This is the first in an ongoing series: the Psychology of the Women of the Marvel Comics Universe. If you have a recommendation for who you’d like to see in the next article, let us know on Twitter @Shrink_Tank or @lauragdunson.
Warning: This containers spoilers for all Marvel movies up through Avengers: Endgame.
Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, has been an integral part of the Avengers and MCU since her debut in Iron Man 2. Both her role and her character have adapted, molding into the changing universe as she faces personal and intergalactic threats.
We see her transform from a covert operative to a superhero through themes of self-exploration, courage, and a commitment to her values. This article will analyze the psychology of Natasha’s journey through each step towards her final moments on Vormir in Avengers: Endgame.
The Psychology of Black Widow
When we first meet Black Widow, Natasha is using her gifts of manipulation and cunning to influence and monitor Tony Stark.
We see her hyper-sexualized and mysterious, used primarily as a foil character to show Tony’s personal development as he progresses from “temptation to temperance” in choosing the heartfelt, intelligent, and reliable Pepper Potts over the hot new secretary.
When Natasha’s true self is revealed, showing her skills as a secret agent, she becomes a crucial part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, connecting characters and storylines, building bridges and trust.
Her role quickly turns from a secondary character to an integral part of the franchise, as evidenced by the demand for more Black Widow merchandise and a film starring the spy herself, rumored to currently be in production.
And while I would argue that the most captivating original Avenger got the least time and attention, Natasha’s character arc has been intriguing and dynamic, shown in hints and glimpses—not unlike the character herself.
While on the surface this is a story of redemption, a story showing how Natasha Romanoff finally wiped the red out of her ledger, the truth lies much deeper: this is a story about self-worth and acceptance.
Through accepting her role as a part of this oddball family of superheroes, she finds a way to accept herself. These connections pave her path from a covert operative with no place in the world to someone willing to sacrifice it all to save it.
Because while Natasha strives to be a hero for others, she learns the truest sense of heroism—a deeply personal, relational sort of rescuing that can only happen when she faces the darkest parts of herself.
“Through accepting her role as a part of this oddball family of superheroes, she finds a way to accept herself.”
This is the story of worthiness at a raw, human level. This is worthiness that hurts, the painful, muddy worthiness of sitting with our and others’ flaws without an angelic, blessed acceptance but with the daily commitment to face our demons. Not with a leash, not with a peace offering, but with a determination to adapt to a daily, shifting terrain.
This was Natasha’s journey. Painful and trying, but built on the back of an immovable dedication to the spark of hope that there is a better world possible.
Let’s explore her journey.
NATASHA ROMANOFF IS SEPARATE AND FLAWED
While Natasha’s backstory is still vague and unexplored, we have gleaned some information throughout the MCU films.
We know Natasha was trained as a Soviet spy in a place called the Red Room where women are disciplined and hardened into elite forces of manipulation, surveillance, and assassination.
During this time, Natasha’s training takes a toll—not only is she faced with little choice around her future, but she is the victim of forced sterilization as an attempt to cut off the chance for Natasha to build a human connection.
This is just a sample of the methodical disconnect Natasha experiences through a consistent dehumanization of herself and others. Because dehumanization is key in this world, key in helping Natasha access the isolating and heartless work of an assassin.
There is little more dangerous in this world than dehumanization.
When two people are separated, driven apart by a sense of animosity and disregard for one another’s humanity, it tears at the fabric of each individual. We are made to connect. We are hardwired to react, engage, collaborate, to be connected in every sense of the word.
Natasha’s connections were severed thoughtfully and methodically through discipline, training, and force. This disconnect not only drove a wedge between her and the world– it created a divide into her own self.
“We are hardwired to react, engage, collaborate, to be connected in every sense of the word.”
Trauma innately creates division and therefore fragments us internally and interpersonally. When someone has experienced cruelty, a portion of their self is severed whether through an actual dissociation or through a disconnect between the part of them that was hurt and the rest that has to survive.
As a survivor, Natasha had to become divided.
She could not allow her vulnerability to coexist alongside the cutthroat world she lived in. She could not have empathy when she lived in such an unreliable and untrustworthy world. So she divided, compartmentalized, and carefully built her reality, a reality dependent on a cold disconnect from others.
This reality allowed her to be all things to all people, a varying fragment of who she was depending on what portion of her was needed in the moment.
“Trauma innately creates division, and therefore fragments us internally and interpersonally.”
Trauma tells us that humanity is broken, but also that we are broken, and even though we are the same kind of broken as others, we are separate from them.
