This got too long for an ask, sorry!
The other day I finally finished reading the dreadful hunt for Black Widow arc, and it made me think about their relationship (mostly because every time I think of that arc, it kills a little bit of the part of me that ships it). There have always been pieces of their story that bothered me – how Bucky’s so casually able to beat her at hand-to-hand combat, how he helped train her because of strange Brubaker logic, how Alexi’s marriage with Natasha was retconned into being both arranged AND a product of brainwashing – but I still really like their dynamic. I’m fully expecting Captain America 2 to follow in Brubaker’s footsteps, but I was wondering how YOU would fit Bucky into Natasha’s origin? You’ve talked before about what you would like her origin story to be simplified down to, but Bucky never fit into that equation, and I was curious how you would make that happen. Especially since you’re anti-brainwashing, and that’s definitely a part of the origin Brubaker subscribes to.
So, uh, unexpected opinion time? I don’t have issues with the Bucky Barnes retcon factory. Brubaker added some stuff to Natasha’s past, but I don’t think he did much to change her origins.
The Winter Soldier affair is like that team-up with Wolverine and Captain America in 1942, or how Peter Parker was roommates with Brian Braddock in college, or Nick Fury and Reed Richards knowing each other from the OSS, or Carol Danvers and Ben Grimm flying a plane together pre-cosmic rays. Continuity acquires coincidences, you know? But these are all past stories without being origins, they say a little about where the character has been but do little explain where the character is always going, and why.
Natasha’s origins are Alexei, and the Red Room, and Ivan. Natasha began as an orphan of war, a soldier’s daughter. She bound herself to the Red Room to save her friend’s life, not understanding she was giving up more than her own. She met a hero-pilot during her training, and they fell in love, were wed. But that was a ruse, a way for her red masters to wed themselves to her in his place. She sharpened her grief into a weapon, with training, and practice, and time, and that is how she became the Black Widow. But you cannot have sharp grief without sharp loves, and eventually, that is what she used to set herself free. She discovered the lies of her faceless superiors, how she’d been used, and decided she had to make up for it, by doing superhero stuff. And keeping other people, other girls, from her old suffering.
There you go, that’s her origin, written out hastily, according to me. Also, since you asked for some elaboration: She had a daring affair with another intelligence officer, before she met Alexei, one summer of St. Petersburg white nights. It was before she realized what she had gotten herself into, what she was really up against— she thought she was clever enough, good enough, to disobey her superiors. She was wrong. The affair ended. Affairs do.
I don’t think any of that switches the important things around, makes the story about him, and not her. Her story has been told so many times in so many ways: it isn’t weak. It survives this.
I think Alexei is kind of a clusterfuck right now, but that’s really not Brubaker’s fault— and the entire twist of that marriage has always been that it was arranged by the KGB, though Natasha felt it genuinely. The brainwashing stuff really isn’t Brubaker’s idea either, though obviously he loves to brainwash basically everybody. I don’t really agree that Bucky’s been able to “casually” beat her at hand to hand combat. And I don’t think it’s ever implied that Natasha’s fighting capabilities sprung from a month of training with Winter Soldier and not a lifetime of lived experience. Heroes train with each other all the time, pretty much every Avenger has been taught by Captain America, it is no big deal.
The one thing I’d honestly change is that it was Winter Soldier who offered that serum to her and Ivan. That grace note always struck me as creepy and gratuitous. (But hey, also not Brubaker.)
Anyway, yeah, I wouldn’t write Bucky out of Natasha’s past (heh heh), now that he’s been written into it, or change very much at all. I just get frustrated, sometimes, when people mistake him for her origin. He’s not. He’s kind of like Budapest, in another story: a place Natasha passes through, not where she starts or stops.