has gone full dark as Ronin, but the redeemed super spy who was leading the Avengers. It's arbitrary, shown in the pair's fight for the right to die.
It's an odd quirk of Marvel movies to give Black Widow and Hawkeye development in two ever-contrasting forms: they fight and then they talk. In The Avengers, they fight on the Helicarrier when he's under the Mind Stone's influence, then reflect; in Captain America: Civil War, their political disagreement comes out in a fight wherein they admit they're pulling punches; and in Avengers: Endgame the fight is a sparring staging of their debate over sacrifice. In theory, each of these ideas can be powerful, yet when it's the default for their interaction there's a sense of going through the motions.
This is highlighted in their Avengers: Endgame bout, with the ultimate winner/loser decided entirely on the basis of storyteller decision. Considering Clint's ledger is now just as red, there's a character reasoning for him to make a sacrifice and, without a proper family reunion in the movie (they're just back together at Tony Stark's funeral), no story justification to not. Conversely, to have Hawkeye survive explicitly because of his family, it makes the Avengers: Age of Ultron reveal that Black Widow is infertile (and, in Whedon's parlance, a "monster") feel even dirtier.
Of course, the idea of trading lives is not only against the Infinity War premise, it highlights a bigger problem with the Soul Stone.
Black Widow's Death Makes The Soul Stone Problem Worse
While Avengers: Infinity War was roundly praised for how it translated the comic event to the big screen, if there was one moment that proved divisive, it was the handling of the Soul Stone. In something approaching a retcon (or at least an element not set up fully), it was revealed that the final Infinity Stone was hidden on the planet Vormir and only accessible through the exchange of a soul, specifically that of a loved one. Thanos sacrificed Gamora, his favorite daughter, to get the gem, something that questioned the idea of "love."
Black Widow's death is Endgame's mirror element. Ignoring any temporal issues from time travel (for example, Captain America's return of the Soul Stone and reunion with Red Skull), that another female character must die to attain it is certainly ill-fitting. Beyond that, it highlights an over-vagueness of the Vormir mechanics, with "sacrifice" and "love" so ill-defined that any greater meaning or reflection on the characters who survive too open to viewer interpretation for emotional lynchpins of both films' respective middle acts.
All of this is made weaker by the fact that Avengers: Infinity War's tease of Soul World - Thanos went to an orange-hued dimension after the snap where he encountered a young Gamora - ended up moot. The tease of that comic element was a tantalizing one and provided a neat map for Gamora's - and, subsequently, Black Widow's - return. However, it was merely a neat visual, and had no plot weight. That's acceptable enough but a loose element of a tight story.
Black Widow's Death Weakened Avengers: Endgame's Finale
What makes Black Widow's death all the more galling is how much it leaves a hole in the middle of Avengers: Endgame's final battle. This is the MCU's biggest comic book spread yet, a sequence that involves every single hero imaginable, from Captain America to Valkyrie, Wong to M'Baku. It's the return of the vanished and the final stand of the original heroes. And yet one-sixth of the OG Avengers is absent from it.
Any weirdness you may have felt with Black Widow's death is made all the worse by the fact that she isn't there to be a part of the final stand against Thanos. Yes, she gave her life for this cause, but the battle is about emotive spectacle and so a missing character stands out. Hawkeye gets a key role in protecting the Infinity Gauntlet: how much more striking would that have been if Clint had been fighting alongside Nat, another callback to their paired mission in Budapest?
This is really highlighted in the movie's all-female beat. When Captain Marvel grabs the Stark Infinity Gauntlet, all the female Marvel heroes assemble to clear her path. In an expanding shot, Scarlet Witch, Nebula, Gamora, Mantis, Okoye, Valkyrie and Shuri, all appear to help the strongest hero. It's Avengers: Endgame's approximation of A-Force, the all-female Marvel hero team created during the Secret Wars event in 2015. And yet the moment is just one of many in a massive action sequence so, like the Widow-Okoye-Wanda team-up in Infinity War, feels more tokenistic than empowering, which is only compounded by the fact that the only woman from the original Avengers has already been sacrificed.
Black Widow isn't the only character missing from Avengers: Endgame's final battle. Gamora was killed by Thanos to similarly attain the Soul Stone (although her 2014 counterpart does take part in the fight), Vision is yet to have his stone-pulling death undone, and Loki remains unresurrected (although did create his own timeline due to the time travel). But none of these are quite as galling as the seven-movie strong Natasha.
Black Widow's Solo Movie Is No Excuse For Her Death
Of course, unlike Chris Evans or Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson has an immediate future in the MCU. Although Marvel is yet to announce it (no future films are being confirmed until after Spider-Man: Far From Home), it's all-but set that the Black Widow solo movie will release next May. The film, directed by Cate Shortland, will star Johansson alongside David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Florence Pugh and O-T Fagbenle.
Immediately, the question of story continuation comes up, but is explained by plot reports. Black Widow will be a prequel, showing Natasha's time as a spy and how she got just so much red on her ledger, with a story that's rumored to involve aspects including Y2K, the Winter Soldier and, hopefully, Budapest. That's certainly the most interesting aspect of Black Widow's story, and allows the MCU to essentially pause forward momentum while still releasing movies in 2020 (the other film out next year is The Eternals, also expected to be a prequel).
But continuing Black Widow's presence on the big screen doesn't account for her death. A posthumous prequel may be a good film yet it offers very little in the scope of the shared universe. The previous two period movies in the MCU - Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain Marvel - introduced heroes who would be essential to directly following movies. Black Widow's film is a eulogy; it tells her story and that's certainly interesting, but it's already too little, too late, and Marvel's only exacerbated it.
It's easy to look at Avengers: Endgame as a celebration of the MCU so far, but what it really is is a distillation. It's everything that Marvel Studios has done across all their movies in the microcosm of a single runtime - both good and bad. And, unfortunately, that seemingly must also mean a complete disregard for its founding female character.
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019