People love to tell Black Widow fans that their fave is boring.
This is, of course, not unique to Black Widow – almost inevitably, name a female character in a group of (male) comics fans and you’ll get someone saying she’s boring, or useless, or in some other way unworthy. (But wait, you’ll be quick to protest: doesn’t this happen with male characters too? Oh, absolutely – but with far less consistency and not often with the “top list” characters. Call Iron Man boring and then call Captain Marvel boring and see which gets the bigger outcry.) Fanboys will tell you, as a Black Widow fan, that it’s not just their opinion: the numbers prove it, her comics just doesn’t sell.
But all numbers aside, just down to brass tacks: Black Widow is awesome.
There are a whole lot of reasons I could give for this entirely objective statement. Her relationships with women, for instance: as mentor, friend, and protector, or her unique and nuanced morality which provides a refreshing shade of gray to the relatively morally black and white superhero universe. The aspect I want to focus on for the purpose of this blog post, however, is the issue of choice, or agency. (relationship to feminism)
Natasha’s storylines have always dealt in some way with her choices. The choice to be hero instead of villain is both the most obvious and the simplest – most simply put in her early comics in terms of defection from Communist Russia to the good ol’ United States. For those not up to date on their comics Black Widow storylines, she first popped up in Tales of Suspense #52 as an Iron Man villain – a Communist spy sent to steal Tony Stark’s technological secrets. Her mission fails, but she returns the next issue, stealing a powerful object that lets her move mountains. She is ultimately defeated, of course – only to return again a few issues later, this time teaming up with Hawkeye (Clint Barton, in his first appearance), who was mistaken for a robber in his attempt to launch a career as a costumed hero. (Whoops.)
Black Widow remained an on again, off again villain character for a very short time – but in that time, readers were given startling insight into her motivation (her parents were being held by Soviet authorities). It was in 1966 that Black Widow officially joined the good guys – though her status as a vaguely morally ambiguous figure remained. At this point, when the prohibition against heroes killing people was still very much in effect, Natasha was the wild card who could threaten murder and be believed.
Choice continues to be a powerful theme in many of Natasha’s appearances – the repeated confirmation that she is allow to define, redefine, and create her own identity, always remaining a hero.
One way this has been written over the years is in various storylines where Natasha’s loyalties come into question. In one recent story arc, Natasha’s espionage against her allies is revealed in an attempt to isolate and destroy her. Natasha embarks on a campaign to take back her own life. On the way, she encounters Elektra, a character who has suffered theft of her agency throughout her life: replaced by Skrulls, manipulated or directly controlled by the Hand, killed by Bullseye to hurt Matt Murdock (effectively reducing her to an object).
Elektra is furious at the idea that Natasha has stolen information about her and is selling it to others. At the end of the fight, she proclaims her commitment to reclaiming her own life. “My life has been stolen from me, time and time again,” she says. “I will not let it happen once more.” Natasha answers simply: “Neither will I.”
Furthermore, because of the ways in which choices were taken from her, Natasha battles for the right of others to self-determination. This is linked, again and again, with Natasha as an advocate and defender of other women. In Marjorie Liu’s 2010 run on Black Widow, Natasha detours from a dinner with then boyfriend Bucky Barnes to corner a man in the bathroom.
In Nathan Edmondson’s run, Natasha confronts her neighbor, another man abusing his wife. In X-23 #20, also written by Marjorie Liu, she encounters X-23 (Laura Kinney) while busting a group of men trafficking women. She rescues a young woman being harrassed by truckers in the semi-canonical Black Widow: Homecoming series. Natasha, again and again, not only stands up for other women but takes on the role of mentor and guide. She provides Rikki Barnes, Bucky Barnes’ universe-displaced granddaughter from an alternate timeline, with a costume and advice, offers to take X-23 under her wing (and would have, in a pitched series that was never written), and . In one issue of Klaws of the Panther, featuring Shuri (the original Black Panther’s sister, who at that time had taken the mantle), Natasha offers guidance to the conflicted young woman.
In the Thunderbolts series, Natasha breaks her cover to save Songbird, another young woman superhero. As they make their escape, Natasha tells her that “superpowers are a crutch…in the end, all you really have are two fists and a brain.” Natasha values self-reliance above almost all else – she encourages the women she mentors to make their own choices and pushes them toward independence.
