Future!Natasha: The lesser-machines— less-thinking— don’t know it, but there is a war going on, Natasha. And we are fighting it on two fronts. The past, from which you came, is in constant conflict with our future… an outlier of its romance with change. And the future— just like any future— seeks to erase the stain of old sins. THese are not philosophical musings, but real things. People— and more importantly, ideas— are dying.
Natasha: Any chance of you checking out?
Future!Natasha: Oh, they made me in your image, Natasha— can you imagine any version of you forgetting how to survive? We hedge our bets, don’t we? You and I— we make it through.

This encounter with the bad robot Natasha of the far future stabs at the core of Black Widow’s character. She is, to the end— to this end— a survivor, a mercenary, willing to deal with the enemy and turn sides to ensure her existance. The future Natasha, like the Natasha of the past, yearns for freedom. But the freedom to do what? She has no agenda we see but continuing. Hickman’s dark mirror for Natasha, then, isn’t evil but amorality. It isn’t Natasha’s whites turned to black, but her shades of grey that are switched.

This scene forshadows a lot directly, from the encounter with future Franklin next issue to Tony Stark’s imprisonment in New Avengers #26. But I thinkt he most interesting thing it sets up is that, when the world is ending, when time runs out, our Natasha doesn’t make bargains to survive. She decides to go down with the ship.

From Avengers #31, by Jonathan Hickman and Lenil Yu.

Hercules: Still the mortals stop to stare at me! Is my appearance somehow amiss?
Wanda: On the contrary, Hercules! As the slogan says, you must be doing something right!
Clint: Well, pretty lady, it looks like you get stuck with nothing but a plain-clothes archer!
Natasha: I shall try to survive, my darling… as long as you keep paying me compliments!

From Avengers #46, by Roy Thomas and John Buscema.

Crystal: I feel like a fool for bring this all up.

Nonsense. Never denigrate your concern for your friends, Crystal. It’s quite special. Now why don’t you go get your daughter and bring her here for a visit?

She’s very sweet, Black Widow. But does she have what it takes to be an Avenger?

Crystal may not be fron the cold, tough world of espionage like you and I, Carol… but Captain America and I have total faith in her.

Well, that’s good enough for me.

To return to Avengers: I ♥ the 90s, one of the minor plotlines I did like was the way Natasha went to bat for Crystal. Here’s an example of how Natasha finds kindness much easier to champion in others than in herself.

From Avengers #348, by Bob Harras and Kirk Jarvinen.

Do you know for how many issues Black Widow led the Avengers?

Natasha takes over the team in Avengers #348 and remains chairperson until the end of the volume in Avengers #402. That makes 54 issues. This number is a bit deceptive, though, since this was the High 1990s, the age of leather jackets and maximum crossovers, and so a lot of the Avengers plotlines spill out into other series. For example, Natasha actually gets the Avengers job in Captain America #402, right before Steve takes a vacation and becomes a werewolf:

Steve: On another topic, I’ve decided that was pretty good advice you gave me the other day, and it would do me a world of good to take a short leave of absence from the team. That is, if you’re willing to run things in my absence.

This scene actually illustrates a lot of the issues I have with Natasha’s characterization in the Bob Harras Avengers run. As a leader, Natasha is shown as confident and capable: when Steve returns from his leave of absence/lycanthropy, Natasha retains the leadership job, and she never actually needs to call for help. She doesn’t suffer through the insecurities arc that a lot of new Avengers leaders get strung with.

But Natasha often comes across as a Steve-substitute, rooted in “what Steve would do” rather than her own background and personality. This comes out more whenever she’s actually talking to Steve. For example, the reason Steve leaves the team for a while is because Tony Stark et al. “betrayed” him by being willing to kill the Supreme Intelligence to save the world. For whatever reason, Natasha is Steve’s cheerleader in this, even though her willingness to kill is a defining character trait since her very first Avengers appearances. Harras never gets into the bones of those differences, and so his Natasha seems a bit hollow.

The other thing is that Natasha doesn’t get a whole lot of panel time even while she’s the chair person. She seems like a very held-back kind of leader, which I think does make sense, and the bulk of the character intrigue in this era surrounds a Crystal/Black Knight/Sersi love triangle which, I think, um. Also, the plots don’t always make sense. The Harras run does have kickin’ rad jackets and a few nice moments for Natasha if you’re willing to pick through the crossovers.1

Natasha: Let me see that number.
Hercules: Natasha! Surely thou dost not intend—

As the book dovetails into Onslaught the roster and writing become more incomprehensible. Natasha gets a plot where she’s jealous of a bio-duplicate of Madame Masque because Hawkeye, somehow, and then disappears from the final issues while a more iconic Avengers team gets transported to a hell dimension where Rob Liefeld has absolute creative control.2

Despite being a completely competent leader for fifty issues, and despite being basically erased from the book when everything bad went down, Natasha is blamed in-universe for the fake-out death of the Avengers, continuing a franchise tradition of blaming fictional women for bad editorial decisions.

The arc Natasha gets in the wake of the Avengers’ demise, in Thunderbolts and Daredevil, is actually better than all of her Avengers plotlines, though, and returns Natasha to her core themes of deception, loss, and survival. As far as “strange 90s character directions” go, Natasha made it out alright. During her tenure as chairperson, Steve became a werewolf, Tony went evil and had to be replace with an alternate universe teen version of himself, and Jan became a literal bug person. So, you know, you take what you can get.

Panels from Captain America #402 and Avengers #355.

1. The lady Natasha sets Hercules up with turns out to be a divine real-doll custom created by Zeus because 90s, I guess.

2. For whatever reason, the “Natasha is jealous of edgy anti-hero Madame Masque” plotline is continued in the Avengers/Thunderbolts crossover Nefaria Protocols. It was probably her biggest mistake as Avengers leader, but I don’t think she can be held responsible for any of her actions while being drawn without a spine.

Tony: According to his rap sheet, that squirrel of a man has been to prison six times. He doesn’t squeal. It’s against his religion. He’s not going to talk to you.
Clint: I’ll talk to him.
Natasha: No, Hawkeye. This is my area of expertise.
Clint: Great. I’ll come with you.
Natasha: No.
Clint: We’ll play good cop/bad cop.
Natasha: No. It’ll just be a minute.
Natasha: Okay, so here’s what’s what…
Clint: That was fast.

From Avengers Assemble #4, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley.