How Natasha Romanoff's (Scarlett Johansson) long-awaited solo film fills in the blanks from her previous MCU appearances to give important context to her character arc.

By Sydney Bucksbaum
July 12, 2021 at 09:30 AM EDT
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When Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) donned the Infinity Gauntlet in Avengers: Endgame and snapped his fingers to resurrect everyone who died, he also revived EW's Marvel Movie Club series, which revisited every Marvel movie in the lead-up to 2017's Avengers: Infinity War. Each week, EW's Chancellor Agard re-examined one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions like "What was The Incredible Hulk?" "Does Nick Fury wash his eyepatch?" and "Is there a point to Hawkeye?" along the way. In this special edition of the series, EW's Sydney Bucksbaum has red in her ledger as she celebrates Black Widow finally debuting in theaters after the longest of delays.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Black Widow.

After 11 years and 21 movies since she made her debut into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with an impressive TKO in Iron Man 2, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) finally got her solo movie. Black Widow is now playing in theaters, and to say it's worth the (ridiculously long) wait is a massive understatement — especially if you make it your first movie back in theaters post-pandemic. The ultra satisfying spy thriller takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War and before the gang gets back together to save the world in Avengers: Infinity War, and puts Natasha in the much-deserved spotlight (finally!) as she reunites with her former "family" of Russian assassins to take down the eponymous Black Widow program once and for all. After over a decade of playing second fiddle to all the men around her in other heroes' titular films, watching Natasha lead her own is cause enough for celebration. But the fact that Black Widow also fills in all the blanks from her previous MCU appearances to give important context to her entire character arc makes her extremely late-but-worthy send-off a complete success.

Natasha's solo venture is a high-octane, intense adventure with brutal hand-to-hand combat scenes, but it wasn't all epic fights and espionage — the movie also had more than its fair share of laugh-out-loud moments through family squabbles and sisterly teasing. (Bet you didn't think you'd laugh that much during Black Widow, huh?) There's so much to love about it, but most importantly it finally reveals what happened in Budapest with Natasha and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), connecting every single one of Natasha's previously scattershot MCU appearances into one heartbreakingly human and fully realized arc. This mission has been referenced so often throughout the MCU, first in Avengers during the Battle of New York when Natasha quips that this is "just like Budapest all over again," and Barton responds, "You and I remember Budapest very differently." It's become a long-running reference without fans ever learning what actually happened in Budapest ... until now.

BLACK WIDOW
Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow.'
| Credit: ©Marvel Studios 2020

Black Widow reveals that the Budapest mission is when Natasha and Barton worked together to bring down General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and the Red Room — the Soviet black ops program that traffics young girls (like Natasha) and brainwashes and trains them into becoming ruthless assassins, completely controlled by KGB officials. Not only was this a personal act of revenge for Natasha as she killed the man and program responsible for stealing her life and turning her into a killer, but it was also the final step of her defection from the KGB to S.H.I.E.L.D. Many years back, she and Barton rigged bombs to implode a five-story building, knowing that Dreykov would be killed by the blast inside. It was allegedly the only way to stop his tyranny, but the way Natasha confirmed Dreykov's location was by following his young daughter, Antonia, as she led the S.H.I.E.L.D. operation right to his location. Natasha was the one who made the call to detonate the bombs, knowing full well that Dreykov's innocent daughter would die in the blast too. She called it collateral damage, but it's clear from the way Natasha talks about it with her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) that she's not as cold-blooded about killing an innocent girl as she acts. She may have used the memory as a ploy to trick Loki in the first Avengers movie, but when it comes to talking about it with someone she actually loves and can let her guard down with, her usual ruthless spy mask slips and her real feelings come out. This has clearly haunted her for years.

And after a shootout with Hungarian Special Forces, Natasha and Barton hid in the vents of a nearby subway station for days, as well as the same Budapest safe house where Natasha eventually reunited with Yelena in this film. The mission was deemed a success even though Dreykov's body was never found, because the assumption was there was no body left to find after the explosion. Natasha went on to become one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s top agents, and the rest is MCU history. But this mission is the "red" in her ledger Natasha has always felt guilt over, and this crucial piece of backstory humanizes her in a way that we've rarely seen so far in all her MCU appearances. Whenever Natasha references her dark past in previous films, she wasn't talking about all the government officials she killed or the empires she's toppled from within during her missions — she was always referring to Dreykov's daughter, the innocent young girl she thought she killed as a means to an end, the life she took to free herself. Natasha was desperate for a way out of the Black Widow program and Dreykov's control, and she did the unthinkable to finally escape: killing an innocent girl, someone who didn't deserve to have her life taken from her, in a similar way Natasha's was.

But Black Widow doesn't just give exposition to reveal this piece of Natasha's past. Where the film succeeds even further is how Natasha learns she didn't actually kill Dreykov's daughter, and gives her the chance to finally free both herself (from the guilt she's always felt) as well as Dreykov's daughter Antonia (who, played as an adult by Olga Kurylenko, was being mind-controlled into acting as Taskmaster, the dangerous villain who can mimic anyone she fights). The movie's big third act features Natasha and her spy family Yelena, Melina (Rachel Weisz), and Alexei/Red Guardian (David Harbour) taking down the floating Red Room base by literally crashing it into the ground. They successfully destroy the Black Widow program, freeing all the young women from their mind control and giving them their lives back. That alone is an incredibly heroic redemptive arc for Natasha, finishing what she started and making sure no other young girl would go through what she and countless others had at the hands of Dreykov.

Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow.'
| Credit: Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios

But then Natasha goes back inside the crashing Red Room base, risking her life once again to free Antonia from the mind control that was keeping her as Taskmaster, undoing the original sin she's always carried around in her heart. Natasha fought the previously unbeatable Taskmaster knowing full well it could end in her own death, all in the name of forcing Antonia's helmet off to expose her to the antidote to Dreykov's mind control. Not only did Natasha help give all the other Black Widows their agency back, she also made sure to help Antonia get her own agency back, no longer being the puppet or tool of a man. She broke the toxic cycle of abuse being used against women by men for decades. It was just as much a literal act as it was a symbolic one, and the emotional release Natasha showed in the aftermath of the fight was incredibly cathartic.

Sure, Natasha has saved the world — multiple times — and even gave her life for the greater good in Avengers: Endgame, but freeing an entire generation of young women whose lives were stolen just like hers was a long time ago was a way for Natasha to heal her own heart. So not only did Black Widow finally evolve Natasha into the much-deserved lead instead of merely supporting character, it also made her into a fully realized, three-dimensional human character. She was no longer haunted or shaped by the mistakes she made in her past but rather the hero we knew she always could be. She's no longer the hyper-sexualized object of male desire but rather the selfless, compassionate, badass superhero we've always wanted her to be. It's just too bad all of that comes in her final film, and after her heartbreaking onscreen death. Why couldn't Black Widow had been made a decade ago?!

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