I don’t know how to feel about Black Widow.
These were among the first words I typed to a friend when she asked me what I thought of Avengers Endgame. In this latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow, or Natasha Romanoff, dies on Vormir, sacrificing herself so that the remaining Avengers can retrieve the soul stone.
This should be a heroic and tragic moment — and it is — but it’s one that’s also a bit gross, a bit unfair, and nearly overshadowed by the film’s other big (male) character death. It left me a little uncomfortable, a little confused. With the sacrifice poised as a choice between Clint, a.k.a Hawkeye, a.k.a. Ronan (who lost his family to the Snap), and Black Widow (childless due to forced sterilization according to a bizarre storyline introduced in Age of Ultron), and with her death clearly drawing a parallel to Gamora’s death at the hands of Thanos in Infinity War, her sacrifice comes with a good deal of baggage. This left me confused about how I should feel about her death and had me asking myself the question so many feminists ask: how would this be different if Black Widow were a man? And to that end, with self-sacrifice so often positioned as the ultimate act of heroism, who gets to sacrifice themselves in our modern myths?
To answer the first question, we can look to Endgame itself. In addition to Black Widow’s death, the film sees Tony Stark’s Iron Man wear the gauntlet in an act that can no doubt be considered self-sacrifice. The power of the stones proves too much for his mortal body and he succumbs to his injuries after destroying Thanos’s army and saying goodbye to several of the other characters.
This left me confused about how I should feel about her death and had me asking myself the question so many feminists ask: how would this be different if Black Widow were a man? And to that end, with self-sacrifice so often positioned as the ultimate act of heroism, who gets to sacrifice themselves in our modern myths?
Already, we can see how different the two deaths are. Tony goes out in a blaze of glory—not just during battle but winning the battle. Black Widow’s death, on the other hand, comes mid film and serves to end a standstill. Iron Man’s death is the culmination of the film. Black Widow’s is plot propellant. Tony gets to say goodbye to his loved ones and is mourned by so many characters that many viewers had to google funeral attendees. Natasha Romanov gets a few minutes of sadness and anger from the other Avengers and a comment or two lamenting her death, but no memorial of her own.
In the audience I attended Endgame with, there were a few gasps when Black Widows broken body was shown (with some perhaps being gasps of recognition in response to the visual symmetry to Gamora’s body in Infinity War). Tony Stark’s death, on the other hand, was met with sobs and tears that continued until the end of the film.
Obviously the crowd, and me among them, saw Tony’s death as more impactful. This is somewhat natural given that we’ve spent more time with Tony—he’s had his own films, we’ve seen him in a leadership role, we’ve seen him grow as a character. We’ve only been given a little of the same from Natasha. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Tony is a man, and he’s been permitted to be a hero, to be in the spotlight, to have character development. Black Widow has not been afforded the same (and it took us over ten years and twenty movies to get a woman led MCU film).
In terms of sacrifice, we see deaths like Iron Man’s in television and cinema all the time. The hero who dies in battle is a well-worn territory, one usually occupied by a man. But Black Widow’s death is also familiar. It serves to motivate the male characters of Endgame, putting it well within the definition of fridging. It also harkens back to some of our oldest myths.
For example, in Greek mythology, in the story of the Greek army preparing to leave for Troy, Agamemnon, king of the Mycenae and leader of the Greeks, has everyone ready to go, the ships are waiting in the harbour, only the wind isn’t in their favour. In other words, they’re at a stand still. That is until Agamemnon is presented with an opportunity to change the wind: sacrifice his daughter to the gods. Like Clint and Nat, he has to make a choice to help his team move forward. And he does. He takes his daughter to the altar and slaughters her. The wind rises, and the ships set sail.
More recently, princess Shireen was similarly sacrificed in season six of Game of Thrones after Stannis’s army is prevented from moving forward by winter weather. The Red Woman tells Stannis his daughter’s death will ensure the winter snows hold off long enough for the Baratheon army to take Winterfell. Shireen is pitied and mourned, but not held up as a hero, especially in light of the failure of Stannis’s army.
And of course, I’ve already stated the parallel between Black Widow’s death in Endgame and Gamora’s death in Infinity War. Thanos too was at a stand still until sacrificing his daughter.
Of course, the main difference between these deaths and Black Widow’s is consent. Black Widow chooses her end (though there’s definitely an argument that this is an out-of-character move). Yet even with consent being so important, it’s not quite enough to subvert the tropes of female sacrifice. If Black Widow had been given a fuller narrative throughout the MCU films, if her death wasn’t linked to her being a childless “monster,” if the Avengers had more female heroes, if Ronin wasn’t problematic, if, if if… then maybe I would have been able to appreciate her sacrifice without the weight of all the cultural baggage surrounding dead women. But the truth is, until women heroes are on par with their male counterparts, until they’re given their own movies, their own meaningful character arcs, I fear we are only dressing up the same sacrifices of patriarchal myths in different clothes. Until then, female self-sacrificial deaths will still feel like another injustice.
And why don’t we acknowledge other forms of sacrifice as heroism? Black Widow was holding down the Avengers for five years — certainly that didn’t come without sacrifice. Girl didn’t even have time to get her hair done.
And if we’re trying to be subversive, perhaps we should be examining why we value self-sacrificial death as the ultimate act of heroism in the first place. Why should we want our heroes to die in what is usually a violent way? And why don’t we acknowledge other forms of sacrifice as heroism? Black Widow was holding down the Avengers for five years — certainly that didn’t come without sacrifice. Girl didn’t even have time to get her hair done.
Perhaps valuing self-sacrifice as the ultimate act of heroism is a flawed to begin with. When it’s redemption, it denies real accountability. If Clint had sacrificed himself, his death would have been seen as redemption even though he barely acknowledges his wrongdoings. When it’s heroism, it denies heroes the ability to deal with potential consequences and to be a part of rebuilding. And can saving the world mean anything if there’s no rebuilding? Surely that’s also a story worth telling and one that our heroes deserve a part in.
I am reminded of the end of Captain Marvel. When Yon-Rogg tries to provoke Danvers into fighting him without her powers, she decides that she doesn’t need to prove herself to him at all. Maybe, instead of trying to make female self-sacrifice a measure of heroism, our female characters can defy expectations and find other solutions and, in doing so, build something new.