Avengers: Endgame would like you to think of it as a woke movie. Feminist, even. Not feminist in any way that might be annoying or challenging or alienating to its audience, but in a fun, empowering way.
At one point, all the super ladies take a moment to team up and fight together! Captain Marvel’s out there being more powerful than anyone else on the squad! Valkyrie gets textual acknowledgment as the most competent person in Asgard! Girl power!
But there’s one big problem that keeps Endgame’s user-friendly version of feminism from landing, and that’s what happens to Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow.
Black Widow was the second Avenger to be introduced onscreen when she made her debut in 2010’s Iron Man 2, and the only woman in the Avengers’ original lineup. For years, she was the only woman superhero in the Avengers franchise, full stop, until Gamora finally made her appearance in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy — and Black Widow doesn’t even have superpowers.
Yet Marvel has consistently wasted Black Widow. It has sidelined her, saddled her with weak storylines, and failed to give her the kind of star billing it has bestowed on the men of the original Avengers.
And her fate in Endgame feels like the biggest waste yet.
Black Widow’s Endgame arc plays into one of the oldest and grossest tropes in comics
Endgame quasi-fridges Black Widow.
When I say “fridging,” I’m referring to the infamous comic book trope of the woman in the refrigerator. The term was coined by comic book writer Gail Simone in 1999, after Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt was murdered and stuffed into a literal refrigerator, but it describes more than just that specific comic book death. Its broader meaning refers to the frequency with which women in comic books are killed in order to motivate the men in their life to achieve some grand act of heroism: think Gwen Stacy dying so that Spider-Man feels real bad, or Elektra dying so that Daredevil has something new to brood about.
Aja Romano and Alex Abad-Santos explained why the woman in the refrigerator is such a troubling trope for Vox last year:
The viewpoint of the Women in Refrigerators trope is that women are essentially ... not fully human. That is, they don’t actually do anything; they don’t make choices of their own, or do their own things or have their own lives. Everything we see them do onscreen is in relation to the men around them; their actions are most often about influencing or impacting a man’s actions or behavior.
Essentially, when we say that a female character has been “fridged,” we’re saying that she has been treated like an object who has less human worth than the men around her. She is valuable to the extent that her pain can motivate them.
In Endgame, Black Widow sacrifices her life so that Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, can retrieve the Soul Stone, which will grant the rest of the Avengers the power to bring back everyone who died when Thanos snapped his fingers during Infinity War. Black Widow, however, will remain dead.
Black Widow’s death isn’t exactly a classic fridging, which is why I’m qualifying it with “quasi.” For one thing, she is not the only person who dies in Endgame. She’s also a fully fledged character, not just a wife or a girlfriend who was only written into the story in the first place so that she could die and make everyone else sad. And she dies of her own free will, sacrificing herself in pursuit of the Soul Stone in one last blazing display of competence, not because she’s killed by a bad guy who wants to use her as a tool to hurt the men around her.
But Black Widow dies before any of Endgame’s other main characters. While Iron Man’s death overshadows the entire end of the film, and he gets a long, lingering funeral sequence, Black Widow’s death comes halfway through, and it’s primarily used to give the remainder of the now all-male team of original Avengers something to be sad about as they gear up for the movie’s final battle. Basically, she dies in order to motivate a group of men. And after her death, she’s mentioned only briefly, as though she’s been all but forgotten. Those are the same storytelling dynamics that make a classic fridging so damaging.
Marvel’s track record with Black Widow — and women characters more generally — means it doesn’t get much benefit of the doubt with Endgame
Black Widow’s quasi-fridging is borderline enough that it might not feel as gross as it does if it weren’t for what had already happened to Black Widow. But her death in Endgame is weirdly linked to her controversial arc from 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was so despised that it almost single-handedly destroyed Joss Whedon’s reputation as feminist. (Okay, fine, that’s an exaggeration; Whedon’s feminism had come under heightened scrutiny after Dollhouse, and after Ultron, in 2017, his ex-wife would call him a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals.” Ultron didn’t help, though.)
In Age of Ultron, Natasha is pursuing a romantic relationship with Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk, a love story that received little foreshadowing and which later MCU entries would almost entirely abandon. Bruce is reluctant to go along with the idea, though, on account of how he periodically turns into a giant green rage monster, and he doesn’t think he should inflict his monstrousness on someone else.
