Black Widow finally gave Natasha Romanoff a standalone movie, years after the character died within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Knowing what the future of the timeline held for Black Widow, audiences were primed to expect an element of closure, like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers got in Avengers: Endgame. Alternately, the movie could have suggested a way Black Widow’s narrative might continue. Ultimately, the movie didn’t provide either.
For a standalone story, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Black Widow focused on delivering insight into the MCU timeline’s history of the character and her version of The Red Room, expanding her arc by explaining her change in attitudes and team roles between previously released movies. It finally gave Natasha some peace about her own backstory. Given the previous film’s hints about her tortured past, providing her with closure on those aspects by reconnecting her with her deep-cover family was an important part of giving the character more dimension, and it was executed successfully.
[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for Black Widow.]
In the opening scenes, a young Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) chafes against the control of sinister mastermind General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). That introduction sets up the reasons she’s able to accept her co-conspirator Melina (Rachel Weisz) as an ongoing mother figure late in the movie. Melina’s behavior suggests she’s been working to undermine Dreykov’s control of Natasha, strengthening her resistance against her programming. When Natasha learns about that, and discovers that her birth mother didn’t willingly abandon her, she opens up to the idea of accepting found families, both the deep-cover ersatz family of her youth, and her found family in the Avengers. She finally gets some personal closure on her past.
But Black Widow still has a major problem with resolving the character’s arc, given its placement within the MCU. And that issue speaks to the franchise’s larger issues around providing closure. While the movie goes out of its way to provide it to Natasha herself, audiences looking for some meaning in the character’s death, other than as a lead-up to new stories, have found the ending unfulfilling.
While the movie’s post-credits scene initially suggests that the film will close on an intimate moment of tribute, as Natasha’s faux-sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) gives her the personal sendoff she never got in Endgame, the scene quickly dissolves into something else. For a Tony Stark tribute and sendoff, Avengers: Endgame avoided a post-credits scene, and just added an auditory callback to Iron Man’s beginnings. Black Widow begins to use one as a memorial, with Yelena giving her half of a call-and-response to Natasha. But the scene rapidly abandons that, bringing in new recurring character Valentina Allegra de Fontaine to disrupt the tribute in a crass way. That departure from an emotional closing scene was intentional — one of the writers, Eric Pearson, said “I […] love taking an emotional moment, like Yelena at the grave, and then flushing it down the toilet with Valentina blowing her nose.”
Valentina’s introduction not only mars the moment emotionally, it also cynically undercuts Yelena’s grief and directs attention away from Black Widow in order to plug the MCU’s future projects. Valentina’s cameo calls back to her presence in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, sets up a future conflict with Clint Barton’s Hawkeye (which goes against Natasha’s legacy), and immediately makes the whole movie feel like a setup for further action from Yelena, her fellow Widows, her fake father Red Guardian (David Harbour).
It all highlights the reason the MCU continually struggles with anything resembling emotional or plot closure. It’s the same reason Marvel Studios adds post-credit scenes to so many of its projects: Every story must lead to more stories. Again and again, MCU entries are so focused on setting up the next story that they fail to properly address the impact of their characters’ biggest losses, particularly when characters die. In some cases, they don’t ever fully acknowledge the loss of heroes, as with Heimdall in Avengers: Endgame, or Groot in Guardians Of The Galaxy. (The Groot in later films is technically the original’s offspring, but that’s only addressed in behind-the-scenes content.) More often, the universe refuses to let characters stay dead, using story workarounds to resurrect characters like Bucky Barnes, Pietro Maximoff, and Gamora.
The only true exception to this dynamic remains Tony Stark: The entirety of Avengers: Endgame was set up as a memorial for his death and legacy, and Spider-Man: Far From Home acknowledges the ongoing emotional impact of his loss. Yet the same conflict saw the death of Vision and Black Widow, who only got brief mentions at Stark’s funeral from their closest partners, and Loki, who got a passing mid-movie mourning from Thor that felt more like a message to audiences of “No, he’s really dead this time” than like any real memorial. While Steve Rogers was allowed to peacefully live out his days in a way that brought his arc full circle, even his final on-screen moments were centered on setting up the continuation of his Captain America mantle. As the MCU has entered Phase Four, they have been working to give these characters the closure that they deserve. But like Black Widow, even the TV series expressly focused on mourning and processing have been lessened by their need to set up future stories.
WandaVision initially seemed to be heading toward a fulfilling memorial for Vision. The focus on Wanda dealing with her grief over his loss led to powerful (and much-memed) moments, with a final scene where she starts to accept his loss and move on. But her struggles were cheapened by the heavy telegraphing of his eventual return, and the show’s late-season efforts to set up Scarlet Witch, one of the Marvels, and (possibly) the Agents of Atlas. Thanks to a compressed shooting schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WandaVision also had to cut scenes involving its strangely resurrected Quicksilver, denying that character any closure or continuation.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier worked to expand on the closure for Steve Rogers, but the show’s leads were forced to do so by proxy. Struggling through their own masculinity to speak about how they felt about the man himself, Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson instead discuss his legacy, mantle, and shield. So instead of giving them and the audience a chance to mourn Rogers’ possible death of old age, the show became almost entirely about justifying the future of the Captain America title, along with a heavy focus on setting up U.S. Agent, the Power Broker, and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine.
Disney Plus’ series Loki resurrected its title character through a time-loop, but it doesn’t give him any sense of closure, either. The continuation of his story lets him reflect on his choices, his past character development, and his relationships to others, but it spends more of its time raising questions about his future, and developing new future factors like his alternate-universe Variant Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and Ravonna Renslayer that were never answered in favor of setting up the MCU’s future multiverse situation, the major Phase Four villain, and the second season of the show. The end result? Yet another continuation that lacked any emotional closure.
None of this is to say that audience expectations should drive the narrative. That’s an easy pathway to tacky fan service. It’s obviously in Marvel’s best interest to keep teasing its upcoming projects, and to continue reviving fan-favorite characters rather than killing their golden geese. But the franchise’s character-driven nature is a major key to its success too, and an important part of those character arcs is being able to provide satisfying emotional conclusions to their stories, and serving those stories in the moment, as well as in some distant future.
While Marvel Studios succeeded with Tony Stark, and to a lesser degree Steve Rogers, the movies’ biggest emotional moments are consistently being undermined by shoehorned-in trailers for the next arc. With Black Widow seemingly destined to be the series’ first female hero who will stay dead, Black Widow’s ending feels particularly insulting to her legacy — especially when her male counterparts are seeing their narratives brought full circle, while her memorial became a kind of comedy bit. Marvel Studios clearly wants its projects to be emotional and absorbing, the kinds of stories that touch viewers. Committing to setting up and fully honoring those big emotions, and acknowledging what they mean to long-term viewers, is just as important as future teasers when it comes to making sure the fandom keeps coming back for more.