The Half-Death of the Black Widow

There are a lot of very obvious reasons why Marvel Studios should have made the upcoming Black Widow solo film three years ago, but perhaps the biggest one is that in the current MCU, Black Widow  — as played by Scarlett Johansson — is dead. Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, I guess. The film “solves” this problem by setting the story just after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which came out three years ago.

Black Widow has always gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to characterization and backstory. Introduced in the bizarre, underbaked Iron Man 2 and never given a storyline that didn’t cast her in the reflection of a male Avenger, it is ironic bordering on hilarious that as her moment in the spotlight finally comes, she is already dead.

Making a new story with a character who literally just died may seem confusing to movie fans, but for comic readers, it’s business as usual. Just about every major comic character has died and come back to life, or died and had their mantle passed on to somebody new, or both in succession. In the comics version of the Civil War crossover event, Steve Rogers’ love interest Sharon Carter was hypnotized into shooting him, but Rogers’ essence(?) was locked(?) outside of time(?) and that meant he could be reborn. 

This kind of narrative has never been good. It’s the exact kind of plot thread that makes new readers hesitant to get into comics, and that lessens the enthusiasm of the most dedicated reader. It’s the creative team trying to have their cake and eat it, too, trying to shock us with a character’s death and then also get us excited for the character’s continuing adventures.

It’s tricky to find an ending for a character when the overall universe continues, but Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man got big ones. Captain America got a graceful, time-traveling retirement. Thor seems to be getting a peaceful transfer of power to Jane Foster. Tony Stark got teary-eyed praise and a hero’s funeral after three solo movies.

Black Widow and Gamora got chucked off a cliff, and now they’re getting replaced. Natasha Romanoff gets one solo movie that seems to really be a stealth origin story for a younger successor. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next Guardians of the Galaxy had a plotline with the alternate timeline version of Gamora seen in Endgame. 

When Black Widow and Gamora plummeted to their deaths, there were no women ready to take over their roles. But we can’t kill women off from superhero squads that already have a scarcity of anything that isn’t a white man, so their successors are introduced as hasty patch jobs. And as the MCU whirls on and on, I think we’ll see more and more of these half-deaths implemented for much the same reason as they are in the comics.

The Marvel drum beats eternal: no character can continue forever, but their role in the vaunted cinematic universe must go on. How long before every MCU character dies this half-death? How long before your favorite MCU character is replaced by someone similar, yet distinct? How long before every MCU character is a zombie? As the films approach the level of complexity of the comics, it seems inevitable that they’ll begin to adopt some of the same narrative tricks. Whether film fans not accustomed to these long-standing traditions of the medium will be able to stomach them remains to be seen.