Clint, sometimes killing is not murder… but not killing could be.
You’ve probably seen the clip by now, from one of the youtubed Avengers promos: Tony Stark runs through a list of the Avengers moviemembers and describes Clint and Natasha as “world class assassins.” This is a bit frustrating as it makes them a set, instead of Natasha Romanoff, legendary secret agent, and Clint Barton, world’s greatest marksman and occasional real shitty ninja.
It also says something about the everything-blows-up tone of the movie franchise, because in their classic four-color incarnations, these are superheroes, not killing machines, and there has always been a difference. Most mainline Marvel heroes will kill, if the circumstances make it necessary, but this hasn’t always been the case. For a period in the 1980s, editorial stance was that Captain America had never killed a Nazi, not even in the trenches. To paraphrase an official Letter from the Editor, a few Nazis might have died by shooting at his shield and having the bullets ricochet back into their faces, but that was really the Nazis killing themselves, not Captain America killing the Nazis.
Natasha is different. From the Silver Age on forward, she has been consistently depicted as willing to take a life to save one. And that’s absolutely carved into her character, an important aspect of her morality that lacks a code. But she’s never been an assassin, and I want to talk about why, and why it’s a bad idea to describe her as such even as Marvel tries to.
The Black Widow first as a non-costumed foe of Iron Man, a master spy, but more of a saboteur than a killer. Madame Natasha used stolen gadgets, knock-out gas, and charm to accomplish her ends, not brute force or even much subtlety. (It was the sixties.) Natasha was very adamant about not killing Tony Stark, in fact— because his brain might be useful or because he was too cute to die or because it made Hawkeye jealous, it’s really hard to say. But the villainous Natasha wasn’t chilling Bathory-style in a tub of Hungarian peasant-blood, and future flashback issues only made her look more sympathetic.
But even if her method wasn’t murder, she wasn’t specifically opposed to the idea— witness this moment from Avengers #37.
Clint: ‘Tasha! You set your widow’s bite… on lethal charge!
Natasha: Yes, Hawkeye— and now I am aiming it directly at Ixar— unless he surrenders!
Ixar: You are bluffing— just as he was!
Natasha: Think what you wish, Ixar, but remember— I am bound by no Avengers’ oath.
Clint: Wait, Natasha! No matter who he is… or what he’s done— you can’t kill him!
Natasha: I have no choice, my darling… if we are all to die, then I shall make certain that Ixar does not live to boast of his victory! But my patience grows short! Surrender at once— or your mad quest for power shall end… in death!
Ixar: I… don’t believe you! I…
Natasha: Look into my eyes, Ixar! Look deep into the eyes of the Black Widow! Are these the eyes of one who deals in empty words… and idle threats? So make your decision… at once!
A few years ago Marvel finally came up with a storyline reason to get Wolverine on the Avengers, and by that strange alchemy sell all the comics ever. As Tony Stark explained, Wolverine can kill people. Sometimes you need to kill people, and Wolverine can do it.
Forty years before that, Natasha was your gal. The scenario here is a contrived dilemna wherein shapeshifting space commander Ixar will make the people of earth his mindslaves unless someone kills him, or, at least, says they’ll kill him and really mean it. The Avengers Oath required strict no-killing, even in cases where that’s really really stupid. Natasha wasn’t an Avenger yet (they didn’t trust her due to residual communism) and she didn’t accept an outcome where the good guys all die and the bad guys win because the rules weren’t flexible enough to bend.
She saved the Avengers, and the world, but Clint wouldn’t tell them how.
You might notice that, heh, she didn’t actually kill Ixar, she just threatened him with super mascara. This was something that would recur later during her partnership with Daredevil, Natasha’d ramp her Widow’s Bite to lethal charge and threaten to kill whatever foe they were fighting. Matt’s alarmed thought-bubble would read “she’s not bluffing” with accompanying radar-babble about her heartbeat. But she never killed anyone, she never needed to, and so the stories stayed laced with a deliberate ambiguity.
That was also the era of the Widow’s Curse, when the melodrama of Bronze Age comics convinced Natasha that anyone she came into contact with was doomed to die. Any superhero that walks around long enough is going to accrue some bystander trauma, but Natasha read it with the tinge of the supernatural. It’s easy to retro-read her “curse” as a manifestation of guilt, as she shed her spy skin and tried desperately to create a new life for herself as a superhero.
Natasha first started killing people on panel and on purpose in her 1983 Marvel Fanfare run.
Here’s what Ralph Macchio, the writer, had to say about this panel:
That is one very lethal lady you mess with at your own peril. Case in point: it’s obvious from George’s stunning visual that this unfortunate gentleman literally had his face blasted in by Ms. Romanoff. And that supports the point that, unlike the traditional super hero, the Black Widow will kill an adversary if the need arises, or she is ordered to by superiors. She was trained in the Soviet State and is the very best at her craft. However, her great complexity of character prevents her from being a simple killing machine a la the Punisher.