We can logically recognize the parallels—we are the same kind of broken as others, therefore we have an innate connection. But no amount of logic and reason can create that link. Instead, we feel alone in a lonely world, the only broken one surrounded by a sea of brokenness.
While we have yet to see much of Natasha’s world during her time as a Soviet spy, the glimpses of her past carry a haunting and ominous tone of guilt, loneliness, and shame. There was no acceptance—not when she had so methodically separated herself from her feelings.
There was no community—not when humanity had been dehumanized into targets.
There was no worthiness—not only because of her actions towards others, but towards herself.
This is where we meet Natasha.
During her time in the Red Room, Natasha is dangerous—so dangerous that SHIELD decides she needs to be stopped. She meets Clint Barton who quickly sees her person rather than profession and makes the call to welcome her into SHIELD.
What was this moment like? Was it easy for Natasha, or difficult to give up the world she knew?
We have yet to see the moment played out in the MCU, but we hear it. We hear it in the hints Natasha shares, particularly in her relationship with Clint. She talks about recognition, understanding, and about someone looking further into who she was than she had experienced before.
The power of acceptance, of someone accepting her in spite of her worst actions, was transformative.
But the truth about Natasha’s change is that like all change, it likely didn’t happen in a single moment. It happened bit by bit, built over small moments of connection between herself, her inner self, and the world around her. It happened each moment there was a possibility of life without disconnect, a life of belonging and connection.
Natasha likely felt this before in small doses scattered throughout her life.
Maybe a distant memory from before the Red Room. Maybe a sort-of-friend who offered enough of a connection to hint at the possibility of a true relationship. Maybe it was the kernel of truth inside of her that would not stay silent and continued to whisper that she might be more than what the Red Room told her she was.
Whatever this moment or these moments looked like, it all came to a head when she met Clint and was offered unconditional understanding and acceptance. There was no fine print, no secret judgment. Clint saw her and saw past her, both for her skill and for more than her skill.
Every hero in the MCU has a skill or power that defines them and makes them powerful. But it’s essential to remember that a crucial part of what makes Natasha a hero is a relationship. We can’t and won’t give the credit to Clint, because at the end of the day Natasha could have walked away.
But her choice in a relationship, her willingness to commit to something vulnerable and raw—that is what put her on the path to becoming a hero.
She had something that many of us might have even wished for some days: the ability to just be separate from others, away from the pain of heartbreak and loss and cruelty. She had created the disconnect that would protect her from the pain of connection.
But she still chose.
She chose to give up the safety of disconnect and commit to a world that would not accept her walls. She chose the possibility of a world worth saving, and in turn chose to save herself.
THE POSSIBILITY OF VALUE
While joining SHIELD changed Natasha’s outer world, her inner world still bore the weight of her past. Because Natasha did not bury her crimes when she joined SHIELD, she was plagued with the memory of her ledger, haunted by who she really was underneath the many personas she wore.
As much as I would love to see Natasha and Clint meeting for the first time on screen, I’m grateful for a moment to be explained in snippets and side-notes. It sets a beautiful standard for their relationship and Natasha’s own personal growth—not defined by any one moment but instead by a series of moments.
This is how Natasha’s journey to acceptance is created, built on a series of connections and choices that question the messages she was given throughout her life.
Each encounter with an Avenger teaches Natasha a bit more about who she is. While she in turn affects their change, we can see the way she is affected by them. She watches Tony Stark tear himself apart in the throes of addiction and arrogance and still learns to trust him as an ally in the Avengers (and challenges him to be worthy of her trust).
She’s challenged to question herself through Captain America’s value system when he takes a stand against injustice. She is confronted with a bigger world than she thought was possible in the presence of gods like Thor and Loki. And she’s forced to face the question of monsters as she meets Bruce Banner. All the while her relationship with Clint deepens, in joking exchanges and secrets.
Natasha is building a community of people she loves. As her spy persona is stripped down and she is faced with a bombardment of vulnerability, the walls of disconnect she had to build come crumbling down.
“Natasha is faced with a bombardment of vulnerability.”
As Natasha begins to connect with the Avengers, she becomes a part of a team she never expected, working alongside gods and monsters to fight against invading aliens. Natasha has played the spy role before, and in her time she has certainly made the world a better place—even saved it before.
But this is different.
This is public, open, raw. A terrifying choice to become a hero in front a world that won’t let her hide anymore. And just as she cannot hide from others, she has to begin the painful process of facing herself.
And it is a process that Natasha chooses.
“She has to begin the painful process of facing herself.”
