This post is going to contain spoilers for Age of Ultron. Be warned.
So, I always liked Black Widow okay as a character. But I admittedly never really got her, from when she first showed up. Oh boy, assassin and spy who uses her wiles to manipulate dudes. But hey, at least she was pretty awesome at the end of Iron Man 2, right? She started growing more and more on me with each movie. I remember feeling a lot of trepidation about Captain America: The Winter Soldier and came out of it thinking damn, I’d been so wrong. Give me more Cap and Black Widow. Yet Tony Stark was still, to be honest, my fav, because he had witty dialog, yeah, but also because he’s one of the most conflicted, emotionally complex, human characters in those movies.
But now, having seen Age of Ultron twice, I can say Black Widow is my favorite Avenger, hands down. (Though Clint Barton being Hawkdad is a close second. Grouchy normal human grumbling about how ridiculous everything is, go!) Sorry, Tony. So let me tell you why.
Natasha’s got the same level of emotional complexity and contradicting motivations that Tony has. She just hasn’t had three movies where she’s the title character to show us that, thanks Marvel. We’ve been getting hints all along, but it’s here, thanks to the interference of Wanda Maximoff, that we actually get to see some of her background.
And shit, the Red Room is as creepy as I could have hoped. You see her training to be an assassin. You see her getting taken in for the “graduation ceremony” which is later revealed to involve her being sterilized, as a measure to keep her from decreasing her effectiveness by forming emotional attachments with a family. When she asks Bruce “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?” she’s expressing the entirety of what was done to her, her loss of agency during that time, the fact that she’s been physically altered and had her choices taken away permanently, the fact that she is supposed to be isolated, be marble, be a killer. Considering a lot of horror stories about people turning into monsters is about that loss of agency, choice, and humanity, it’s comes across as a very real expression of pain she feels over what was done to her. She’s also pointing out the fact that he’s incredibly shaken by having hulked out and probably killed a lot of people, whereas she is perfectly in control of herself when she’s fighting and death doesn’t touch her the same way it touches him.
And yet. This isn’t just angst bait. Age of Ultron had such amazing, deft, economical character moments. Like the moment Natasha walks into Hawkdad’s farmhouse and gets called “Auntie Nat” by his daughter. In a few seconds, we suddenly know so much about her, her relationship with Clint—whom she calls her best friend—and her relationship with his family. She’s part of his family. She’s the doting Auntie for his kids. Contrast that to everything the Red Room tried to turn her in to; while she might still feel like a monster sometimes because she will never have a “normal” life by any stretch of the imagination, she’s still made herself a home, and has a family, and has the very sort of strong emotional bonds with other people that the Red Room was trying to make her incapable of forming.
Then take it one step further, and consider that her conversation with Bruce is about him saying he can’t have kids, family, the normal stuff. Natasha can’t either, whether or not she ever wanted to, that choice is gone. But she’s still able to not only be part of Clint’s family, but be genuinely happy for him and Laura having the things she knows she can never have. That right there takes a lot of strength of character.
So about Bruce, since I’ve brought him up. Initially, I wasn’t on board with the romance, since it came very out of left field on first viewing. The second time I saw the movie, I minded it a lot less. Frankly, I liked the fact that Natasha was driving the relationship bus the whole way—and yet she didn’t get reduced down to that subplot becoming her entire reason for existing in the movie. She doesn’t turn into Bruce Banner’s accessory; they both continue on being motivated characters in their own right, and the end certainly shows that while she might feel hurt about Bruce flying off into the wild blue yonder, she’s also got other things to do with her time.
Looking at it from the perspective of how she talks about the Red Room, I wonder if she gravitated toward Bruce because in a way, she’s got the most in common with him. No one would ever call Steve Rogers a monster, but Bruce has many of the same self-doubts and insecurities that she does. And when she gets past flirting and into more aggressive territory, it’s in the wake of having had Wanda fishing all of those fears and insecurities up; no shit she might want to try to make a connection with someone to remind herself she’s still human. Beyond that, Bruce tries to use his “monstrous” nature to argue that some kind of normal relationship is impossible; Natasha shoots that down by comparing the two of them and implying that fine if they’re both monsters, they still have a chance to be happy if they stick together. Bruce is also, I will note, the person who actually opens the topic of not being able to have kids or a classic “normal” life.
(By the way, both times I saw the movie, I also read Steve as just being like, “Go get ’em, Nat” during the party. Which made me like Steve even more, really.)
I could have lived happily without Natasha getting captured by Ultron at the end, but on the other hand, she basically summons the team to her by cobbling together a transmitter because she’s damn resourceful. And then she turns her reunion with Bruce into shoving him off a cliff to get him to Hulk out, because he wants to leave and she knows she needs to finish the job. The determination she shows through the final sequences of the movie is one more reason to love her. Natasha gets the job done, and she doesn’t stop.
Oh, and just a moment to love her being the only person secure enough to look at Mjolnir and say, “That’s not a question I need answering.”
Natasha’s an incredibly strong character of the female variety. And you note, I say that after having talked about pretty much nothing but her interactions with other characters in the movie. She kicks an amazing amount of ass, but so what? Capacity for violence keeps being falsely equated with “strength” as a character, and that has nothing to do with it. What makes Natasha strong isn’t her robot body count. It’s the fact that she has both strengths and flaws and personality quirks, just like the male characters she plays off of. It’s the fact that she gets to struggle with the same questions that the male characters in the franchise have dealt with instead of being someone else’s one note resolution. It’s the fact that she remains a character who makes her own decisions and serves her own story, despite the fact that she has a romance subplot and addresses the fact that she can’t have kids, things that would be kryptonite to a weakly developed character. These are not and never will be the whole of who Natasha Romanoff is. There’s so much more to her, and that complex and conflicted whole is what makes her damn amazing.
So where’s our Black Widow movie?