Not everyone loved Nastaha Romanoff’s death in Avengers: Endgame. With good reason. Big franchise movies, especially the MCU’s, aren’t consumed in a vacuum. Every storytelling decision is also a business decision. And having the only woman from the series’ original big six miss out on an iconic movie moment 10 years in the making will never sit right. Especially when Natasha’s death quickly became a footnote within the film.
In that vacuum though, the sacrifice she made on Vormir couldn’t have been a more fitting end for her story. She spent years trying to erase red in her ledger. Both her debt to Clint Barton for saving her and for the crimes she committed as a Russian spy. Natasha was never sure she’d be able to repay either. But she did more than that, with a selfless act that saved the universe and gave her friend the same chance he once gave her: to atone for his mistakes. Now her own standalone film, Black Widow, is giving that moving farewell the emotional resonance it deserved. Because despite the world doing everything it could to make her a monster, Natasha Romanoff was always a hero at heart. And it was that heart that led to her to save everyone.
For all of Natasha’s talk about red in her proverbial ledger, the MCU never actually showed fans the horrible things she’d done before Hawkeye spared her life. It was always easy to imagine assassinations of politicians and other spies. The deaths of willing players in a deadly international game of power can be justified and forgiven in some ways. But Black Widow revealed just how dark Natasha’s past truly was. Her crimes were much worse than we might have wanted to believe. No matter how often she tried to tell us how bad they were. And they didn’t end when she turned on her country. To join S.H.I.E.L.D. she needed to commit one final atrocity: killing an innocent child.
There was nothing heroic about that decision. Nor was there any justifying it. Especially because blowing up young Antonia was just as much about Natasha earning her own freedom from the Red Room as it was about ridding the world of Dreykov. It was a cold, calculated, selfish act. The kind you can’t defend. And the kind you can spend a lifetime trying to atone for without ever coming close.
In Endgame Natasha did so much more than just make up for her past transgressions. She became one of the universe’s great saviors. Her act on Vormir was no less brave, important, or commendable than what Tony Stark did with a snap of his fingers. Yet it was only Tony whose sacrifice the world, and the movie, celebrated and remembered with a touching funeral. Murals commemorated his face around the world. The spy who fought alongside and against beings with super tech and super powers, with nothing more than her own natural skills and wit, got two brief scenes with a handful of friends missing her. For a death that meant so much, Marvel treated it so small. Until Black Widow.
The film gave Natasha the kind of sendoff she deserved. Not just by giving her a standalone movie, but by giving us a new understanding of the Avenger we’d known for so long. It showed why she spent years looking for seemingly impossible redemption. But also why she was always a hero. Life did everything it could to make her a monster. Her government stole her from her mother. Then it stole her from her fake family and the home they had built. Powerful men trained her to be a killer and trained her well. They even stole parts of her body to mold her into a murderer. And when she wanted to get away from that nightmare and do good, the world required one last piece of her soul.
But the world never took her heart. Throughout all of it, all the pain and death, she kept that. The same heart that protected Yelena on a tarmac in Cuba kept beating when half the universe turned to dust. That heart was the only thing that held the Avengers together when the world needed them most. And it was the same heart that saved her best friend on a distant planet where no one would ever appreciate what she’d truly done for all of them. The only thing that stopped that heart was a selfless act of love from a true hero.
And that’s what she was. Because the best heroes aren’t great because they always did the right thing. Or because they forget their past mistakes and move on. They are heroes because despite every reason not to care they still do. Despite every opportunity not to be one they are. And the best of them carry their sins with them as a reminder to do the right thing now. No matter what it costs. Like giving of themselves entirely when it matters most.
In Avengers: Endgame Natasha Romanoff gave herself to save everyone. In an act that wiped away all the red she thought she owed. But it was Black Widow, a celebration not of her death but of her life, the good and the bad, that gave the heart of the Avengers the sendoff she truly deserved.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.