Many loose ends were tied up in Avengers: Endgame, but there was only one moment that truly shocked and upset me: the death of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, AKA Natasha Romanov.
We all knew blood would be spilled at the end of this 22-film saga. That the Avengers, as we knew them, would be no more once the credits rolled. But with a long-overdue Black Widow film reportedly on the way for next year, it felt particularly cruel – and unwise – to bring her story to an end so soon.
Johansson’s character is not as integral a figure to The Avengers as Iron Man or Captain America. No one expected her to be as deeply ingrained in the swan song of MCU Phase 3 as either of them. But, as the third most-featured Avenger (eight film appearances, joint with Thor), and the only female in the original group, she could have expected a little more than she got.
Here’s how it went down.
The ramshackle crew of superheroes left on earth five years after Thanos’s deadly Snap – all of the original Avengers, plus Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Rocket Raccoon and Nebula – travelled back to various points in time to collect the Infinity Stones with the aim of bringing them back to the future to bring all of their pals back to life.
Romanov and long-time ally Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye) set off for Vormir, to collect the Soul Stone, which requires its prospective collector to sacrifice “something they love”, with no exceptions. A teary-eyed Thanos threw his adoptive daughter, Gamora, to her death here in Infinity War.
After learning of the toll, the two had a prolonged wrestle on a cliff edge, both keen to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team. Romanov won out, and plummeted to her death. The image of her lying on the floor, as a pool of blood formed around her, echoed that of Gamora in the previous film.
Then, there was the aftermath, a brief speck on the timeline compared to Tony Stark’s funeral. Captain America cried one single, manly tear (see below). Barton sulked. Professor Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) thumped the ground and threw a bench. And that was pretty much it.
So why such a premature end, with such little fanfare, for Black Widow? There are all kinds of possibilities as to why this played out the way it did.
Endgame screenwriters McFeely and Markus told the New York Times that there was a version of the script which saw Barton sacrifice himself instead of her, but that it felt right to give her this heroic moment. They argued that her journey has come to an end with the undoing of the snap.
But why, then, is there a solo movie reportedly scheduled for release in 2020? It’s far too late for a Natasha Romanov origin story / prequel, and if it is to be an Endgame follow-on they’ll have to do some serious plot gymnastics to bring her back to life.
Death has to be somewhat earned in a story of this magnitude. Take Gamora, previously a bit-part player who became a major figure of Infinity War (she had the second-most screen time after the big purple villain). She needed an arc to give the audience something to care about. Through flashbacks to her childhood over the course of the film, we learned the intricacies of her relationship with her father, and it gave both characters more depth. It proved both Thanos’s complexity and his determination to complete his goal of eradicating half the population of the universe.
In Endgame, Black Widow’s arc is not really clear – she seems to be something of an afterthought, as she has been for much (though, not all) of her other seven appearances. She has just 33 minutes of screen time, less than all of her original Avengers colleagues. To put that into context, Rocket, a genetically engineered space racoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, has 36; Captain America has 1 hour and six.
Though Marvel has come a long way since her leery introduction in Iron Man 2, when she was drooled over by Tony Stark and Happy Hogan, Black Widow has not been a beneficiary of the increased focus on gender equality. When ten female superheroes – including Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) – gathered for a “girl power” team-up during the climactic final battle, absence was palpable.
In the movie Avengers End Game, there was a part where all the female heroes gathered together. You can feel the girl power. But it felt sad because there was only one woman hero who wasn’t there. ????????
— Al Moralde (@almoralde) April 28, 2019
Sure, she got more screen time here than she did in Infinity War, but that wasn’t hard. She became the de facto managing director of the disparate, depleted Avengers-in-space. She traded emails with the aforementioned raccoon. She changed her hair from a blonde bob to rouge-tinted locks. And then she drew the short straw and got sent to Vormir.
There are only so many minutes in a movie (although this one had a whopping 181), and there were a lot of characters to pay attention to. But couldn’t they have given a bit more to one of the stalwarts of the saga?
It seemed odd that there was no pay off for her romance with Bruce Banner, which was ignited in Avengers: Age of Ultron by Joss Whedon, one of the only directors in the MCU who seemed to know what to do with the character. Despite some fan backlash, it was an interesting will-they-won’t-they storyline, which might have provided a bit of pathos here.
Of course, different directors want different things from their characters. The Russo brothers had hinted in the past that it wasn’t something they had intended on addressing.
If Whedon had been behind the camera for parts three and four, Hulk and Natasha might have developed their romance, and her death might have had the gravitas it deserved.
Perhaps that timeline exists out there somewhere, too, a quantum leap away. But, in the absence of Ant-Man’s van, we will have to make do with this one, and await some sort of course correction when the character returns to our screens in one form or another next year.
Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas now