This article contains major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
When the Marvel Cinematic Universe first introduced Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, it left no ambiguity as to what audiences were supposed to make of her. In the guise of a notary, with dark red hair undulating around a skintight white shirt buttoned sub-sternum, she instantly reduces both Tony Stark and Happy Hogan to peacocking putzes. Natasha Romanova was a former KGB assassin, a world-class martial artist, and (apparently) a gifted hacker, but in Iron Man 2, it was clear that she was first and foremost a sex object.
“Where’s she from?” Tony asks Pepper. “She is from legal, and she is potentially a very expensive sexual-harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling her like that,” Pepper replies. While they’re conversing, Black Widow disarms Happy in a mock fighting bout with her signature fighting move, gripping his neck between her thighs and squeezing tight. As Tony Googles her, an image of Romanova posing in black lingerie on a white fur rug pops up on-screen. After Black Widow walks away with her notarized documents, he offers his final verdict: “I want one.”
You could say that the MCU has come a long way, baby, since its ickier early iterations. (I winced rewatching Iron Man 2 recently when Tony encounters a journalist whom he slept with in the previous movie and Pepper bitchily remarks that “she did quite a spread on Tony last year.” “And she wrote a story as well,” Tony counters. Ba-dum-bum.) Though it would take another nine years for a movie focused on a female character to actually materialize, Marvel movies introduced, in the meantime, Valkyrie and Okoye and Shuri and Hela, women who were warriors, prodigies, death incarnate. Then they debuted Captain Marvel, possibly the most powerful superhero in the universe, and one blissfully unencumbered so far by any romantic distractions.
But with Black Widow, the MCU seemed stuck. She’d been conceived in a different time, when it was sufficient for women to be sidekicks and decoration. An era when the former Marvel CEO Ike “Mar-a-Lago Cabinet” Perlmutter could block Black Widow merchandise because he didn’t think girls’ toys would sell. Though Black Widow was an extraordinary fighter and a fearless Avenger, she seemed perpetually cast as a foil to the male superheroes, rather than being a compelling character in her own stead. And as Avengers: Endgame proved (significant spoilers ahead), not even in her final moments would Romanova get to be the star. Her death was an act of sacrifice for Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, one in which Black Widow instantly calculated that his wife and children made his life worth more than her own.
I loved Avengers: Endgame as much as the hundreds of millions of other people who saw it over the past few days, despite its inconsistencies, its loosey-goosey treatment of the consequences of time travel, and its entirely implausible presentation of how physically strong one gloveless purple meanie (to quote my colleague David Sims) can be. Still, I was shocked at how perfunctorily the MCU was able to dispatch its founding female character, even as it put Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper in an Iron Woman suit and let Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie ride a winged horse. Was this really the best Marvel could do for Black Widow, a character who’s starred in the MCU for almost a decade? A fall off a cliff, followed by 30 screen seconds of gentle grief from the men who’d apparently loved her the most? (Her death, you’ll note, wasn’t even enough to shake the equanimity of Zen Hulk.)
Black Widow died as she lived: being manipulated by Marvel to add texture to male characters. Over the years, she was Tony Stark’s assistant (“Is that dirty enough for you?” Romanova purred after pouring him a martini), emphasizing the sleazier aspects of Iron Man’s decline due to palladium poisoning. She made Captain America kiss her in a shopping mall during The Winter Soldier to distract two nearby Hydra agents, an act that teased fans and made the steadfast Cap seem vulnerable. She had a long-standing, non-romantic, but only vaguely fleshed-out history with Hawkeye that was the latter’s only defining characteristic until his family showed up. And she had a nascent relationship with Bruce Banner, being the only Avenger who could manage to coax him out of Hulk mode with murmurs and hand-holding (although, as Endgame revealed, while Black Widow was left valiantly holding the band together after Thanos’s snapture, Hulk was getting ice-cream flavors named after himself and sourcing extra-giant cardigans).
There were other indignities over the years. In the first Avengers movie, Loki calls Black Widow a “mewling quim,” an archaic term for female genitalia that should be used only in games of Scrabble. To this date, more than 342,000 people have viewed a Quora question analyzing whether her breasts are real. In 2015, while hosting Saturday Night Live, Johansson gamely starred in a sketch mocking Marvel’s pusillanimity with female superheroes, imagining the Black Widow stand-alone film as a rom-com set in Manhattan.
That same year, in the middle of the Age of Ultron press tour, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner memorably bonded during one interview by characterizing Romanova as a “slut” and a “whore.” While Evans, to his credit, apologized, Renner later went on Conan and doubled down. He was, he said, “talking about a fictional character and fictional behavior. But Conan, if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut. I’d be a slut.”
Renner’s comments, on the one hand, were baffling: They came as he was promoting a movie that clarified Hawkeye and Black Widow’s relationship, specifying that he was married with children, and that those same children called Romanova “Auntie Nat.” On the other, however, they crystallized the historic problem with Black Widow: Though she hadn’t, in actuality, slept with Iron Man or Cap or Hawkeye or Bruce, at least as far as was specified, she’d been bounced among them over the years as a vague love interest and a humanizing force. Within the world of the Avengers, she was always being written with the men around her foremost in mind.
Which is, perhaps, why Romanova had to die, and why the long-awaited Black Widow stand-alone movie will likely be a prequel. “It’s kind of hard to trust someone when you don’t know who that someone really is,” Captain America tells Black Widow in The Winter Soldier. “Who do you want me to be?” she replies. With the men of the MCU around, writers never seemed willing—or able—to shape Black Widow in her own image. Without them, she might actually get to emerge as a character in her own right.