There’s a beat in Avengers: Endgame that doesn’t quite land the way it’s supposed to. Broadly speaking, that might not seem notable in a movie chock-full of capital-M Moments — of course some of them won’t work.
But this isn’t a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, nor is it inconsequential to the story or the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is a defining moment for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, one of the oldest (in terms of when she was introduced in the MCU) and most important players in the franchise, and the fact that it doesn’t work emphasizes both the good and the bad about her film tenure.
[Ed. note: Major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame follow.]
Despite having starred in seven movies (and making cameos in a couple more), Natasha Romanoff’s death comes and goes like a drop of rain during a storm. When the Avengers transport back to various points in time in order to retrieve the Infinity Stones from before Thanos could get to them, Black Widow and Hawkeye land on the planet of Vormir to nab the Soul Stone. As we already know from Infinity War, the Soul Stone costs a soul in exchange.
The sequence that follows strikes a strange balance between tragedy and comedy. The pair’s discussion over who will self-sacrifice to collect the stone — which is genuinely affecting, given what we know of their shared history, and because it’s the only time the Hawkeye’s mass murder spree under the guise of Ronin is really addressed (he doesn’t think he ought to be forgiven, and honestly, he’s right) — segues into a contest of one-upmanship that fails to hit a coherent emotional tenor. On the precipice, they battle and stun each other using every weapon in their respective arsenal in order to keep the other from jumping, and each time it looks like one might have the upper hand, the tables turn again.
Their scuffle leaves them dangling from the cliff’s edge, with Hawkeye desperately keeping ahold of Natasha’s hand in order to keep her from falling. She’s made peace with her decision; as she tells Hawkeye before they fight, the Avengers are the only family she has, and she’s always tried to do right by them after they took her in despite her checkered past. “Let me go,” she tells him — and so, finally, he does.
Black Widow’s death builds on emotional groundwork that hasn’t been laid
Natasha’s death, which can’t be undone, has curiously little impact. The other Avengers spend a moment grieving, saying that it’s imperative for her sacrifice not be in vain, but it’s a flat beat when her actual death scene is so low-impact. The assumed gut-punch does itself no favors in the way that it mirrors Gamora’s death in Infinity War, down to the way Natasha’s body is posed. By contrast, however, the thread of levity that runs through Endgame is totally absent from Gamora’s final scene, and the context that Gamora has come here for Nebula’s sake, to try to spare the sister she’s been battling her whole life — not to mention the realization that her father actually does love her — just adds to the emotional weight. It’s not unnecessarily dragged out or tonally uneven, the way Natasha’s is.
The moment is underserved both by the way her scrap with Hawkeye is framed as a “fun” moment and the degree to which Black Widow as a character hasn’t been given the proper room to breathe. There’s more to reference when it comes to Iron Man and Captain America — “proof that Tony Stark has a heart,” the promise of a slow song to dance to — whereas Natasha’s reference points are solely incidents (Budapest, etc.) that have occurred off-screen.
There’s a larger problem in that Natasha has played a supporting (or co-lead) role in each of the seven movies she’s been in, rather than headlining her own movie. She hasn’t had the same kind of dedicated time as, say, Iron Man or Captain America, whose exits from the Marvel Cinematic Universe make a much more significant emotional impact. She’s also had the difficult task of having to be something of a cipher — her speciality is spywork, and she spends almost her entire time in Iron Man 2 pretending to be somebody else.
The glimpses that we’ve gotten of her past and her general interiority have been rich, so it’s all the bigger pity that it hasn’t yet been properly explored. Her recollections of the Soviet “Red Room” training, seen thanks to Scarlet Witch-conjured flashback in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and everything she’d gone through before meeting Hawkeye, not to mention the character growth she’s had to make piecemeal over seven films, are interesting, and fertile ground for much more complex investigation.
It’s likely that the upcoming Black Widow movie, which Marvel is only now getting around to, will fill in much of that unexplored space. If it ever comes to fruition, it’ll set a strange precedent as a prequel that, for once, tells us a story that hasn’t been told before (at least not on film, as per the general discussion as to how many times we’ll have to see Thomas and Martha Wayne die). It’s the building of a foundation after the fact, which will likely make Natasha’s last scene in Endgame pack that much more of a punch.
It’s the MCU’s meta version of using Pym particles to travel through time and fix events — but for now, we’re in the pre-fix timeline.