This is also a major theme of Black Widow: Itsy Bitsy Spider (Devin Grayson & Greg Rucka), in which Natasha comes face to face with her mirror image: Yelena Belova, Moscow’s new Black Widow, who has arrived to attempt to eliminate her predecessor. Natasha advises Yelena to back down, lecturing her on the costs of the life she lives even as they face off, guns pointed at each other.
“You learn to be lost all the time, so as to never be able to direct anyone to your employers. Or your heart. Or your vulnerabilities. And for what, rooskaya, for what? To play pawn to any one of a dozen governments that will shoot you in the back just for becoming the dispassionate creature they require?”
Later, in a spectacularly morally dubious act, Natasha swaps her and Yelena’s faces, literally putting Yelena in her shoes for a period of time and forcing her to experience the life she is trying to claim for her own. As Nick Fury puts it, explaining to Daredevil:
“Blondie down there sees things like you do…she thinks she’s a super hero…but Natasha, she’s the Black Widow. She’s the real deal. She knows better. She knows espionage is nasty business.”
The central idea of all of this is the same: people have the right to self-determination and freedom. Natasha pushes Yelena away from her goal because it will make her a pawn. She offers Laura Kinney a chance to be useful, rather than used. For Natasha, her choices, good or ill, define her, and she will allow no one to take them away. Even as far back as the Bronze Age, this was true – after a run of being underwritten by (who was the daredevil writer?), Natasha broke up with Matt Murdock (Daredevil) because she felt she was losing herself.
In yet another arc, Natasha confronts an alternate universe version of herself who took a different path and is out only for herself. This version of Natasha has retained her Russian accent, and when Natasha comments on it the alternate universe Black Widow responds by accusing her of losing her edge. Natasha’s response is telling: “you remind me of someone who didn’t think for herself. A puppet. A marionette dancing at the pull of the string.” Natasha associates her past with being under others’ control, and her change in allegiance with making a choice – reclaiming her agency.
In a recent Ms. Marvel comic, Kamala Khan repeats to herself a mantra (from who?): “Good is not a thing you are, it’s a thing you do.” If there is one theme that echoes through Natasha’s arcs, again and again, it is that idea: not just of self-determination in a general sense, but in the choice to do good as an action not taken once but again and again. Natasha recognizes that “good” is not just a state of mind or being, but rather a decision that has to be constantly reaffirmed.
The power of doing good is in making that choice – deliberate, constant, and difficult. And that choice is not – has never been – inevitable. And perhaps even more so: the meaning of doing good comes from the ability to make that choice.
In Marvel Team Up #85, Natasha faces off against Viper, fighting with her to stop her plan to blow up the Capitol Building in Washington DC to take down “the warmongering leaders of this corrupt nation.”
“No,” Natasha corrects her. “Innocents will die. Millions of people who’ve done no one any harm – whose only crime is that they exist.”
You speak so casually of death, Viper. I grew up with death. I’ve walked hand in hand with it all my life! I saw children starve in the ruins of Stalingrad, and men freeze solid as ice overnight. Because I know death so well…I know how supremely precious life is.”
If there is a brief description of Natasha Romanov’s personal manifesto, that may be it. Death may follow her, as her name suggests – for a time, Natasha angsted a great deal about her “Widow’s Curse” that killed those closest to her. But the flip side of that darkness is her awareness that life is valuable, that people are valuable, that (in the words of Sam Gamgee), “there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
I love superheroes. I really, really do. And I love the classic superheroes, like Captain America, that are just good people, who are, to their core, essentially decent. But I also love a story that says that you don’t need to start out good to wind up there. I’ve talked a lot on this blog about my love for Laura Kinney and the importance of her story of self-determination – her ability to make her own identity. My love for Black Widow is related to that, and more.
It’s the idea that Natasha Romanov has suffered and been through hell. She’s done bad things and worked for bad people. She’s fought on the side of the devils and chose to change – and she has. Stories of redemption are incredibly powerful for me. Natasha is a hero – and she’s a hero because she’s chosen, again and again, that that is what she wants to be.
Hence the header for this article: “You say I pick sides. I pick good guys. I pick winners. I pick regret and kindness and mercy.”
All the filth the Black Widow has waded through, and she’s come out stronger and more determined than ever. Her life has been built on sadness, but it isn’t defined by it. She came out of a dark past, but isn’t limited by it.
That’s a model that inspires me. It’s a model I can live by.