The most prominent female superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, has made appearances in four movies over six years: Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now Avengers: Age of Ultron. This forces us to take Natasha not as different iterations of a character but as a constantly evolving singularity. Her arc is less of an arc and more of a Rubik’s cube, with different facets aligning to reveal new elements to her character.
When she first appears in Iron Man 2, we meet a cover identity, Natalie Rushman, a facsimile of Tony Stark’s love interest Pepper Potts—she’s well-dressed in tailored clothes like Pepper, and she’s contained and poised like Pepper, too. But Natalie is much more overtly sexy than Pepper, who is statuesque and icy as played by the statuesque and icy Gwyneth Paltrow. Natalie is played by Scarlett Johansson, a classic Old Hollywood bombshell type, which is exactly how Natalie Rushman comes across. In both cases the real woman behind the character informs her role, and while Iron Man 2 is a big mess, one thing it does very cleverly is subvert the expectations these classic brands of femininity carry with them.
Natalie is a creation meant to entice Tony Stark, which she does. He objectifies her immediately—she even has a manufactured past as a lingerie model to make this even easier—just as we so often objectify beautiful women in cinema. Stark is the audience in this instance, desiring the flashy thing placed before him. And Natalie plays into this, flirting and casting coy glances over her new boss, wearing a series of fetishized secretary outfits. But in act three, as the real trouble kicks off, Natalie is cast aside and Natasha Romanov emerges. She doesn’t smile, her gaze is candid and direct, and she talks around Stark like he’s not worth her time. She is the most physically capable character in the movie, and she turns out to have computer skills that are vital to defeating the villain. In the end, Natasha is no man’s eye candy. She’s a lethal agent capable of deep deception.
In The Avengers, writer/director Joss Whedon doubles down on this concept, introducing Natasha once again undercover, using her sexuality and feminine wiles to fool men for her advantage. In a classic bad-guy move, she’s tied to a chair, but she literally tears her bonds apart and uses the chair to beat her captors, a barely-even-metaphorical visual cue that Natasha will continue to defy the conventions placed upon her simply by virtue of being a woman. And in The Avengers we get to see the “real” Natasha Romanov: a cunning, deadly, nearly unstoppable force whose moral code is dictated by guilt and loyalty more than actual morality.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier unravels that aspect of Natasha even more. She’s partnered with Steve Rogers but she’s loyal to Nick Fury, to the point of risking her working relationship with her partner. This flies in the face of conventional partner scenarios in “on the run” thrillers, which The Winter Soldier is. Traditionally, the plot would be Natasha and Steve against the world, but Natasha throws Steve over for her boss, until her boss betrays her loyalty. Each movie sets up Natasha in different character tropes, from femme fatale to partner/sidekick, and in each movie she upends the convention to reveal her own personal and complicated motivations underneath. It makes her fascinating, but it also makes her hard to parse. There isn’t a “real” Natasha, there is only this Natasha before us in any given moment, and she may or may not be presenting a genuine face.
Which is why it seems that people are struggling with the latest iteration of Natasha Romanov in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Once again springing from writer/director Whedon, this Natasha is more open and vulnerable than we’ve ever seen her. She has a crush on Bruce Banner, and she’s aggressively pursuing a romance with him. This strikes many as “out of character”, but we don’t actually know what Natasha Romanov’s character is. We’ve only ever seen facets of the whole person, and this is just another facet. The last time we saw Natasha was at the end of The Winter Soldier, after the fall of SHIELD, when she abandons her partnership with Steve Rogers in order to find “a past she can live with”. Ultron occurs about a year later, so Natasha has had plenty of time to come up with a new façade, and the one she’s trying out is “normal person”.
I’ve largely been of the mind that Natasha doesn’t need a romantic subplot because she’s interesting enough on her own. Romantic plots are vessels of vulnerability and motivation, but Natasha is interesting because of her invulnerability, and she does not lack for motivation; a woman seeking redemption for past misdeeds is much more compelling than a woman trying to win the favor of a lover. However, it occurs that in rejecting a romance for Natasha we’re asking her, as a character, not to change. By her fourth appearance, we know what’s driving Natasha—the red in her ledger—and we know her capabilities and deceptions. What we don’t know is what Natasha wants for herself, what life she imagines post-Avengering.
