This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron
Natasha Romanoff, better known as Black Widow, is a strong female character and role model in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
Throughout the movies so far, she has held her own as an agent of SHIELD and as an Avenger. She has capably stopped threats both on a planetary and galactic scale, ranging from Justin Hammer’s robot army and HYDRA to Loki and the Chitauri. In the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron, her status remains unchanged.
Both critics and audiences have responded phenomenally to the newest installment in the record-breaking franchise, but complaints have still arisen about how Black Widow has been treated by marketing and the film itself. Chief among those grievances is the phenomenon of “Mommy Widow,” a claim that writers and directors are betraying the character by spotlighting her maternal instincts.
In the film, Romanoff and Bruce Banner (human alter-ego to the Incredible Hulk) have developed a relationship. During a peaceful interlude at Hawkeye’s pastoral farmhouse, Romanoff and Banner are discussing their future together, and Banner laments that they can’t have the life that the archer does: a happy nuclear family. The roadblock, he claims, is the Hulk, which is always one angry moment away and, in all likelihood, is now a genetic curse.
To defend her position – a woman who is proactively seeking companionship instead of being the lustful target of the male gaze – Romanoff shares the details of the backstory the audience discovered minutes before thanks to the induced hallucinations of the Scarlet Witch’s mental sorcery.
Natasha became the assassin she is today in a place called the Red Room. In the flashback, we see that her training was intense (to say the least), and that part of that training was taking human life. Romanoff’s graduation ceremony was her own mutilation.
“You know what my final test was in the Red Room? They sterilized me, said it was one less thing to worry about. You think you’re the only monster on the team?”
Romanoff wasn’t calling herself a monster because she couldn’t have children. She simply wasn’t. The agency behind the Red Room, presumably the KGB, cut her apart in an effort to create the perfect killing machine. As seen in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, Romanoff is trained to use her sexual allure as a weapon. One can assume that this makes KGB assassins similar to secret agents like James Bond, a man who is famous for having sex in every one of his nearly 25 films just to get to the target.
This is the origin of all that “red in the ledger” that Widow wants to erase. She’s not lamenting the loss of her motherhood, but rather the lack of free agency that chains her to her work. She considers herself a monster that was created the moment her freedom was taken away.
The “Mommy Widow” argument continues in a discussion of her role on the team. In Age of Ultron, she’s racing to the rescue and picks up Captain America’s discarded shield, stating, “I’m always picking up after you boys.”
That snarky line is more of a window to her role on the team than it seems. Since her debut in Iron Man 2, Romanoff has been saving the Avengers or delivering a critical hit in every film. In Iron Man 2, she pretty much single-handedly took out Justin Hammer’s guards and helped to shut down his robot army. In The Avengers, she brought Hawkeye back from his Loki-induced stupor and wielded the scepter to shut the Chitauri portal. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she literally guided Captain America to not only avoid capture by Hydra but was also instrumental in stopping their genocidal plan. She is, in every sense of the phrase, always picking up after the team. She’s the deal closer.
From the very beginning, Romanoff and Coulson have been the guardians of the Avenger Initiative. They were the front line, courting and babysitting Tony Stark, pushing the right buttons to incorporate Banner, investigating Thor’s arrival, and integrating Captain Rogers to the current era. In essence, they were the parents of the movement, always working for and reporting directly back to Fury. That is a huge amount of development for two characters who started out as secondary non-solo-film roles. They may not have major leading roles, but they are the heart of this universe, and continue to be in their respective roles as team leaders in different branches of SHIELD.
Part of that character development comes back to the relationship with Banner, a pairing that critics claim is Mommy Widow’s arrival at motherhood with a bouncing baby Hulk to nurture.
In The Avengers, it was plainly obvious that Romanoff had only met Banner on paper. She respected the man and outright feared the power of The Other Guy. She set up a typical martial sting operation, complete with a strike team, to take Banner down if necessary. Admittedly, that’s a 180-degree spin from where they stand in Age of Ultron.
However, the film clearly establishes that the Avengers haven’t just been sitting around waiting for the next movie premiere since we saw them last. They explicitly mention that it has been a long hunt for Loki’s scepter, and that means that the team has been working together for a significant time off-screen. The Avengers have developed a great sense of teamwork, as evidenced in the film’s opening gambit at the Hydra base, as well as a way to tame the Hulk when they need him to “Code Green” against a threat.
This wasn’t the only development that occurred off-screen: Stark built more suits after he “Clean Slated” his entire line in Iron Man 3, and overcame his PTSD from the Battle of New York; Rogers and Stark developed a new uniform for the captain, including a short-range retrieval system for the iconic shield; Stark Industries built at least one new model Quinjet (since SHIELD no longer has the capability) and a series of automated armor-bots; the world has come to resent the Avengers and the havoc they wreak; and Hawkeye had a family.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is so vibrant and alive that it continues to breathe and evolve even though the cameras are off.
The fact that this team picked Romanoff, the character who feared the Hulk the most, to be his handler speaks volumes about her character and role on the team. It is reasonable that the Romanoff/Banner relationship has grown beyond Widow being petrified of the Big Guy because their lives have continued between the films. That makes Widow more than just a swooning love interest with mommy issues and even more than just an ass-kicking blunt instrument to deploy in battle.
Romanoff is three-dimensional, and therefore a truly strong, living and breathing female character instead of the typical comic book trope of a pair of absurdly large walking breasts in spandex waiting for a fridge to fall into.
Even without a solo film outing (which is no excuse for her not to have one), Natasha Romanoff’s status as a strong female character and respectable role model in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe remains intact and promises to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Cross-published to RevolutionSF on May 13, 2015