Overall, Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to plot points in the Avengers movies. While given quite a few badass moments in the first movie, she did fall prey to Joss Whedon’s scantily clad badass waif-fu favorite trope. The second movie reduced her to a love interest for a seemingly random character and had her declare herself a monster for being infertile. With all the other characters in Infinity War, she barely amounts to much screen time at all despite being an original Avenger.
Then Endgame comes along, and in this film she is managing the Avenger response on Earth and coordinating the response on other planets as well, a position that should elevate her to the status of characters such as Nick Fury, her mentor. Natasha is understandably distraught and tries to hold the Avengers together by her fingertips. When the chance comes to go back in time, defeat Thanos, and bring back the world, she jumps at it without regard for her own safety.
Together with Clint Barton, she goes to the place where Gamora was murdered and, like Gamora, dies so that the men can have a shiny gemstone. The MCU fridged two women the exact same way, two movies in a row. Maybe, maybe I wouldn’t be so mad about this but I am because they did it TWICE.
Some, including the directors, have claimed that this was meant as a poetic end to Natasha Romanoff’s character arc in the MCU, and don’t understand the backlash. After all, in the first Avengers movie, we hear her claim that “love is for children” and here she is sacrificing herself for love of her team and the man beside her who has been her partner for years.
But sacrifice is a very common trope when it comes to female deaths in fiction, and narratively this leaves only male characters behind to mourn for her. Later, Tony Stark likewise makes a sacrifice at the expense of his life, but his death is mourned on a much wider scale, from a battlefield farewell to his family, another virtual farewell, and a full funeral. The narrative places much more weight on his death, and charitably it could be that his death defeats the big bad once and for all and ends the climactic battle that has been happening since space was introduced in the MCU, but there’s one problem with thinking that in a vacuum.
Tony Stark is presented as the least likely person to sacrifice himself, at first because of his selfishness and callous attitude, then in Endgame because he has a family with a daughter waiting for him at home. But every single movie that Tony has been in since Iron Man 1 has included him sacrificing himself at least once, selflessly putting his life on the line again and again and again. Tony Stark’s first plan always seems to be suicidal self-sacrifice.
Similarly, Endgame positions Natasha Romanoff as if she has nothing else to give, that she has no other worth outside her work so she must throw herself into it. She’s cold, calculating, and repeatedly says that she is incapable of love, yet we the audience know that isn’t true. She loves deeply, and is fiercely protective of her team and friends, often against her best interests. Natasha is shown comforting Steve Rogers after the funeral of his former love, and doing everything she can to rescue Clint Barton from his revenge-fueled path after his family’s deaths, and holding the Avengers together by the tips of her fingertips. We know she can love, and does, and is more than willing to put herself in harm’s way to protect everyone she cares about without a care for herself. Like Tony Stark, Natasha’s first plan always seems to be suicidal self-sacrifice.
So when she’s hanging by that cliff in Endgame, telling Clint Barton that she should be the one to die for the stone, it doesn’t feel like growth. Natasha is making the sacrifice play, and the thing is it could work as a tragedy, as a fatal flaw in a hero who can’t see the impact she’s had on others, but for one of the last things she says to Clint.
She tells him he should survive, because he has a family. Something she can never have, as alluded to in Age of Ultron when she referred to herself as a monster for being infertile.
This harking back to an extremely problematic film moment is a great deal of what makes Natasha Romanoff’s death feel so gross in Endgame. Rather than completing growth as a character arc, perhaps finding purpose and love for herself in her abilities managing the Avengers and saving lives, Natasha is shown to still be holding onto that comment in Age of Ultron.
The moment is plot relevant, and the rest of the movie cannot happen without getting the Stone, but her death makes it out as if Natasha does not have her own life worth living in comparison to Clint whose family is, at this point in time, also very, very dead. The movie all but endorses this by throwing a lengthy, well attended funeral for Tony Stark featuring his young daughter prominently for audience heartbreak, a funeral in which Natasha does not receive a shoutout. There is no mention of her receiving a funeral or being mourned at all aside from the scene where they discover she is dead.
The climactic battle of the movie includes a hero shot of every woman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe teaming up against Thanos — with one notable, obvious missing member. While we will be getting a delayed-by-the-pandemic Black Widow movie at some point, Natasha was the only female superhero in the MCU until Gamora in 2014.
She deserved a hero shot. She deserved to not be the only woman in her scenes. She and Gamora deserved to have scenes together.
Gamora was forced, Natasha was willing, but in neither case was the death satisfying, fulfilling, or a completion of their character arcs. It was tragic in that they were only used as trading cards for a magic gemstone, and then to make the men feel bad briefly before moving on. The MCU needs to do better.