But, Natasha says, she’s a monster too. She was made a monster by the people who turned her into a superspy:
They sterilize you. It’s efficient. One less thing to worry about, the one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier — even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?
As Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff pointed out in 2015, in the context of Black Widow’s larger arc, Natasha is probably saying that the mysterious awful things she did in the past as a superspy are what made her a monster. But in the context of the scene, it sure does sound like she’s saying she’s a monster because she can’t have children.
“Black Widow is barren and therefore dead inside,” summarized Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta at i09. “Poor, empty-nested Mommy Widow, who even loses her love interest and pseudo-baby in one fell swoop at the end of the movie. The Hulk vanishes, to have more solo adventures later. Meanwhile, Black Widow is what? Captain America’s number two in The Avengers: The New Class. Sigh.”
To be fair, Mark Ruffalo’s version of the Hulk never did get a standalone movie either after the flop of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. But the idea that Natasha’s infertility somehow makes her monstrous — not a real woman, potentially less than human — was weirdly embedded into Ultron.
And in Endgame, it rears its head subtextually when Black Widow sacrifices herself for the Soul Stone.
In that sequence, either Black Widow or Hawkeye can die to bring the stone back, and both of them are fighting to be the one who gets to make the ultimate sacrifice and keep the other alive. But Natasha is especially determined to be the one who dies because Clint has a family — a wife and three children, all of whom died at the end of Infinity War — and Natasha doesn’t.
Sure, it’s reasonable for Natasha to make the calculation that Clint’s kids deserve to have a dad when they come back to life after the Avengers complete their “time heist.” But because of that Ultron plot, there’s also an insidious implication that Natasha’s infertility renders Black Widow just a little bit more disposable than the rest of her teammates.
As Alex Leadbeater wrote at ScreenRant, “To have Hawkeye survive explicitly because of his family, it makes the Avengers: Age of Ultron reveal that Black Widow is infertile (and, in Whedon’s parlance, a ‘monster’) feel even dirtier.”
That’s a little bit gross. Combined with the way Endgame uses Black Widow’s death to motivate the male Avengers, it kind of feels like the franchise is saying that Natasha isn’t quite worthy of living because she can’t fulfill her primary purpose as a woman and have kids, but luckily, she’s valuable in death because she can motivate everyone else to avenge her death. And while I don’t mean to suggest that Marvel is putting that message together intentionally, for it to come through so clearly suggests a consistent carelessness in creating Black Widow’s storyline, a laziness that falls back on stereotype-ridden clichés for women characters.
Black Widow’s death gets even grosser when you take into account Marvel’s terrible track record with women characters more generally. Black Widow was the only woman in the original Avengers lineup, and she still hasn’t gotten her own movie. (There’s one in the works for next year, coming about five years after anyone was really excited about the idea of a Black Widow solo outing, and presumably it’s now a prequel.) Marvel didn’t let a woman headline one of its movies until 2018’s Ant-Man and Wasp, in which Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp shared equal billing with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man.
(If you want to nitpick, you could say that 2012’s Avengers is the first movie to do this, since Black Widow, as an Avenger, is technically in the movie title, but I am taking a stand here and saying that movies named after a big group that contains a single token woman don’t count. That goes for you too, Guardians.)
Marvel didn’t let a woman headline one of its movies alone, without a man sharing the spotlight with her, until this year’s Captain Marvel. That’s two out of 22 Marvel movies, made over the course of 10 years.
Those numbers are damning. They’re suggestive of a storytelling culture in which women’s stories are considered to be less valuable than men’s.
That storytelling culture is not just a Marvel problem. As the “woman in the refrigerator” trope attests, it’s a problem for comic book storytelling more broadly — and it’s a problem for all of Hollywood, from the gender disparities behind the scenes (women made up just 4 percent of 2018’s directors) to what we see on our screens, where women and their stories are consistently devalued.
So what happens to Black Widow in Avengers: Endgame isn’t the worst feminist travesty in cinema. But that doesn’t make the circumstances surrounding her death any easier to take. Black Widow was the MCU’s first first-string superheroine — and no matter how much girl power Marvel decides to invest in (and market) going forward, its poor treatment of her is telling.