I’m not sure Natasha really does anything because she’s ordered to by her superiors— not anymore, she fought to hard to be free of that. But I think the gist of this is right, and I don’t have any problem with Natasha blasting the face off some guy who creeped up on her in the bath. I do have a bit of a problem with it in this story, because those goons are actually SHIELD agents Sam Sawyer set against her as a test— and what kind of “good guy” organization sends its agents on suicide missions against one of their own?? So I like to think that guy survived isn’t dead, because plotholes.
The bigger plotline that panel was slipped into revolved around Ivan’s defection back to the Soviet Union, and the central conflict was how far Natasha would be willing to go to stop him. Could she kill Ivan, her surrogate father figure? Could she do it if she had to?
Spoilers!! It turned out that Ivan was just mind controlled!! So by the powers of predictable plotting, it turned out mercy was a stronger weapon than blasters to the face. Comics: they teach us valuable life lessons.
Natasha would ride the uneasy ground between necessary death and necessary mercy straight on through to the grim and gritty nineties. Ann Nocenti wrote about a botched mission and PTSD. Chichester wrote a story about a man Natasha could have killed, but didn’t, and the consequences that spiralled out of that as he proceded to collect nukes like they were Pokemon. After the Avengers died and went to live in Franklin Richards brain, Black Widow hunted down all the Avengers villains with intent to FINISH HIM!!, but that was all a SHIELD ruse, or was it? Yelena Belova was introduced, and she killed her enemies indiscriminately, while Natasha tried to save every life she could, regardless of citizenship. She did let one of the terrorist use his own deadly bioweapon on himself, though.
Sometimes killing was the best option, and sometimes it wasn’t— the situations didn’t come prepackaged with handy “justifiable homicide” color coding. Natasha had to deal with the fact that sometimes taking a single life really could save a thousand, but you never could know when. The fact that sometimes taking a life was the only way to preserve your own, but it still left an unquiet pit in your stomach. Death might come easy, but it didn’t come cheap.
Then Richard K. Morgan came along and he fucked everything up.
Natasha: Watch this.
Guy’s throat: Shklik
Natasha: I’m here for Sally Anne Carter. You take her to me, you’ll live. That’s a one-time bargain-basement offer. I’d take it if I were you.
Morgan’s Natasha killed a whole lot of people. She killed would-be rapists and enemy agents and goonish scientists, she killed defenseless CEOs and pretty much every villain the book introduced, and some hapless bystanders caught up in the storm of her existance. Morgan’s stories were that shade of “realistic”, and he wanted to bleed the kitschy superhero out of the character.
I tend to take Morgan as non-canon, because everything he did has been either ignored or explicitly retconned, and because I think that his stories are in the spirit of a MAX-esque AU.
After Morgan things bounced back to how they’d almost always been— Natasha promised to kill a bunch of people but rarely actually went through with it. She even infiltrated the Thunderbolts hitsquad edition and then made sure they never killed people.
Natasha: Osborn’s digital fingerprints were all over Yelena Belova’s SHIELD file. So Fury set me up as Belova and waited for him to reel me in. I’ve been spying on Osborn’s operation from the inside ever since. The hardest part has been runnng a hit squad that doesn’t kill any innocents— without blowing my cover. Deadpool owes me his head. Literally…
She even saved lives as objectively worthless as Deadpool’s! When her choices finally boiled down to “kill someone” or “blow your cover” she chose option b.
In her recent Fear Itself issue Natasha solves the problem of four men trying to blow up Europe by blowing them up first. Her temporary sidekick Peregrine asks her if maybe that was overkill, if Steve Rogers would approve. At least one reviewer found the whole spectacle emotionally distant, a rain of meaningless blockbuster death where you couldn’t tell the heroes apart from the villains. I agree, to a point. But I read that emotional distance as a coping mechanism. Natasha was sad and angry the man she loved had just died and she took that out on the terrorists, hit harder than she had to. It’s not admirable. But if her deal is walking the line between superheroics and cruel necessity, she has to slip up sometimes so that we understand it’s a hard line to walk.
I said I think framing her as an “assassin” is a bad idea. Partially it’s just a question of niche. For forty-plus years Natasha was established as the Marvelverse spy, but there are other assassins, characters Natasha shares franchises with like Elektra and Winter Soldier, who need to be the best they are at what they do, too. Being a spy is about a lot more than killing. It is about subtlety and intelligence and running long games, the self-swallowing work that is going under cover, and being so good you leave no trace behind, not even a body. I don’t mean to say she’s too good for killing, just that that isn’t her end purpose. And the awful ambiguity of lethal force, the idea that it might be right sometimes but definitely isn’t always, is such a comparatively rare line to take in the world of four-color morality, and I would not want to see that taken away from her. Not for a Batman-esque code, but not for the action-movie practicality of killshot after killshot, either.
Natasha: You speak so casually of death, Viper. I grew up with death. I’ve walked hand and 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.
Panels from Hawkeye #8, Avengers #37, Marvel Fanfare #10, Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her #4, Thunderbolts #135, and Marvel Team-up #85.