“At some point, we all have to choose between what the world wants you to be and who you are.”
These are the words that rang out in the first full trailer for Black Widow, released all the way back in March 2020. Now, more than a year later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is finally revealing Natasha Romanoff’s hidden past and the identity crisis that comes with it.
It’s a rollicking action-adventure, full of great set pieces and emotional moments, but watching it, I couldn’t help but feel like we’ve been here before, and not just because it’s set just after Civil War and before Infinity War. In a way, every single MCU property since Endgame has just been a rehash of the same issues. Here’s why that’s a problem, and how Marvel can fix it.
Post-Avengers: Endgame stress disorder
The events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame were always going to ripple through the Marvel universe for a long time. Half the Earth’s population was zapped out of existence for years, only to return unchanged while the rest of the world had moved on. For the Avengers, the loss was a lot more permanent and personal, with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Natasha Romanoff crossed off the Avengers roster.
Fittingly, the next few Marvel properties dealt intimately with this fallout. Spider-Man: Far From Home opened with an entire amateur slideshow about the effects of the “Blip” and then followed Peter Parker as he dealt with the loss of both his teenage years and his mentor, Tony Stark. Spider-Man had undergone major trauma and he had to rebuild his identity.
The entire slate of MCU streaming shows so far follows this blueprint as well. In WandaVision, Wanda’s trauma went as far back as childhood, and she had to rebuild her identity as the Scarlet Witch. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson deals with the generational trauma in how America would react to a Black Captain America while trying to rebuild his identity in Steve Rogers’ shadow. In Loki, the trickster god sees his mortal fate and decides to rebuild his identity not only as a sort of antihero but as one of many variants.
Black Widow and the trauma-identity model
Going into Black Widow, I thought the cycle would be broken. After all, how could Natasha be affected by Endgame trauma when the events of Endgame haven’t even happened yet? Unfortunately, Endgame was by no means the first massively traumatic event in the history of the Avengers.
Natasha’s trauma is twofold. First, she’s dealing with the fallout from Civil War and the events that left her estranged from the only family she’s ever truly known. Second, she’s reckoning with the “family” she grew up with while undercover in suburbia. Throughout the film, she’s rebuilding her identity as a post-Red Room Black Widow and a post-Civil War Natasha Romanoff.
But Black Widow, which filmed before much of Marvel’s recent television slate, isn’t just the latest in a recent run of trauma-focused MCU stories. Rather, it reveals a fundamental flaw in the franchise that the studio will need to finally overcome in Phase 4.
How did we end up here?
You can track the Trauma-Identity plotline all the way back to 2008’s Iron Man, where Tony Stark undergoes physical trauma and builds his new identity as Iron Man. But these stories work because they’re introductory. When you’re first meeting a character, you’re learning who they are along with them.
It’s been two years since a new character was been the focus of a Marvel property (Captain Marvel in 2019) so previously explored characters are getting reinvented to keep the content fresh. That means injecting fresh trauma into their stories.
This is fine when it’s used to revitalize characters who may be getting stale, but after five of these stories in a row, Marvel may be tipping its hand just a bit too much. It’s time for something new.
Hopefully, after Black Widow, we’ll have caught up with all the relevant players from the immediate aftermath of Endgame and can start looking ahead.
How Marvel can fix itself
Black Widow will be followed up with a crop of new characters to replenish a dwindling MCU. Both Eternals and Shang-Chi premiere in Fall 2021. Both tease major identity crises, but they’re new characters whose stories (hopefully) won’t feel repetitive.
Even upcoming rehashes of old characters, like Hawkeye’s Disney+ series, will be focused on the next generation of Avengers. Instead of focusing on reinventing old characters, the shift is now toward reinventing the superhero.
There’s no way Marvel could have glossed over how the Blip affected the Avengers and the world they lived in, but after five versions of the same story, it’s getting a little bit old. After Black Widow, we can start rebuilding a new host of heroes and finally start Phase 4 in earnest.
Black Widow is now playing in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access.