Film

We Need To Talk About Black Widow’s Treatment In ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Black Widow’s treatment in 'Avengers: Endgame' was emblematic of a wider problem within the superhero genre itself.

Black Widow Avengers Endgame

Out of the frying pan and into the fridge, there’s a reason female fans felt extremely frustrated after seeing Avengers: Endgame. Especially fans of Black Widow.

*Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame*

There’s a term that’s well known among female comic book fans.

In fact, it has become so popular and widely used that it has spread into the larger pop culture lexicon when it comes to discussing the treatment of women in superhero properties on the page, small and silver screens.

It’s called Women In Refrigerators and it was coined by prolific comic book writer Gail Simone back in the nineties, following a moment in Green Lantern issue 54, when the title character returns home to find his girlfriend has been murdered and stuffed into a fridge. It’s a catalyst for Green Lantern. A motivator. A plot device.

It’s also super freakin’ common.

Throughout the pages of comic book history, women have been fridged more times than Thai takeaway you swear you’re gonna eat for dinner “later in the week”.

It happened in Spider-Man, when Gwen Stacy was killed by Green Goblin. It happened in Green Arrow, when Dinah Lance aka Black Canary was tortured and sexually assaulted. It happened in Daredevil, when Elektra was killed by Bullseye, with her own weapon. It happened in The Punisher, when Frank Castle’s wife Maria and two kids (just for good measure) were brutally murdered in an event that acts as the very trigger for him becoming a bloodthirsty vigilante.

Women get fridged not just in the books of men, but their own books too. And the list of characters who have endured this trope is like a who’s who of legendary comic book ladies: Big Barda, Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl, Jean Grey aka Phoenix, Supergirl, Black Widow …

Fridging On The Silver Screen

Superhero films by their very nature pull from the source material, which means we’ve also seen plenty of fridging on screen as well.

They could invent a whole new back story for Peter Parker’s parents and give Jamie Foxx a combover in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but they couldn’t change Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy from suffering the same fate as her comic book counterpart.

Elektra and Catwoman both had to die in their own solo films — the latter being licked back to life by magic cats — meanwhile Maggie Gyllenhaal stepped in to replace Katie Holmes’ nipples in The Dark Knight, only so two men could be irrevocably changed by her death.

Cue Harvey Dent barking “RACHEL!”.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe Of Fridges

The Marvel Cinematic Universe was supposed to be different.

Or so were told, over and over again, as Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, became a founding member of the cinematic Avengers.

When she was a supporting character who combatted the leers of Happy and Tony Stark collectively in Iron Man 2, before physically combatting an entire team of henchmen, we waited with the promise of more.

When she appeared in The Avengers we waited for more moments, more screen time, then Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and even a cameo in Captain Marvel’s credits scene.

She’s the most prominent woman from Marvel’s first decade of films, yet somehow she’s had less total screen time than Ant-Man who has appeared in half as many movies as she has. It took more than 20 movies in the MCU before Black Widow’s solo film even got green lit.

Fridges In Avengers: Endgame

Most women were aware of this as they settled into their seats to watch Avengers: Endgame for the first time over the course of the last week.

They’d been given crumbs of Black Widow for 11 years. They’d had to protest in order just for Black Widow merch to exist. They’d seen her erased from her own scenes on toy boxes only to be replaced with her male counterparts.

They’d endured ‘sterilisation’ storylines, slut-shaming jokes on press tours and bleached eyebrows.

They’d comes to terms with the fact there would be three different men in the role of Spider-Man before Natasha Romanoff got her own solo movie, one where’s she’s the lead and not the supporting player to a Tony or a Steve or a Thor.

All of that was bearable, we told ourselves, because after 22 movies of crumbs we were about to get the whole damn loaf of bread. We had the promise of more.

We had the promise of an MCU with Natasha at the fore.

Until we didn’t.

Don’t push further if you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame because epic spoilers ahoy, but Black Widow does not survive the film.

To say she’s killed is inaccurate. If she had died in battle or had an epic Lyanna Mormont moment, maybe it wouldn’t have stung as much. Instead, she choose to kill herself so Mohawkeye could go back to his stupid family on his stupid farm.

She choose an honourable suicide so the boys could go on and save the day without her. Perhaps that’s the clincher: in a completely uncharacteristic move, Natasha Romanoff choose to make herself the sacrificial lamb rather than act like the wolf she has been for the past 11 years.

Ladies To The Front (Of The Fridge)

There’s a moment in the final battle, long after Nat is dead, way after characters mourned her death for all of a few minutes (and a bench was tossed angrily into a lake).

It’s the cinematic equivalent of the splash page in comic books, a full-page illustration — sometimes spanning two pages — and often it would occur at the point where halfway through the book pages are spaced evenly on either side of the staples. It’s a jaw-dropping visual that’s designed to draw the eye.

In Avengers: Endgame it’s with all the female heroes, the ones we’re supposed to care about even though most of them didn’t get a line of dialogue in the film (Shuri! The smartest person in the MCU! Are you kidding!).

It’s designed to be Marvel’s moment to show us how woke they are, how inclusive this next stage of their superhero universe is supposed to be with all these female heroes of different ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities (not sexualities, though — we’re still in the strictly #nohomo phase of the MCU).

Instead it feels … hollow. It feels less than skin deep. How can we care about what they’re doing with a dozen female superheroes when they couldn’t manage the legacy of their first?

The Wider Problem In The Superhero Genre

Yes, Black Widow got fridged. And yes, it fucking hurt.

Yet what hurt most of all was that they made her fridge herself.

Marvel wants us to believe their cinematic universe is progressing forwards, but the reality is that’s only for the male characters. Tony Stark got so many send offs even the kid from Iron Man 3 found time to show up (completely unrecognisable). Steve Rogers was able to get that last dance. Thor had more screen time telling fat jokes than Okoye had minutes.

Natasha Romanoff? She didn’t even get a death that hadn’t already been used on another female character one movie prior. It has been confirmed the upcoming Black Widow solo film is a prequel and rumour has it based on the Devin Grayson, Greg Rucka run which sees her vie for the title of Black Widow against another candidate.

Do we really care about a Black Widow movie though, when we know the end result?

Black Widow’s death in Avengers: Endgame was more than just a death, it was emblematic of a wider problem within the superhero genre itself, a problem that started on the page and — despite the fact it’s 2019 — continues on the screen.

Avengers: Endgame is currently in cinemas.


Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of The Witch Who Courted Death, It Came From The Deep and the Who’s Afraid? novel series, available worldwide.