*The following contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.*
“I used to have nothing, but then I got this. This job. This family.”
In Avengers: Endgame, like everyone else affected by Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) snap at the end of Infinity War, Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), is emotionally broken. The Avengers lost to the mad-Titan, and five years later are finding it difficult to cope with the absence of their friends and family. But for Romanoff, the emotional toll is visibly heavier than the other surviving Avengers. They were all she had.
Her relational ties were not always this strong, however. Throughout the twenty-movie MCU build-up to Endgame, Natasha develops into a warm-hearted, loyal and tough fighter. Of course she fights bad guys and aliens, but her most impressive feat is the fight for her friends, The Avengers.
Romanoff’s job as Black Widow, an Avenger, means more to her than any other Avenger. It is at the heart of who she is and what she does.
Though we do not get to see the full picture of Romanoff’s life (though a Black Widow-prequel is in the works), it’s been communicated and implied that Romanoff’s history is a tangled web of anonymity, carnage, and secrecy. Orphaned and trained from birth to be a Russian K.G.B. spy and assassin, she has no familial bonds nor any knowledge of who her biological parents are. As part of her graduation ceremony in spy school, she was sterilized to prohibit any chance of compromising a mission for the sake of family.
The first time we’re introduced to Natasha in Iron Man 2, she is Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) assistant. It is only later revealed that she is actually an undercover agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., tasked with covertly overseeing Stark Industries’ technological advancements. When Stark adversary Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) poses an existential threat to the broader public, Natasha Romanoff transforms into the acrobatic, martial-arts savvy Black Widow, taking down a platoon of agents effortlessly.
Black Widow’s enhanced fighting abilities help her entice and eliminate her victims, but leaves little room for building real relationships. But by the time we see her in Captain America: Civil War, she’s a different person. In Civil War, a divide is drawn between The Avengers—particularly Tony Stark and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)—over the Sokovia Accords, which would limit The Avengers’ sovereignty to protect as they see fit. When it came time to choose sides, Natasha sided with Tony Stark. However, her goal was not to force Captain America to accept the Sokovia Accords. Romanoff’s plan was to bring everyone together again—her chance at a unified family. “Staying together is more important than how we stay together,” Romanoff tells an agitated Rogers, who is adamant about maintaining The Avengers’ freedom without government oversight. At this point, Black Widow has found a purpose to her job that extends beyond completing missions. So after years passed in Endgame, it’s why she now openly defines her “job” as her family—the family she’s never had. Now her job as Black Widow, an Avenger, means more to her than any other Avenger. It is at the heart of who she is and what she does.
When the surviving Avengers figure out a way to travel through time, retrieve the Infinity stones, and revive the victims of Thanos’ snap, Natasha is among the most optimistic. But for the mission to succeed, first they need to rally the remaining Avengers.
Natasha finds her counterpart and best friend, Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), inflicting punishment and doling out retribution in Tokyo on Yakuza members (a Japanese organized crime syndicate) without due process. He doesn’t believe they deserved to survive Thanos’ snap. Prior to this, however, Barton enjoys a life opposite of Romanoff’s. He has a simpler life: a barn-house property in rural America, a wife, daughter, and two sons. Nevertheless, in the opening scene of Endgame, his comforts are mercilessly ripped away when his family becomes victims of the snap.
The significance of Black Widow and Hawkeye’s role to avenge the fallen is found in the interconnectedness of their friendship. Natasha and Clint’s relationship dates back to their days as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Across the span of Avengers movie titles, they frequently recall a mission in Budapest, though what happened on that mission remains obscure. All we know is they both survived—what seems to be—a dire conflict. “It’s just like Budapest all over again,” Natasha mentioned to Clint during the Battle of New York in Avengers(2012). Clint responded, “You and I remember Budapest very differently.” They mention it again in Endgame when they team up to acquire the soul stone on the planet Vormir.
Who’s going to sacrifice themselves so the other can obtain the soul stone and reverse the snap?
When Natasha and Clint arrive on Vormir, they soon find out that the only way someone can prove they are worthy of wielding the stone is by sacrificing one that they love. (In Infinity War, Thanos was required to sacrifice his daughter Gamora to acquire the stone.) The implied question is: who’s going to sacrifice themselves so the other can obtain the soul stone and reverse the snap?
“Natasha, you know what I’ve done,” Barton tells Romanoff, “You know what I’ve become.” Hawkeye’s statement reveals the real motivation for giving himself up for the stone is an opportunity to escape from self-guilt and shame. “I don’t judge people on their worst mistakes,” Romanoff assures him. “Maybe you should.”“You didn’t,” she reminds the guilt-ridden Barton.
Black Widow’s motivations differ from Hawkeye’s. She steeps her rationalization for sacrificing her life in purpose. She’s experienced the grace of second-chances and friendships. Natasha seizes this moment as an opportunity to make the tumults of her life purposeful, and a scuffle ensues between friends.
This fight to sacrifice one’s self before the other is a visible representation of “outdoing one another in love.” Black Widow’s motivation, however, is steeped in purpose and assurance, while Hawkeye’s is a precipitous attempt to escape guilt and failure. Widow understands her position in light of her failures, and Hawkeye’s defines his sacrifice by his. True recompense requires sacrifice emptied of self-gratification.
The battle between Hawkeye and Black Widow—Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff—is unlike any fight in Avengers: Endgame. It is perhaps the most emotionally charged showdown of the entire “Infinity Saga” because it embodies Christ’s words: “Greater love have no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” As they fight each other to take the irreversible leap of death so the other can take the soul stone back to the Avengers, only one becomes the victor: Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow.
Her purpose-driven sacrifice is a representative microcosm of what it means to be an Avenger in the super-hero sense. But even closer to the ground, Black Widow’s understanding of the gift of family enabled her to use her abilities, skills, and talents to put herself in harms way, even offering the ultimate price of her life, so that others may live—especially her family. Because for Natasha Romanoff, “Staying together is more important than how we stay together.” Hawkeye couldn’t comprehend this the way Black Widow ultimately lived it, which is why she is the one who ultimately died for it.