So here is a thing I’ve been wanting to talk about since I saw The Avengers and haven’t been able to because I was too busy writing we were emergencies: Natasha Romanov? Is terrified of the Hulk. Let me stop right here and address the comment I least want to receive in response to this statement, and, unfortunately, the comment I believe I am most likely to get:
- No she’s not, because that fear would make her less of a badass/Yes she is, and that fear makes her less of a badass/any permutation of the idea that being afraid of things somehow negates badassery:
What? No. Human beings are afraid of stuff, the end. It’s part of the human condition. People eat, sleep, breathe, shit, and fear things. Like, universally. Even Chuck Norris, wherever he may roam, has at least one thing that is his mental equivalent of something going bump in the night. Having fear is not a determinate of strength of character; how you handle that fear is. DONE.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s first establish how we know Natasha is afraid of the Hulk. There’s the scene in the helicarrier, yeah, definitely, where she tries to keep Bruce from Hulking and then has to deal with him while Hulked; then there’s the scene afterwards, where she is visibly freaking the fuck out until she stands up and goes to beat the brainwashing out of a close friend, and yep, that’s fear, no question. But, you know what, I’m pretty sure any reasonable human not-immortal-like-Thor person would be a little bit like HOLY SHIT THAT WAS TERRIFYING AS FUCK JESUS GOD in the wake of being the target of an indestructible giant green rage monster. So, really, I think the more telling scene in her reaction when Bruce screws with her at the beginning of the movie—the degree to which her reaction is visibly, palpably one of fear is something we’ve never seen from Black Widow. And it’s not because the Hulk has showed up; it’s because there’s been the suggestion that he might. Or, to be more accurate, it’s because she’s just watched what she thought was Bruce losing control.
Because that’s what this is about, guys; that’s what it’s always about, with Natasha. Go grab yourselves some artist formerly and currently known as Prince, because this is a story about control.
So, since we’re talking Natasha in MCU here (I could use the comics, but since it would take all day and involve my Extensive And Uncontrollable Bucky Barnes Emotions, let’s not), we’re going to jump back for a second and look at Iron Man 2. Here is some shit Natasha Romanov deals with in that movie: recoding killer Mickey Rourke robots; schooling Sam Rockwell’s killer ass; spying to the tune of a drunk billionaire in a super suit destroying his house to give his buddy a present; knocking out an entire team of highly trained security guards in the time it takes poor Happy Hogan to pull a Mike Tyson on that one dude; doing a psychological profile of Tony Stark, which, for real, WORST job; dealing with all her SHIELD orders and managing Tony and Pepper’s lives; DO I NEED TO GO ON. And the only time we see her wrong-footed, even for a second, is when Tony shoves his sorry, self-destructive ass into that race car. Pepper demands to know if Natasha knew about this, and Natasha’s response—in one of her more emotional moments of that film, given that she’s visibly uncomfortable to admit it—is, “This is the first that I’ve known of it.” She says it like she wishes she didn’t have to; it’s both almost apologetic and almost furious, indicating that Natasha hates surprises and goes out of her way to avoid dealing with them most of the time.
Now, to jump back up to The Avengers: we’ve got Natasha in the recovery room with Clint, telling him he’s going to have to level out, reminding him that yes, indeed, she knows what it is to be unmade. As this is a clear acknowledgement of Black Widow’s comic-canonical extensive history of brainwashing, we’re going to go ahead and count that as fact within the MCU. Now, while I obviously don’t know what it’s like to be brainwashed, y’all have probably figured out that it’s a topic that fascinates me. And the root of any brainwashing narrative is a complete loss of control—to be brainwashed, by definition, means that someone else wormed their way into your head and altered your thoughts and actions according to their desires, not your own. And this has been part of Natasha’s reality since she was a child; this has been something she’s been struggling to get away from all of her adult life. It’s not any wonder she hates surprises—wouldn’t you? If you’d been proved, more than once and from a very young age, that surprises could be internal as well as external, could blindside you even from within your own mind, wouldn’t you make it your life’s work to be more prepared, more guarded, more in control than anyone else in the room? God knows I would.
And see, this is what makes Natasha’s reactions to Bruce and the Hulk such an absolutely brilliant character choice. Because it’s not the monster she’s scared of; it’s not the physical pain that frightens her; it’s not the idea of getting smashed that freaks her out. We KNOW it isn’t—the lady JUMPS UP ON AN ALIEN SPACECRAFT, she looks at a monster easily 50 times the size of the Hulk and offers up a calm, “I don’t see how that’s a party,” she doesn’t hesitate to go beat the Loki out of Clint, DID I MENTION ABOUT THE SQUADRON OF DUDES IN IM2, WHAT ABOUT THE MORON GIVING HER EVERYTHING AT THE BEGINNING OF THE AVENGERS, seriously I could go all day with what a badass she is. The Hulk doesn’t frighten her because he’s physically scary—the Hulk frightens her because he is the literal embodiment of her worst fear. Bruce Banner is always angry, because he’s always on the edge of being taken over by another consciousness, and that fate—that constant not knowing, that constant doubt, that repeat of waking up not knowing what you’ve done or why you did it or who you are—is what Natasha has been running from since that fateful day when she and Clint refrained from killing one another.
But here is the amazing thing about Natasha—we only see it twice. I want you to really think about that; in fact, I want you to try to imagine what the literal manifestation of your worst fear would look like. Take the thing that leaves you the most shaken, that haunts your nightmares, and give it a name and a face. Do you have that image? Okay, great—now imagine not only trying to confront that fear, not only trying to work around that fear, but to actually work with it. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it with any degree of effectiveness, but Natasha not only manages it flawlessly, she treats Bruce as a comrade and an equal, as a teammate. We see the fear two times, and only for a few seconds, before she manages to tamp it down and continue to be seriously the most efficient operative SHIELD could possibly have hoped for.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t define bravery as the absence of fear. I define it as doing what needs to be done DESPITE your fear, as looking your fear in the face and saying, “No, you know what, I am the boss of you,” as having fear and overcoming it. And this is why, as far as I’m concerned, Natasha Romanov wins Bravest Avenger, in addition to Biggest Badass, Savviest Spy, and Hero Of This Goddamn Movie.
In conclusion: Black Widow, you are an inspiration, and if your film doesn’t happen, I will salt the fucking earth. Keep on keeping on, girl—your flaws and fears and massive control issues only add to your awesome.