I had a lot of conversations with Joss about what she sees in Banner. Or why is she, at this point in her life, able to be open in this way? We both followed that storyline with a lot of confidence that it was the right arc for my character up until that point…

You know, I’m happy that people scrutinize the Widow’s storylines and care about it and are invested. I’d much rather it be like that than have a kind of “meh” reaction. For me to have people say that would be, ouch, you know? Everything that I’ve done with the Widow, to me makes sense. It’s in line with active decisions that I’ve made for the character. I’ve been able to develop this character very closely with Joss and [Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo].

Scarlett Johansson, on Age of Ultron, fan reaction, and the creative input she has on the character

I know MCU is not your primary interest, but I was wondering if you watched the extended scene with Bruce and Natasha from AoU? I personally hated “the dead” line. It felt like Natasha was willing to give up atoning for her past just to run away with Bruce, which goes against literally all her characterization so far, in both movies and comics.

I think fandom sometimes takes the scenes they don’t like in Age of Ultron out of the larger context of Natasha’s arc within the movie and also within MCU as a whole. The argument becomes, basically, that Natasha is so dedicated and so selfless and so driven by her quest for redemption that it’s impossible for her to turn anywhere left of the mission. That it’s impossible for her to even think it.

Part of the issue is that fandom and pop culture criticism have problems evaluating female narratives without zooming in on the “female” part. We have so many lists of tropes against women, and we analyze by fitting their stories into the patterns we do not like. This is bad for feminist criticism and female characters alike, and it intensifies whenever romance is involved. The ship war reflex these days is to argue any relationship you don’t like is problematic. So you get people insisting that Natasha being brainwashed so all the files she released in TWS are fake and she was actually born in 1929 and was trained by Winter Soldier but doesn’t know it doesn’t undermine her character agency or heroic arc, but Natasha having feelings and acting on them does. It’s how you get supposedly pro-Natasha rants that make her into nothing more than Hulk’s boob-trampoline. There are problems with Bruce/Natasha but they’re mostly the same problems that infect the whole of Age of Ultron, namely, that it’s hard to build believable character arcs and the space for six dozen other movies at the same time.

Because Natasha wanting to run away with Bruce isn’t about Bruce, or her sudden need to be fulfilled as a footnote in a man’s story. It’s about Natasha. And Natasha’s storyline isn’t about complete selflessness, total devotion to the mission, it is about the dangers of putting the mission before everything. She tried to escape the Red Room by following SHIELD’s orders. She dedicated years of her life to walking the straight and narrow, but they did not make her happy and they did not make her kind. Natasha saw that in The Winter Soldier, how she was shifting parts of herself aside to follow orders, how she was protecting herself by never giving her real self a voice. She was staying alive, not necessarily surviving. Then it turned out SHIELD was HYDRA all along and she hadn’t been able to tell the difference. Let me repeat: she hadn’t been able to tell the difference.

Of course in CA:TWS, Natasha had her big good guy moment. No more secrets, no more hiding, complete and difficult transparency. By releasing those records, she takes symbolic control over all her past heroism and all her past misdeeds. But releasing the records wasn’t her idea, it was Steve’s. And she leaves that film alone, unsure of where she needs to go, but determined, I think, to figure that out for herself.

When we meet her again in AoU she hasn’t figured all of that out. She doesn’t even try to lift Mjolnir, remember, she doesn’t need to ask if she’s worthy. Then she’s forced to relive her past trauma, and it’s no wonder that she goes back to the beginning, and wonders whether any of it has been worth it, whether she’s ever been any good at all. And for a moment she stops thinking about trying to be better and wonders instead about trying to be happy. It’s not something we’ve seen her think about, before, because she’s kept that part of herself locked away. Wanting something opens you up, makes you vulnerable. But Natasha has always been vulnerable, always wanted something, and she’s learning that one mistake at a time.

Natasha has had moments of “weakness” like those in Age of Ultron in the comics before, absolutely, times when she thinks about chasing her own happiness instead of the harsh arithmetic of redemption, the weight of her ghosts. After all, carrying ghosts doesn’t bring the people they belong to back. You can see this as recently as Black Widow #17, but it goes back to the sixties. (Bruce is a sort of parallel to Matt: something she deeply wants that it would lessen her to have. Something she ultimately walks away from.)

Like all Marvel heroes, Natasha has suffered some imperfect stories. And like all Marvel heroes, Natasha’s power comes from her tragedy. She sharpened herself on lies and violence, and now lies and violence are all she has to fight back. She hasn’t always trusted her own moral compass, and she doesn’t see herself as a hero. So Natasha followed orders more than her own wants. Good is not something you are, it’s something that you choose. Natasha has to work, now, to be more than a mission. And that means she cannot kill her selfish impulses, because they’re reminders she has a self. But Natasha can choose not to follow her desires into the daylight. And in the ending that is not an end, that is what she does.