The Endgame of Black Widow: Sexist or Empowering?
Even though it's officially okay now, consider this your SPOILER WARNING!
Now that the Avengers: Endgame spoiler embargo has been lifted for awhile, it’s time for us to take a look at the “endgame” of each of the original six Avengers and see how they got to this point in their respective journeys. We’re starting off with Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow, who not only had one of the most controversial endings to her arc, but one of the most controversial arcs in the MCU, period.
As will prove to be common for this miniseries, let’s start at the end of Natasha’s journey. Once it was clear the Avengers would be collecting all the Infinity Stones to build a new gauntlet in Endgame, we were all filled with dread upon realizing this meant we would be getting another Soul Stone sacrifice. Of course, there had been plenty of theories that this would happen, with one of the most prevalent being Tony Stark being forced to sacrifice Steve Rogers in order to get the stone. Natasha didn’t really seem to be on anyone’s radar for this fate, but it was exactly the one she met in the movie when she won the race against Clint Barton to throw herself off the cliff so that the Avengers could obtain the Soul Stone in hopes of possibly restoring the half of the universe snapped away by Thanos.
The killing off of the only original female Avenger would have gotten some backlash no matter how it was done. While the male to female ratio in these movies has become slightly more even over the years and the writing of the female characters has seen a noticeable rise in quality, there are still way more male heroes in these movies, and Black Widow in particular has always been sidelined to a degree within the Marvel Studios world, from her over-sexualization right from the get-go, to being the sole main hero excluded in Avengers-branded toys, to the rejection of the prospect of a solo film (which, thankfully, seems to finally be happening). But the biggest in-canon thing regarding her character most fans took issue with was her part in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The movie threw her into a flirtationship with Bruce Banner with no real build-up beforehand and included a dialogue scene between the two of them that may have had the intent of implying she viewed herself as a “monster” because of her sterilization during her assassin training. Yikes.
So it’s hard for her fate in Endgame not to sting when, after all the previous controversy, she was the one to die for the Soul Stone due to not having a “traditional” family of her own like her mission companion Clint Barton. And the fact that after her teammates mourned her death, Natasha was only mentioned one more time before the movie ended. And that while she wasn’t the only Avenger to die in Endgame, she was the only one to be left out of the big “everyone” battle at the end of the movie. (The brief shot of all the women coming together to fight was pretty cool, but Black Widow’s absence left a gaping hole in that lineup and it was weird she wasn’t even allowed to be there “in spirit” via someone saying “this is for you, Nat” or even giving a callback to one of her lines at some point during that scene.)
There’s also another layer of discourse in regards to the Vormir sacrifice, that being the parallel to the scene in Avengers: Infinity War which sees Thanos hurling Gamora off the cliff in order to obtain the Soul Stone. Gamora’s death was a classic case of “fridging” (killing off a female character in order to further the development of a male character) while Natasha death was via her own agency and ultimately served primarily as an ending for her own arc rather than to add to anyone else’s, so Natasha’s could be interpreted as a more “positive” in the sense of feminism. But even if that was indeed the intent, the main female Guardian of the Galaxy and the only original female Avenger dying in the same fashion in back-to-back Avengers movies still feels at least a little sexist no matter how you slice it, even if a version of Gamora still exists in the main timeline now.
In the end, I think Natasha’s endgame works well enough in the vacuum of Endgame as a movie on its own. But this is a movie that is by definition the culmination of a decade-long saga, and when looking at that saga as a whole, the end of her arc definitely has some problematic elements that are difficult to ignore. Regardless of what the upcoming Black Widow movie is about, here’s hoping it handles the character in such a way that if it doesn’t make up for all the mishaps regarding her in the past, at least gives her the story and portrayal she – and the female fanbase of the MCU – deserves.