Characters are strange things. They exist in multiple forms, in various versions of “the same” story. They are many different things at the same time as being one unified identity. It can be tricky to navigate the differences without help, so here’s a friendly hand. First? Black Widow. Between Marvel Comics’ primary “Earth-616” timeline and Marvel Movies’ Iron Man/The Avengers continuity, here’s where the chips fall. Bold terms may be referenced in the glossary at the end of this article.
Natasha Romanoff is introduced to the Marvel Comics Universe in Avengers #36 as an orphan named Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Born in 1928, Natalia was saved by a Soviet Soldier named Ivan Petrovitch who sees potential in young Natalia, keeps an eye on her, and sends her to be trained by the Soviets in 1930. She is a trained spy, martial artist, and sniper. She doesn’t wear the costume we see today; back in the day she wore a dress and a veil, like a widow. But of course, she wears her iconic Widow’s Gauntlets.
She leaves Russia behind to live in the U.S. with her lover Clint Barton. In the retcon series, she was raised by the Black Widow Program, a.k.a. Red Room. Ivan is the one who brings her to Department X, where she is then brainwashed, biochemically enhanced, and trained in espionage and combat in the Red Room. We see in Black Widow Volume One #2, she is recruited to be a part of the Black Widow Program in 1941. The Winter Soldier—yep that’s right, HYDRA brainwashed, metal armed, Bucky Barnes—trains Natalia and they, kind of, fall in love. Their romance is cut short when they are discovered and both are brainwashed and deployed with fake memories.
When Natalia isn’t being trained to be an assassin, she’s training as a ballerina. In Avengers #43, the Soviets are so impressed with her work, they marry her to a soldier pilot named Alexi Shostakov. They fall in love, making her reconsider being a Widow. However, to show Natalia that she cannot love, Alexi’s death is faked and she goes back to the Red Room where she becomes the Black Widow.
Natasha Romanoff was born in 1984 and was recruited as a young girl to the Red Room. This is where she goes through rigorous training to become the master assassin spy she is in 2015. She seems almost hesitant to kill. The Red Room’s graduation tradition is sterilization, explained as something to keep her thoughts on her mission alone. Natasha is trained to believe that she has no place in the world, that she cannot be her own person, and that love is for children.
I call this the Widow’s Peak
In Tales of Suspense #57, Natalia is sent to seduce and kill Tony Stark to get his weapons. After a few failed tries, she meets Clint Barton, a skilled marksman and assassin, like her, and seduces him to help her take Stark down. They fail again, leaving Natalia injured. Clint convinces her to defect from the KGB and join S.H.I.E.L.D. Clint and Natasha become close friends, giving her the nickname Natasha.
The movies, naturally, are different. The Black Widow is seen as a big threat to S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury sends Clint Barton to take her out. Upon seeing her skill, Clint decides not to kill her and takes her to S.H.I.E.L.D. where she becomes an agent and leaves the KGB forever. She wants to become a better person, to let go of her past as best as she can. Barton and her become friends, like in the comics, and it’s possible there could be romance, but probably not judging on the fact that he’s married and has kids. But the two are best friends and would probably die for one another. Hey, at least we have Budapest to dream about.
In 2009, she is sent on a mission to protect a nuclear scientist for S.H.I.E.L.D. This is where she meets the Winter Soldier, who is trying to kill the scientist. When Natasha thinks they are safe, the Soldier shoots through her and kills the scientist, leaving her with a scar. A year later she is sent to observe Tony Stark, not to kill him. She goes undercover as Natalie Rushman, his secretary. She learns everything she can about him through Pepper and even Tony himself. She has the medicine that can save him and reveals herself as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent at Randy’s Donuts and helps him take down Ivan Vanko and Hammer.
Back to the Winter Soldier and Natasha. They have history in the comics from when he trained her in the Red Room and in the movies. But what if there’s more yet to be revealed to the history we’ve seen in the movies? The Winter Soldier trains Natasha in the comics when he’s not in the evil freezer. Bucky and Natasha have both been brainwashed; the possibility of them actually knowing each other (other than him shooting her a few times here and there) is pretty big in my opinion. When Maria rescues them both and takes them to Fury, Steve talks about how Bucky looked right at him and the camera goes to Natasha. Maybe it’s just me and my wishful thinking, or maybe the Russo’s are hiding something from us.
In the most recent Black Widow comic written by Nathan Edmondson with art by Phil Noto, we see a different Natasha. She lives and works alone, she is working on wiping her ledger and being her own person. She calls in some friends for help every now and then, including Matt Murdock, Clint Barton, and yes, Bucky Barnes. She even has a stray cat who she eventually grows to love. There’s plenty to mine here for a great solo Widow movie.
In the Winter Soldier and Ultron, we see the growth of her Marvel Movieverse character. She’s friends with Steve and close to Clint and his wife Laura. We see a glimpse of just how much Fury means to her, then The Winter Soldier when he has to fake his death. And even though I’m not a fan of it, her romance with Bruce showed a lot about her too. She’s growing out of the “Love is for children” mantra that she was taught in the Red Room, realizing she’s not a monster and that she does have a place in this world.
The Natasha Romanoff we see Scarlett Johansson play is different from the Natasha Romanoff we see artists from Don Heck to Phil Noto draw. But in the end, we still have Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow has come full circle, in both comics and film, from where she started. Despite all of the heartache and terror she has seen and done, she is resilient and strong.
As in most film adaptations, characters change. Natasha is reinventing herself after Captain America: The Winter Soldier ;she refuses to let her past haunt her. In a Finely Woven Web, she is fighting her past and taking names. If you like Natasha Romanoff in the movies, you’ll love her in the comics. Personally, Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto’s Black Widow is my favorite, and I recommend it as the easiest series to understand and read for someone who hadn’t read her entire backstory.
Natasha Romanoff: Our hero, our goddess, our Black Widow, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson.
Ivan Petrovich: Natasha’s father figure and handler.
Widow’s Gauntlets: The cool bracelets you’ve seen in the movies? Oh yeah, they’re not just cool bracelets, my friends.
Widow’s Line: Cool grappling hook.
Widow’s Kiss: A spray that can knock someone out for over twenty hours.
Widow’s Bite: Electrostatic charge/energy blast
Explosives/Tear Gas: Honestly, what doesn’t she have in there?
Radio Transmitter: Allows her to track someone down when placed on a vehicle or body.
Black Widow Program aka Red Room: Where the Widows are trained. Natasha’s brainwashed and biochemically altered. The Red Room’s graduation is sterilization.
Evil Freezer: This is where Bucky is chilling when he’s not on mission, forgive me.