WARNING: So many spoilers ahead.
There’s a moment in the final battle of Avengers: Endgame which is supposed to be quite powerful. A newly-resurrected Peter Parker needs help, and the person who comes to his rescue is Captain Marvel. Followed by Valkyrie. And Wanda. And Okoye. And Shuri. And the Wasp. And pretty much every female hero in the franchise. They smirk as they move forward against the enemy in a moment of supercharged sisterhood.
But there’s someone crucial missing, and it makes the whole scene ring even more hollow than it would otherwise. Marvel may be trying to telegraph a giant “look, we’re woke now!” sign with this scene, but that doesn’t negate over a decade of terrible treatment of their female characters – including in this very movie.
Black Widow is missing from the line up, you see, because she gets killed off about halfway through Avengers: Endgame. That’s right, the original – and for a long time, only – female superhero in the MCU isn’t there for the final showdown, unlike all of her male counterparts. She sacrifices herself to get the Soul Stone and save everyone else – most notably, to save Clint from sacrificing himself. He’s got a family, see. He’s got kids. He has to go home to them.
Nat, on the other hand, as we’re reminded time and again, has no one. The Avengers are her family. Her work is her life. While all the other heroes try to pick up the pieces of their tattered lives in the wake of Thanos’ snap and move on, Nat clings to the past, and to the idea she can still save the world. It’s admirable, sure. And without Nat half the universe would still be dusted. But the overarching plot doesn’t recognise her importance, and the message it sends is clear. Her life is worth less than others – than the men around her – because she doesn’t have a life. She’s not a wife or a mother, so the best she can do is die for her platonic male partner.
Nat’s fate in Endgame adds insult to the injury of the backstory she was given in previous movies. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we learn that Nat was forcibly sterilised as a result of her “training”. She’s clearly traumatised by the event, with it appearing in her Wanda-induced nightmare visions. Most problematically of all, when Nat tells Bruce about it, she describes herself as a “monster”. It’s meant to be a way for the two of them to connect. Nat, an infertile woman, is placing herself on the same level as Bruce, who turns into literal giant green murderous rage monster. Bruce doesn’t challenge her on the assumption, and neither does the wider plot.
The cumulative narrative of Nat’s life and death is that her story doesn’t have value except in how it serves the male characters. Hell, she’s never even been deemed worthy of her own solo movie before now. She’s always been the secondary lead, the back-up, the accessory in someone else’s story. And yet she always held her own with the big boys – with the literal gods – and she held the team together. There was plenty to be explored in her character and her story, but she never got the spotlight. While she might be getting a solo outing in future, after everything that’s happened, it’s too little, too late.
When Nat dies in Endgame, the team takes a moment to mourn. Then they pull together, ready to fight. It’s what Nat would have wanted, of course. But it means Endgame quickly moves on from her death and she’s all but forgotten by the time the credits roll. In stark (no pun intended) contrast, Tony is given an extended death scene with those he loves, plus a post-death message, plus a funeral that reunites all major and minor characters from the MCU, surrounded by their families. He deserves nothing less, of course. He is the one who started this whole thing, and has been one of the central figures across the franchise.
But then, so has Black Widow. And if she hasn’t been as large a character as Tony Stark or Steve Rogers or Thor, well, that was Marvel’s choice.
She deserved better, and so did we all.