This is the new facet of her character that Ultron explores. It’s a dense concept and I’m not convinced Whedon successfully navigates all of the nooks and crannies of his own conceit, but we do learn a lot about Natasha throughout Ultron, and even though it comes wrapped in a romantic bow, it really has very little to do with romance. In many ways, this Natasha is a return to Natalie Rushman, as she play-acts a role for the benefit of a male audience. In the party scene in which she flirts with Banner, Natasha is wearing a retro styled dress and has her hair done in a style reminiscent of vintage finger waves. She uses retro language, saying a “fella done her wrong” and vamping up her sultry voice. The whole scene between Natasha and Banner plays like something from a screwball comedy.
Out of character? No, it’s perfectly in character, given that Natasha has assumed the role of screen siren. She’s approximating characters like Slim in To Have or Have Not—Natasha in this scene reminds one of Lauren Bacall’s many strong, sassy leading ladies. Steve Rogers comments that this is not like other times when he’s seen Natasha flirt, that she seems more open with Banner than with anyone else. And it is more genuine in the sense that this is Natasha pursuing something she wants for herself, and not for the benefit of someone else’s agenda. Yet it’s still just another angle for Natasha to play, an approximation of what she thinks courtship should be, gleaned from movies and external references. Read this way it’s actually the saddest aspect of Natasha Romanov—in trying to be her own person, she’s only copying someone else, and that someone isn’t even real.
Later in the movie, a dream sequence takes us back to Natasha’s past as a child soldier in the brutal “Red Room”. Groomed from a very young age to be a perfect assassin, Natasha has had her identity completely erased by the Red Room. In a surprisingly heartfelt scene for a comic book movie, Natasha describes the brutal “graduation ceremony” in which she was sterilized. It’s “one less thing to worry about” she says, then asks Banner, “Who’s the monster now?” Many people are reading that as an indictment of Natasha’s barrenness, implying that she thinks because she can’t have children she’s monstrous.
That’s way too simple a reading, and it’s ignoring everything else we’ve learned about Natasha Romanov. We know Natasha is driven to atone for the things she did as an assassin for the Red Room, and now we know she is haunted by the trauma of invasion, by the loss of bodily autonomy. In Ultron the Avengers learn about Clint Barton’s secret life as a husband and father, and Banner seems tortured by the idea that he can’t give that same life to Natasha. She, however, isn’t tortured by the loss of potential children so much as she is what the Red Room did to her in sterilizing her—make her into a perfect instrument of death.
By sterilizing her, the Red Room removed any possibility of life springing from Natasha. She isn’t a monster because she’s barren, she sees herself as monstrous because everything about her is calculated to bring about death, to the great extreme that she can no longer create life. That’s how far the Red Room was willing to take it, that’s the level of horror visited upon a young Natasha. Her autonomy was violated so that she could be this thing for someone else, and twenty years later we see a Natasha who still doesn’t know how to define her own self except as a monster. Not because she can’t have children, but because her sterility represents just another brutal aspect of the training that made her into the Black Widow.
It’s a dense concept that requires parsing by taking into account every version of Natasha Romanov from Natalie Rushman to the Black Widow. In Ultron we see one of her deepest layers, one traumatized by loss of autonomy. The Black Widow was made and the cost of that making was the person Natasha Romanov could have been. Through four appearances, what we’ve learned about Natasha is that she does not know who that person is, and so is left to assume different roles and don an unending series of masks, all to approximate a person it’s impossible for her to know. Natasha was divorced from herself by her training, a metaphysical concept manifested physically by her sterilization.
At the end of Ultron Natasha puts away another mask, abandoning her attempt at normalcy in favor of stepping up as Steve Rogers’s lieutenant. In her final moments on screen, she is posed alone in an empty room, her back to a distorted reflection of herself. She has a choice to make, to continue being the distortion or to embrace a new identity. Throughout the movie she and Banner discussed running away, but at two critical moments Natasha chose to fight, first when she literally pushes Banner into becoming the Hulk, and again when she follows Steve Rogers (perhaps the only man worthy of her incredible loyalty). She could have retired alongside Clint Barton and Tony Stark, but she chooses to stay in the fight, and in this instance we see the clearest view of Natasha Romanov yet. She is not a monster but a fighter, a warrior worthy of walking next to another great warrior. At least for now.