The first — and, at least for the time being, only — season of “Hawkeye,” which came to an end this week, managed over its 6-episode run finally, finally, deal meaningfully with something the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had, until now, handled terribly: The death of Black Widow.
Because, nearly three years later, Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johannson) death remains one of the most frustrating things — among a litany of other frustrations, if we’re being honest — about “Avengers: Endgame.”
It’s not the actual fact of it, necessarily. The Soul Stone’s life-for-a-life requirement made it inevitable that someone we like would die — even if the entirely new stipulation that you can’t bring those people back under any circumstances felt tacked-on.
No, the problem is the way the film, and subsequent installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have treated the death of one of its main characters as, at best, an afterthought.
Aside from a small handful of scenes making it clear that Natasha died on Vormir and no timeline or use of the Infinity Stones would bring her back, Nat disappears so thoroughly from the film it’s as if Scarlett Johansson was fired during production.
“Endgame” instead features what feels like a 4-hour funeral scene for Tony Stark, in which just about every hero we’ve ever met in the MCU gather to mourn him. Then comes the rather unsatisfying and divisive conclusion of Steve Rogers’ story which, regardless of how you actually feel about it, still gave those closest to him a chance to get some closure.
The single moment of remembrance for Natasha comes in a moment between just Clint and Wanda, when he laments that he can’t tell Natasha her sacrifice really did allow them to beat Thanos.
And it only got worse. In the aftermath of “Endgame” we’ve largely seen only how the world was affected by Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) sacrifice and, to a lesser extent, the disappearance of Captain America. “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” for example, was effectively one giant tribute to Iron Man. In fairness, Tony was the first real, very public superhero in the (modern day) MCU and of course, it wouldn’t be the billions-generating giant it is without the actor who played him. Even so, the audience, if not the people in that film, know he couldn’t have made his sacrifice without Natasha doing so first.
And while subsequent installments of the MCU have acknowledged the world’s collective post-blip trauma, none of them have so much as blinked in Nat’s direction. The sole exception is “Black Widow,” an interquel set immediately after “Captain America: Civil War,” whose only mention of Nat’s death has problems for reasons we’ve previously discussed at length.
Now, considering Nat was Clint Barton’s (Jeremy Renner) best friend, “Hawkeye” had some pretty high pressure built in to honor the Widow properly. Fortunately, it immediately started doing so in the first two episodes of the series.
When we rejoin Clint and his family in the series premiere, he’s taken his kids to see “Rogers: The Musical” while they’re in New York. Watching the cast perform “Save the City,” Clint is immediately put off by the ridiculousness of it, so much so that he turns off his hearing aid. But irritation becomes true pain when he sees Stage Natasha come through.
Clint becomes so affected by seeing even a fictionalized version of his partner, that he actually needs to step outside for some air. At this point, it’s been roughly a year, give or take a few months, since he lost Nat, and yet, he’s still grieving profoundly — as any real person who lost their best friend would be. The moment drives home just how close they were, and just how much Clint still grapples with the circumstances around her death.
As he waits outside the theater, his daughter Lila comes out to comfort her father. “I know everyone misses her, but she was your best friend,” she says, before trailing off sadly herself. It’s a poignant reminder that Natasha wasn’t just a huge figure in Clint’s life, but in his family’s. Let’s not forget, his youngest son is named Nathaniel, after her.
In most any other series, this fleeting but emotional mention of Nat would be enough. But “Hawkeye” really made sure to weave her and her memory into the fabric of Clint’s actions.
In the next episode, we see him discussing his plans to figure out what’s going on with the Tracksuit Mafia with his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini). Letting her know that he plans to do “a little catch and release,” Laura fondly remembers it as “one of Nat’s old moves.”
Later in the series, we see Clint as he visit a plaque outside Grand Central Station, commemorating the date he and the original six Avengers first assembled. He speaks to it like he’s speaking directly to Natasha — even going so far as to apologize for actions he’s about to take that he know she wouldn’t approve of — as he would at her actual gravestone. Clearly, this is a spot he hits up regularly to “talk” to his best friend.
Sometimes, it’s not about seeing massive murals honoring a fallen hero, like Iron Man got in “Far From Home.” Little nods like this, placed just right, arguably pack even more of a punch.
But on a larger scale, Clint also helps Nat live on in the way he interacts with Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). When she asks him about “the greatest shot” he ever took, he reveals that it was “the one I didn’t take.” Though he’s reluctant to tell the story, Kate pulls it out of him and quickly pieces together that he’s talking about Natasha.
It very clearly pains him to talk about her, and he reminds Kate that Natasha “was the best there was.” And, after telling that story, Kate later holds off on shooting Yelena, seemingly remember what Clint said about trusting his gut. In telling Kate about his first meeting with Natasha, Clint inadvertently spares her sister (though Yelena may laugh at the idea of Kate successfully killing her up on the roof).
And of course, there’s the Yelena factor of “Hawkeye” as a whole.
When she shows up in episode four, we all knew why she was there. However flimsy of a basis her motivations had, Yelena was there to avenge her sister. Where Clint had the rest of his family to lean on, Yelena had no one, and perhaps more heartbreakingly, no real clarity on what happened.
She’s in pain, and coping the only way she knows how. Natasha pretty much hung the stars in the sky for Yelena; as much as the lie that put her on Clint’s trail was absurd, it’s important to remember that Nat did have real family that was left behind. Yelena needed to grasp at the straw that Val (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gave her in the post-credits moment of “Black Widow.”
When Yelena and Clint inevitably do discuss what really happened on Vormir, Clint makes a point to reassure the young Widow that her sister always talked about her, and always worried for her safety. He even wins her trust by doing the secret whistle Yelena and Natasha shared.
Clint reminds Yelena how stubborn her sister was, and how it meant he couldn’t have changed her mind on Vormir. And though it’s hard to see Yelena truly mourn, it’s also a good reminder that Natasha made a choice. The conversation honors a character who always did what she felt she had to, even when that choice had painful consequences.
It didn’t diminish Natasha’s sacrifice, or the woman herself. It was simply a beautiful, albeit very predictable, connection between the two people who were most affected by Nat and her sacrifice.
Prior to “Hawkeye” we really didn’t see how the public at large reacted to Natasha’s death, let alone the people who knew and loved her. All we really had was that post-credits scene of “Black Widow,” which showed that Nat’s grave definitely had regular visitors but established little else.
In short, the MCU treated Natasha’s death similarly to how they treated her in life: As a tool. She had her hands in nearly every chapter of the MCU leading up to the creation of the Avengers, from recruitment to actual battle. And yet, in the end, her sacrifice was the tool the Avengers needed to get the Soul Stone.
In reality though, she was no different than Tony Stark, which made the well, stark differences in their post-humous treatments all the more frustrating. It was clunky and sloppy and as a viewer, just…frustrating.
But every step of the way, “Hawkeye” handled her death with the grace, care, and really, focus it deserved. It at least feels like we got to say a proper goodbye to someone many viewers really grew up with.
And we needed it.