Black Widow: From Assassin to Spy to Hero – The Evolution of Marvel’s Unlikeliest Hero

Black Widow Star Scarlett Johansson
Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Taskmaster in Marvel Studios’ ‘BLACK WIDOW’ (Photo by Jay Maidment © Marvel Studios 2021)

With Marvel’s Black Widow hitting theaters and Scarlett Johansson announcing this will be her final time portraying the iconic comic book character, it’s the perfect time to look back at the history of Johansson as Natasha Romanoff and the character’s evolution on screen.

IRON MAN 2 (2010)
Scarlett Johansson entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Russian ex-assassin Natasha Romanoff who was now an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the sequel to 2008’s Iron Man. It’s hard to believe she was the second choice to play the role, snagging the part after Emily Blunt was forced to turn it down due to scheduling conflicts. Iron Man 2 finds Romanoff going undercover as Natalie Rushman, Tony Stark’s new assistant. However, her true assignment is to protect and assess Stark (Robert Downey Jr) to see if he could fit in as part of the Avengers Initiative.

A massive superhero blockbuster sequel with a cast that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, and Mickey Rourke (as the villain Ivan Vanko/Whiplash), it was Johansson’s performance as Black Widow that stood out in the film. In fact, her character had one of the best action scenes in Iron Man 2 as Romanoff infiltrates the offices of Hammer Industries to deprogram weaponized droids. Using only a can of pepper spray and her bare hands, Black Widow takes down almost a dozen thugs all on her own.

The next time Marvel fans got to see Natasha up on the screen was as part of the big superhero team-up, The Avengers. In it, Natasha’s searching for Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to bring him into S.H.I.E.L.D. to keep the big green guy under control and possibly use him in a war involving aliens from another dimension.

The biggest development and growth of Romanoff in the film is the reveal of her past with fellow Avenger Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the deep friendship they have. Natasha’s also involved in an exciting chase in which she’s being hunted by none other than The Hulk. And, she’s one of the main players in the major battle at the end of the film.

Natasha’s the only character who figures out how to close the portal to stop the deadly aliens from invading New York. This is the film in which it becomes clear that even though she doesn’t have any superpowers, with her fighting skills and cunning smarts Black Widow is just as capable as any of her fellow Avengers.

Captain America: Civil War Starts Shooting
Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in a scene from ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (Photo: Zade Rosenthal © 2014 Marvel)

Natasha’s paired up with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) on a secret mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. in one of the best films in the MCU, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. After their boss, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), is almost killed by assassins, Steve and Natasha end up on the run and not knowing who to trust after they discover the hit was ordered by someone high up in S.H.I.E.L.D..

It’s the chemistry between Evans and Johansson as Captain America and Black Widow that elevates The Winter Soldier. The relationship between the soldier and the spy provides growth for Natasha. In Steve, she finds – for only the second time in her life – someone she can trust and depend on, not just a comrade in arms but as a true friend who will always have her back. This becomes even more important to her after realizing S.H.I.E.L.D. has become infested from within by the evil Hydra.

The cute banter as Natasha tries to find a woman for Steve to date, and how she uses their cover on the run as an excuse to kiss him, brings some much-needed humor to the action-packed film.

This time out Natasha is back with the Avengers as they take on their worst enemy yet, Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark (Downey Jr) and Banner (Ruffalo). Ultron was supposed to be an entity to protect Earth and mankind but went rogue and instead became determined to destroy all human life.

The character is given a love story of sorts for the first time since Romanoff appeared onscreen. Natasha develops some deep feelings for Bruce Banner and much to her joy discovers he feels the same for her. In what is one of the most emotional scenes for Natasha, she reveals to Bruce – who has told her he can never have a family because of his exposure to the Gamma Rays – that when she graduated from her training in the “Red Room” in Russia she was forcibly sterilized. This is also the first time her character thinks of having a quiet life away from the Avengers and fighting villains if Bruce is willing to go away with her.

The superhero group finds itself divided after the government and politicians demand power and control over the Avengers. Captain America (Evans) refuses to be held accountable by some type of political oversight committee and Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) believes that even they need to be held accountable, especially after all the collateral damage during the battle with Ultron.

Natasha finds herself split down the middle, understanding both sides but ultimately agreeing with Tony. This leads to her having to go up against both Steve Rogers and Clint Barton (Renner) when they go rogue along with other Avengers hostile to the oversight. Natasha, of course, ends up letting Rogers escape and goes on the run with him when she realizes that her ties with him and Clint are what really matter to her.

Natasha’s one of the few characters in the film trying to hold the whole team together even when it’s clear it’s not possible and they must go their separate ways.

Box Office - Avengers: Infinity War Cast
War Machine (Don Cheadle), Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (Photo © Marvel Studios 2018)

Having been on the run after the fallout from Civil War, Natasha, Steve Rogers (Evans), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) join up with both old and new Avengers to go up against the most powerful and deadliest enemy they’ve ever faced, Thanos (Josh Brolin), a space warlord from the planet Titan. Action-packed and focused on the villain the series had been building up to since the end of the first Avengers film, Black Widow is mostly a straightforward action fighter in the film with very little significant growth. Her goal here is simple: stop the evil warlord.

After losing to Thanos and having half the universe’s population vanquished by a snap of Thanos’ fingers, Natasha, Steve Rogers (Evans), Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) and the rest of the remaining Avengers struggle to find a way to bring back everyone they lost. In order to do so, they must go up against Thanos once more and this time destroy him.

The film begins with Natasha angry and hurting, feeling the pain and guilt of failing. She’s more determined than ever to find a way to bring everyone back. The Avengers have become her family and there’s nothing she won’t do to protect and save them.

Natasha proves this to be true when she’s forced to fight her closest friend, Clint (Renner), in order to sacrifice herself so they can obtain the Soul stone needed to bring everyone back. With her sacrifice, it’s clear just how much Natasha has grown since the beginning of the film series. She went from being a cold, calculating, skilled assassin, to a mistrusting, guarded but effective agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., to being a key member of the Avengers and finally becoming a trusting, dependable, loyal, loving, and self-sacrificing friend and family member. A hero if there ever was one.

Scarlett Johannson’s run as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow ends with the much-delayed solo film, Black Widow. The stand-alone entry in the MCU’s set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, a period when all members of the Avengers are in hiding due to breaking the Sokovia Accords.

The final outing for Johansson proves to be one of her finest. Black Widow allows Johansson to fully embody all aspects of the character while her backstory unfolds and her family members are introduced.