MASSIVE SPOILERS for Natasha Romanoff in Avengers: Endgame. DO NOT READ if you are avoiding Endgame spoilers!
Welcome to Bae Watch Wednesday, where I tell you all about the fictional characters you ought to be crushing on. I will continue to not be over Avengers: Endgame so let’s talk about Natasha Romanoff.
Who Is Natasha Romanoff?
Natasha Romanoff is one of the longest-running characters in the MCU, first appearing in 2010’s Iron Man 2. In later movies, we learn more about Natasha’s past. She was raised in the Red Room, a training program for Russian assassins. Natasha was very prodigious and “graduated” from the Red Room, a highly skilled spy and assassin. She made a name for herself, but that also made her a target. SHIELD, a government agency dedicated to protecting the innocent, marks Natasha for elimination, but agent Clint Barton chooses to recruit her instead. Natasha has no family, so SHIELD becomes her family.
Of course, we know none of this at first. We meet Natasha as a new addition to Stark Industries, and a complication to Tony Stark’s already complicated life. As he deals with heavy metal poisoning from his life-saving arc reactor and the alcoholism he subsequently used as a coping mechanism, Natasha shows up to throw another wrench in the works. Natasha seems to be driving a wedge between Tony and Pepper Potts, who is growing ever more tired of Tony’s shenanigans by the day.
Things get really complicated when Natasha reveals who she really is. She was assigned to watch over Tony and try to stop his downward spiral. When that doesn’t work, SHIELD makes Phil Coulson Tony’s babysitter instead, and sets Natasha to helping Pepper. After Tony gets his act together and starts saving the day, Natasha and Pepper do their own work behind the scenes, saving countless lives. A fragile truce stands between Natasha and Tony, who sees her as a liar and untrustworthy. But as SHIELD declares Tony unfit for the Avengers Initiative, it doesn’t seem like they’ll have too much to do with each other going forward. Naturally, that’s not how things work out, as we see in 2012’s The Avengers.
Natasha continues to work as the Black Widow, her spy codename. But her work tackling Russian weapons dealers soon falls by the wayside when a real threat comes along. Natasha gets drawn into the massive Loki crisis when Coulson informs her that Barton has been compromised. She is fiercely loyal to Barton, so she does what it takes to help get him back, even when Coulson sends her to recruit Bruce Banner.
Things don’t go smoothly. As the team is assembled, tensions fly. Tony is brought in, but the “doesn’t play well with others” comes out strong as he clashes with Steve Rogers and continues to mistrust Natasha. It’s only when the team is attacked that they start to work together. Barton is one of the attackers, and Natasha goes to confront him and, hopefully, save him. She is able to break Loki’s brainwashing and get the real Barton back, and they decide they have to stop Loki no matter what. They get everyone to work together and, in the end, save New York as a team.
After New York, Natasha continues to work for SHIELD, where she is often partnered with Steve Rogers. Steve sometimes clashes with Natasha’s moral dubiousness, but she points out that someone needs to get the job done. However, both their worlds are turned upside down with the reveal that SHIELD has been infiltrated by Hydra, a Nazi terrorist organization Steve fought in the 1940s. They have to work together to stop Hydra from launching a program to target dissenters. Natasha is thrown by the realization that the organization she has devoted herself to, that she thought was better than where she came from, is in fact evil. She still helps Steve save the day, and Hydra is (more or less) defeated.
The hits keep on coming for Natasha. The Avengers reassemble to dismantle the remaining Hydra strongholds, and Natasha works well with her team. She becomes the Hulk’s handler, and even starts a flirtation with Bruce Banner. But when Natasha is hypnotized by Wanda Maximoff, she falls into memories of her time in the Red Room. She struggles to regain her equilibrium after this, but recovers a little when she gets to see Clint’s family, who are her surrogate family as well.
The new crisis comes after the Avengers splintered over debates about oversight. Natasha initially went along with Tony in agreeing that the Avengers need someone to watch over them. But when Steve breaks loose, she backs him up. Natasha becomes an outlaw, along with Steve’s companions. They spend their time quietly avoiding the law and doing what good they can until Thanos’ actions bring them back into the thick of things. Natasha works with the other Earth-bound heroes to stop Thanos’ army, but in the end, they are unsuccessful and Thanos eradicates half of all life.
Natasha takes this particularly hard. In five years post-Thanos, the Avengers drifted apart, destroying yet another family for Natasha. She tries to hold things together, staying in Avengers’ headquarters and managing the various heroes that are left. Natasha is desperate to do what good she can, but overwhelmed by the futility of it all. So when Scott Lang shows up with a potential plan to fix things, she goes all in. She can’t help with the science, but she gets all the pieces in order. Natasha is sent with Barton to Vormir, where they learn someone must be sacrificed to get the soul stone. They fight, but ultimately, Natasha sacrifices herself – for Barton, for his family, and for the world.
Why Is Natasha Romanoff Bae?
