Natasha: You’re a good fighter. One of the best, I’m told. You’re also supposed to have a gift for strategy. But tonight, I didn’t see it. You let your emotions rule.
Laura: My… emotions.
Natasha: Don’t look so surprised. You’re not immune to anger. No one is. But you’re not a blunt force object, either. You can be better.
Laura: You. Have watched… me.
Natasha: I’ve had my eye on you for a while. I don’t ignore potential.

From X-23 #20 by Marjorie Liu and Phil Noto.

Natasha: Do you know why I’m here?
Laura: It is not to help these girls. You are the spy, Black Widow, an Avenger. The Avengers cannot stop slavery or help hurt girls.
Natasha: Neither can the X-men. But we try.

Just as a final meditation on today’s impromptu theme: one of the things Natasha’s had a special interest in throughout her superhero career is sex and child trafficking. Laura points out that this is an unusual preoccupation for an Avenger, and she’s right. This is not the kind of thing that usually gets dressed up in capes and tights. But Black Widow deals with this stuff semi-regularly, even, because she’s not a typical superhero and this is why she fights.

As much as her origin story has been muddled recently, it has, always, in every iteration, been wound around themes of control and liberation. Natasha was once a loyal servant of lies and half-truths, a perfect agent who blinded herself to her conscience and her masters’ cruelties for the sake of being a perfect agent. But she couldn’t let them tell her who and how (not) to love, and she broke free.

There’s a gendered element to this, too. The Red Room trains only women, the chemical treatments given to their best operatives drive men insane. And so the men in charge of this whole twisted scenario christen their best agents after a spider that devours her mates, something that they fear, but also demean. They sharpen these women so that they may be as tools, weapons, something manufactured and replaceable. Not women at all.

(Natasha knows she is one-of a kind, unique, and is therefore unstoppable.)

So her career in espionage gave her ability and paranoid edges, but it also commodified her. This is the basic Marvel formula: power is the gift and the curse together. And as a result, she has a special interest in keeping women from being manipulated, from having their bodies and their sexualities be treated as commodities or weapons, instead of tools of their own enjoyment. Instead of bodies.

That’s why she tries to help rescue these trafficked girls but recognizes that their trauma isn’t something that can be fixed with punching. It’s why she reaches out to Laura Kinney, who has been grown in a lab and taught to kill for other people, and offers to teach X-23 how to be useful on her own terms.

(It’s also the reason why I cringe sometimes to see her twisted around for easy ass shots, to see her uniform tweaked and modified so that we get a better view. It’s like Ms. Deconnick says about Carol Danvers: It’s bizarre. There’s a part of me that’s like, “Why do you care?” And part of me that gets angry about it. That’s not what she’s about. Or at least, I don’t think it’s what she’s meant to be about.)

From X-23 #20, by Marjorie Liu and Phil Noto.

Natasha: Don’t look so surprised. You’re not immune to anger. No one is. But you’re not a blunt force object, either. You can be better.
Laura: You have watched me.
Natasha: I’ve had my eye on you for a while. I don’t ignore potential. Come to the Avengers Academy, Laura. You were groomed to be the best. And most dangerous. I can teach you to be that… and the smartest, as well, I can teach you how to lead. It’s not such a bad thing, being useful.

There’s an interesting theme in Natasha’s phrasing, first talking about Laura as a blunt-force object, then speaking of being useful. To recall a line from Captain America #27, she describes herself (and Winter Soldier): “We were both weapons once. To be used.” And this is a central theme of her canon and character, how people are made, how they can be manufactured, and the tension between humanity and utilitarian purpose.

But in order to be used, you have to be useful. And that she phrases her offer, to Laura, this way, shows some glimmer of understanding, and also, I think, puts into perspective Natasha’s own life and choices.

From X-23 #20, by Marjorie Liu and Phil Noto.