UC professor: Marvel betrayed first female Avenger

It's been a long, long wait for 'Black Widow,' writes Rebecca Borah

Guest column by Rebecca Borah, associate professor of English in UC's College of Arts and Sciences

I’ve thought about Natasha Romanoff every day since I watched her traumatic death in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” so I’m happy and relieved that the standalone movie about Black Widow is finally here.

Part of me remains appalled by her incongruous death. The grief many of Natasha’s fans experienced flowed seamlessly into the pain and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, blending fictional and real-world trauma.

Natasha’s death hit longtime fans like me hard. I was one of those unusual girls who begged my dad to take me to Jimmy’s Barber Shop with its stacks of Marvel comics that surreptitiously hid the men’s magazines underneath. I loved the connections to mythology, the fantastic, and adventure that live television shows like “Wonder Woman” and “The Incredible Hulk” further strengthened.

Years later, a friend reintroduced me to comics with Chris Claremont’s “The Uncanny X-Men” run where I found powerful, yet relatable female characters written engagingly enough for me to excuse the sexualized costumes and poses.

When Scarlett Johansson nailed her leather-clad hero landing and took out a hallway of hired muscle in “Iron Man 2,” I felt that thrill again. Yet, it wasn’t until Natasha traded barbs with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner in “The Avengers” that I felt a growing respect for the deadly spy with a mysterious past and red in her ledger.

Rebecca Borah poses in front of some Marvel memorabilia in her office.

UC associate professor of English Rebecca Borah says the Marvel Cinematic Universe's treatment of the first female Avenger has been a disappointment. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand Above: Scarlett Johansson stars as Black Widow. Photo/Disney Media

Black Widow was the first female Avenger introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. Fans liked her snark and the fact that she kept up with her overpowered male teammates, making fools of both gods and adversaries who underestimated her.

Often, she was the voice of common sense; her problem-solving insights and persuasive skills outclassed friend and foe. Natasha didn’t need a hammer, armor, arrows, or raging fists to pull her weight; she simply punched above it.

Throughout her seven-film run, fans and creators alike wanted to claim a piece of the redheaded Avenger as theirs or project their own desires onto her. As the only female on the original team, this made Black Widow a stand-in for all women and a lightning rod for criticism.

Johansson called Natasha a slippery fish, a person who is hard to pin down because she is always evolving with her circumstances. Until now, the master spy has largely been controlled, written, and directed by men in the MCU. Some realized her potential while others reduced her to a weapon or a visual tool to titillate.

During press interviews for “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” two male castmates even slut-shamed the character for promiscuity, conflating the comics with the films. Other actors, Ruffalo and Clark Gregg, stood up for the character and demanded equal treatment, citing their own daughters’ love for Black Widow.

Yet, in the end, the studio and filmmakers most betrayed the character. Natasha’s graphic death took place long before fans could watch her take the deserving spotlight in her own film. Ideally, “Black Widow” should have hit screens after “Iron Man 2” and developed into a trilogy, but behind-the-scenes prejudices and studio drama stalled the project’s development. Inevitably, stories of newly introduced heroines like Captain Marvel were prioritized over the problematic and complex superspy.

Without Natasha breaking the boys-only gridlock, there would be no Wanda or Gamora or Carol or Monica.

Rebecca Borah, UC associate professor of English

While “Endgame” fans basked in fan service heaped on characters like Captain America, Black Widow’s fans wondered why Natasha hadn’t been deemed worthy of the same plot armor? Why had she been sent to Vormir to retrieve the perilous Soul Stone? In her story’s anguished climax, why was she chosen to make the ultimate sacrifice and not thought of a better way out?

After the film’s five-year time jump, Natasha was a wreck of her former self, the last Avenger on the wall. Robbed of agency, she was demoted to a plot device used to elevate the emotional development of her male teammates. In fan parlance, she’d been “fridged.”

The makers of “Endgame” not only did Natasha dirty, but they also misunderstood her character. How was she as a single woman more expendable than a mass-murdering vigilante? She too had “family.” She had a romantic relationship, which was teased and later ignored. What sort of message did her de facto suicide and decline send to younger fans? Why did she not deserve a funeral for family, friends, and fans to mourn her like Iron Man had? Was Banner’s ruined arm her only memorial?

A collection of Marvel memorabilia sits on a desk.

The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Black Widow" opens July 9. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

Natasha Romanoff’s legacy is full of squandered opportunities, which is a shame considering how many fans, especially girls and women, the character has inspired over the years. Their “Where’s Widow?” social media campaign to point out gender disparities in the film merchandising ushered in more inclusion in the MCU. Notably, merchandise sales are where the big bucks on characters are made, yet with no solo film to prove her popularity, it took a fan uprising to change executives’ minds.

Without Natasha breaking the boys-only gridlock, there would be no Wanda or Gamora or Carol or Monica — and no Kamala, Riri, and Jennifer coming in future projects. Very soon, we’ll have to add Yelena Belova to the list because the mantle of Black Widow will likely fall to her. Mantles and legacies are fine concepts, but it’s the characters we’ve come to know and their struggles and triumphs that bring people back again and again.

The filmmakers of “Black Widow” promised a solo adventure that would help make better sense of Natasha’s demise. Having seen the movie, I will agree that it does this to some extent. The backstory fills in a few of the gaps — “What happened in Budapest?” — and adds connections and depth to her character arc. A post-credit scene brings some much-needed emotional closure as well. 

Unfortunately, the film is only a coda to her narrative that ended so abruptly. Even future projects will only be afterthoughts to the MCU and the character. Like Natasha’s Red Room scars, the grief runs too deep to separate it entirely from her now. 

Rebecca Borah holds up a cell phone case with a black and white hourglass insignia.

Associate professor of English Rebecca Borah holds up her Black Widow cell phone case. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

The new film doesn’t change that Natasha Romanoff died on Vormir. She didn’t greet Bruce in the Soul World. She still didn’t warrant even a small on-screen funeral. We know she deserved better. Fans deserved closure two years ago, not the limp excuses and deflections male filmmakers gave before we went into lockdown.

After a pandemic-long wait, some fans may wish “Black Widow” packed a bigger cinematic bang for Natasha to go out on; however, it is far superior to the patronizing whimper of Endgame. Johansson, director Cate Shortland, and their team know the superspy and give us a compelling story that finally puts Natasha squarely in the spotlight. 

The story’s scope is too intimate and emotionally driven to outgun or outmuscle the MCU’s bigger testosterone-fueled spectacles. However, that’s not the point of the movie. What it delivers on are the sister and family connections, snarky humor, badass moves, and self-awareness that are more essential to Natasha’s appeal for her fans. 

We see her maturation as a survivor of the abusive and brutal institutions that made her and continued to exploit other women and girls after her defection. Perhaps most satisfying is Natasha’s acceptance of the bittersweet, broken relationships that equipped her to escape becoming the monster she once feared she was. Her pain has shaped her but not forced her to bury her heart.

Black Widow doesn’t fix every problem or negate what the studio or past filmmakers have done wrong. Nevertheless, the movie is worth the opportunity for Natasha’s fans to say goodbye and honor the daughter, sister, and Avenger with the cinematic sendoff for which she has more than settled up her ledger.

Next Lives Here

The University of Cincinnati is leading public urban universities into a new era of innovation and impact. Our faculty, staff and students are saving lives, changing outcomes and bending the future in our city's direction. Next Lives Here.