Natasha Romanoff is a divisive character. She lives in moral complexity, a shade of gray character that stands out next to such straightforward heroes as Captain America (even Tony Stark expresses disdain over Natasha’s dissembling). She often falls into bad tropes, such as a femme fatale, a Russian spy. This was especially egregious in Age of Ultron, where she deals with the ramifications of being sterilized by the Red Room to become a better spy. Even aside from all that, some people don’t like Natasha because of her actress; Scarlett Johansson is a hot topic, and often in not good ways.
But when it comes down to it, Natasha Romanoff is a good character. She is interesting and complex, but ultimately good. She is a pioneer, as the first female Avenger (the only original female Avenger). There might be some misses in Natasha’s characterization, but overall, she deserves a lot more love than she gets. She’s got amazing hair.
One of the big notes in Natasha’s overall story is the idea of family. It’s not the fact that Natasha cannot have biological children and that makes her a monster, Joss. No, what makes Natasha tick is her desire for a family after she was alone for so long. She never knew her parents, later telling Steve that all she found of them after leaving the Red Room was a pair of gravestones. The Red Room raised her, but they were not her family. But she managed to find her own family, and they meant so much to Natasha.
The turning point was Barton deciding to recruit Natasha instead of killing her. Given the option for a better life, Natasha dedicates herself to SHIELD. Barton obviously becomes her family. The connection between them in The Avengers is so strong that an avid ship grew around them. Later, when it was revealed that Barton was married with kids, that connection didn’t go away. Instead, she became aunt Natasha.
But Barton isn’t the only family Natasha finds. SHIELD was with her family, before the Hydra reveal. We see in The Winter Soldier that she has a particular connection with SHIELD director Nick Fury. The Avengers also became her family. Even as they splintered apart, she did her best to salvage something from the wreckage. Tony accuses her of double-crossing, but really, she is just trying her best to support all of her family. It’s no surprise that post-Thanos, Natasha takes things really hard. She lost so much. Fury is gone, as is Barton’s family. Barton himself has gone rogue, and the Avengers has split up. She wants her family back just as much as she wants to save the world. Natasha sacrificing herself for Barton, in the end, is just the narrative end of this story.
Natasha Romanoff, no matter what else you may say about her, is a hero. We see that time and again in the Infinity Saga. In every appearance, Natasha works to save the day, save the world. Natasha sees herself as a bad person. She is a spy, an assassin. As she tells Loki, she has red in her ledger. She’s just trying to undo the damage she did in her former life, and sees SHIELD as the best way to do that. But that’s all a front. Natasha might play tough, act like she doesn’t care, but she really, truly does. And that makes her a hero.
Right from the start, Natasha goes above and beyond the call of duty. She could have written Tony off as he succumbed to alcoholism and poisoning, but she worked with him and with Pepper to save the day. In The Avengers, Barton points out that he and Natasha are spies, not soldiers. Fighting alien invaders is a bit above their paygrade. But Natasha knows it needs to be done, and they can help. She saves the day again and again, often with no thanks, because it needs to be done and she can do it.
In Endgame, Natasha is the only original Avenger still fighting. Tony retired and started a family, Steve did therapy groups, Barton went rogue vigilante, Thor was succumbing to depression and addiction, Bruce is doing… whatever Bruce did. But Natasha refuses to give up. She coordinates the efforts of the new heroes. She rallies the team to save the day one last time. While it’s upsetting that Natasha died (and feels a bit fridge-y), it does feel like a fitting end for a spy who was determined to be a hero, no matter the cost.
What’s Not To Love?
From the start, Natasha Romanoff has been one of my favorite characters in the MCU. Granted, part of that is probably due to the utter lack of female heroes in the early movies. But a lot of it is just that she is a good character. Natasha represents a different sort of hero than your self-righteous (Rogers) or arrogant types (Stark). She’s the nitty-gritty, in the dirt, shades of gray, do what it takes kind of hero.
Natasha Romanoff gave us a new perspective. She’s not the big, flashy hero; up til now she’s never had her own movie (and the upcoming Black Widow movie will be a prequel, so she’s still not really getting her own chance to shine – especially since the prequel comes out after Natasha sacrificed herself in Endgame). But by being in so many other movies, she gives the audience a lens into how they work.
Natasha was a primary character in Iron Man 2, but also in The Winter Soldier. Civil War is a bit of an ensemble affair, but Natasha still plays a big part. And through Natasha, we see the other side of things. How the heroes mess up, how promises get broken, how things that seem good turn bad. And we see that heroes can still be heroes, no matter what.
Endgame killed off two of my favorite MCU characters. But it did so in a way that felt narratively complete. Natasha sacrificing herself for her family is the natural endpoint of the journey we’ve seen. We saw Natasha move from Red Room assassin, to SHIELD spy, to Avenger. She wants to be the hero, and she sticks around when everyone else gives up. Natasha Romanoff is the real MVP, and she will be missed.