In Captain America: Winter Soldier we see her sacrifice her anonymity in order to bring HYDRA to the light. It is a painful, brutal move and one that puts her on trial in front of public officials for her actions. But Natasha has understood what the public officials haven’t—she is needed. Even if she is imperfect, even if she has red in her ledger, she is part of a group that has inherent and impactful value.
Natasha may not have faith in herself yet, but she has faith in the Avengers. And that is enough.
EVERYONE ELSE HAS VALUE
Natasha has had to face two impossible truths: first, that people and the world might be worth more than she was taught in the Red Room. Second, that she might be worth more than she was taught.
“Natasha may not have faith in herself yet, but she has faith in the Avengers. And that is enough.”
Accepting her worthiness isn’t easy. We see in Age of Ultron how she wrestles with her idea of monstrosity, wondering if after her time in the Red Room had turned her into something awful. While as a viewer I struggled initially with Natasha’s claim—does a woman’s inability to have children really make her a monster?—I recognized what truly made Natasha feel monstrous: the violation of trauma.
The Red Room violated her body without her choice, manipulating and coercing her into a decision she didn’t want. The thread of trauma through Natasha’s past did what it does to many of us with trauma—makes us feel monstrous. The flash of disconnect sparks again. Just as before we see that same flash of trauma—Natasha feels broken and monstrous.
She feels alone.
But it’s different this time. She may feel the sting of her trauma, but she’s not alone in it. Instead she reaches out, a quiet, tentative connection to Bruce, a hint that even if she struggles to face her past she’s willing to do it with another. Willing to create a relationship even when the past relationships had broken her. With this beautiful action, Natasha has taken a further step into a belief in her own value.
And while believing in her own value is still a daily struggle, Natasha has found the value in the world around her.
She has adapted to life as a hero and now finds herself meeting with politicians and ambassadors as a representative for a better world. She and Clint are close as ever. She has built relationships with other Avengers and has become a leader, helping teach new heroes
But her world cannot and will not stay the same, and Natasha is faced with a new struggle in Captain America: Civil War. The family she loves begins to fracture. It is no surprise that Natasha was conflicted during Civil War. Natasha has had to adapt to this new world, and she is easily able to understand both sides of the disagreement around the Sokovia Accords.
“While believing in her own value is still a daily struggle, Natasha has found the value in the world around her.”
Even as the others divide and split and argue, she works to keep them together.
She, seemingly more than anyone, recognizes the family that has been created and recognizes the strength in a united front. But as it all falls apart, she is called to make a decision and choose a side.
Natasha has known what power can do, how the strengths and abilities of others can be manipulated for the highest bidder.
While at the start she may have believed the Accords would allow for something better, she can’t deny the inevitable fracture in her family anymore. She recognizes in Steve, Wanda, Clint, Bucky and Sam their commitment to what they believe, and I imagine she can’t help but see herself in that moment.
It hurts for her to further the rift in the family she adores, but she chose this world and the possibility of this pain. And even while she knows the dangers of division better than anyone else , she does what she has mastered throughout her entire life: she adapts.
While the team is on the run, this renegade group of Avengers never stop being heroes. They glide back into their roles in Avengers: Infinity War too seamlessly to have ever stepped away from the work. But they don’t question the moment they are called back into the fray, and it’s clear that Natasha has fully accepted her role as a hero.
Thanos is coming, and without question they fight.
“She does what she has mastered throughout her entire life: she adapts.”
Natasha has known loss. She has known loneliness. She has known separation so deep that the possibility of truly connecting feels impossible. But she has known love. She has known acceptance. She has formed a family with a group of misfits and outcasts who have the best chance of understanding her strange and damaged history.
She has become a part of a greater world, and if she has become a part of something she loves, maybe she isn’t that bad. Maybe she is just like the rest: broken and bruised but still worthy, still valuable.
I HAVE VALUE
We see Natasha on the other side of Thanos’s snap in Avengers: Endgame and she is, like the rest of the Avengers, desperate for a solution.
But over time, many other Avengers move on. Natasha doesn’t. Her hair serves as a perfect demonstration of her emotional state. She had left the blonde in her hair from before Thanos’s snap, and it had faded into her natural red hair color. She had never cut it. She had never dyed it. Instead she clung to the world before the snap, unwilling to let it go.
We see another powerful marker for Natasha’s emotional state at the start of Endgame.
As she talks to Steve at the Avengers Headquarters, we can see a pair of ballet slippers lying nearby. The women raised in the Red Room were taught ballet as a way to learn discipline and strength. It’s an important reminder of Natasha’s past brought back to the present.
