Originally in the 60′s, Nat was the only agent identified by the codename Black Widow. It was only when Yelena came onto the scene in 1999 that the idea of more that one Black Widow came into continuity. Richard Morgan expanded on this even more in like 2005, when the Red Room retcon was introduced and Nat found out there were like 27 other Black Widows including her:
Since then, it’s mostly told that although Nat wasn’t the only Black Widow who was deployed and used by the Soviets, she was the BEST of them. Some stories imply that only the top of the Red Room class gets to claim the title of Black Widow, but it honestly depends on the story.
In the MCU it gets a little more interesting, as multiple offhand remarks point to the idea that only ONE operative gets to claim the title/graduate at a time, as all the other girls do not survive the training. We see Dottie forced to kill other girls on Agent Carter, and there’s also the caption on this tweet:
Then we have the cut scene from the Civil War novelization in which Nat tells Steve how the Red Room dropped her and the other girls in Siberia with only enough supplies for one of them to survive. So in the MCU it seems like the Red Room girls are pitted against each other until only one is left, and that girl is able to claim the title of Black Widow.
@fuckyeahblackwidow would you have anything to add to this???
This is accurate. The introduction of Yelena Belova certainly seemed to imply that Black Widow was an honorary title given to a top female agent, something of a legend in the intelligence comittee. Yelena wanted to establish her claim on the title by besting Natasha, which implies that Yelena, at least, believed there could be only one.
But Yelena’s perspective is warped, and she’s regarded by her superiors as completely disposable. Black Widow isn’t really a title or codename, but a replacable pawn. This is a repeating theme with Soviet superheroes: Red Guardian and Crimson Dynamo were long established as faceless legacies before the idea of a second Black Widow was introduced.
This was also the theme Morgan was drawing upon when he retconned 27 Black Widow operatives into existence— the theme was more about collective identity and the manufacture of these women agents than it was a Hunger Games redux. To quote Morgan, who laid a lot of the plot beats for Natasha’s MCU background: “The other thing, the idea of a whole line of Black Widows instead of just one, well that just seemed to me an obvious extension of Soviet collectivist thinking – there’s no way a society organised along those lines is going to have the same individualist bias that informs the superhero ethos. So a single mighty superspy just didn’t ring true culturally. A programme that churned them out like tanks, on the other hand – well, for me, that fitted in perfectly with the idea of old style industrial Socialism.”
So, the idea of there being only one Black Widow is sort of where Yelena went wrong, or, alternatively, can be read as an element of her post-Soviet origin point. But the MCU is a different beast, and I can see how there only being one Black Widow at a time appeals to that universe’s more streamlined continuity, and there aren’t as many explicitly Soviet elements in Natasha’s movie backstory.