When she hears an update on Clint, she is overcome with emotion. This display, even if it is masked shortly after, is the most emotionally raw we have ever seen Natasha. She is wounded, deeply wounded, and is struggling to make sense of things. The world that saved her, the world that she chose, has been shattered, and she is desperately trying to collect the fragments.
In this moment, Natasha demonstrates the prime example of an emotional crisis—when the world that we’ve built, based on sameness and continuity in relationships and values, is challenged by a devastating new event, idea, or understanding.
Natasha had finally felt accepted. She had love for the world and for those around her. She recognized herself as a part of the world, and therefore began to love herself. Then the world was shattered. The family she loved was shattered. And the sense of love she was building for herself was, in turn, shattered.
When we are broken through such a crisis, we have only fragments left. We collect the fragments, some from our joyous memories, some from our painful pasts, and try to make sense of them. We cannot ignore any fragment, because each has informed some element of who we are and who we are becoming.
But we get to choose what sort of place each fragment gets in our new selves.
Natasha has been reflecting, piecing together what’s left of her and choosing how to define who she is. Meticulously analyzing each dark corner of her psyche and piecing herself back together is brutal, painful work. But it is work she chooses. And the woman we see in Endgame is the ongoing result of this work.
She has done the most courageous thing any of us can do: rebuild.
It is with this rebuild that Natasha reaches out to each of the Avengers, offering soft words of encouragement, providing hope, reassuring them that there could be something more. We see a Natasha who is motivated and determined, but grounded. We see a Natasha who recognizes her merit, recognizes the interconnectedness between her love for others and her self-worth. She has made it through the worst and now she’s here, ready to try again.
“She has done the most courageous thing any of us can do: rebuild.”
This is the Natasha who comes to Vormir. This is the Natasha who makes the decision to sacrifice herself so the universe can be set straight. When it became clear that there was no other way to get the Soul Stone other than for someone to sacrifice their life, and soul, for it, Natasha didn’t hesitate.
Because it couldn’t be Clint, who felt the weight of shame and wanted to die to clear his ledger. It was Natasha, Natasha whose goal wasn’t to clear her ledger anymore but instead bring back the world that had saved her. It had to be Natasha, who chose to die the same way she had chosen to live—by her terms, connected to the world she cherished.
It struck me in that moment that even as Clint was trying to hold her from falling, she is the one who made the final choice to push out of his hand.
Natasha had done the work of acceptance, accepted her fate in this moment long before she had gotten here.
No one, not even a friend she loved so dearly, could tell her what this acceptance looked like. Her journey into self-worth found her finding a home for parts of her she never could have imagined before and accepting herself as a part of a world she had once watched from the outside.
And so she jumped, a leap into the unknown. But a leap of faith that by saving the world that saved her, she trusts that the world would go on to save others like her.
INTERDEPENDENT AND VALUED
Natasha’s journey of worthiness is powerful because of its interdependence between herself and others around her. Even while she feels separate and alone, she has built her concept of herself around her concept of humanity.
While she had once meticulously snipped the threads connecting her to the world around her, she couldn’t help but celebrate empathy. It grew in her, festering like a disease the Red Room tried to stamp out. But it would not leave her. Instead empathy continued to pull her in, inviting her to believe the possibility that she might be just like everyone else. That if she could love others, she might deserve love herself.
And if she was deserving of compassion, then the whole world just might be too.
Her journey teaches us the beauty of our spiritual interconnectedness, of how our inner and outer worlds are shaped and molded by one another. We affect as much as we are affected.
This is the Natasha who sacrificed herself for the world.
Not out of a sense of debt or redemption. Not out of shame or martyrdom. Natasha learned a simple and crucial truth: her life had value—not because she was special or different in any way, but because of her connection to a greater world around her.
Many heroes live without ever realizing this powerful truth, defining themselves by their power and strength. But Natasha knew it and knew it at her core. It is our place in a realm of interdependent, connected living creatures that gives our lives value. It is our role in an incredible world that makes us incredible.
Oftentimes in films we see the leading lady playing the part of keeping everyone together. Sometimes it’s an old trope—a female character only defined by her relationships and not offered any sort of standalone character line. I like to think that Natasha’s story is different.
Through spinning and weaving webs, Natasha held the strings to keep the team as one even as the world fell apart. With her death, the heroes had a choice. They could either let the world fall apart, or step up to hold the strings together. And they did.
Feeling the pain of her loss, they chose to live in the world the same way as she did—together, connected, and united. Assembled.
It is no surprise then that Natasha’s role in the new reality is the very Soul of the universe.