By Nicole Ackman
This article contains spoilers for “Black Widow” and “The Hunger Games.”
Natasha Romanoff is a character that we’ve seen many times before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since she first appeared in “Iron Man 2” (2010) over ten years ago. But in “Black Widow” (2021), we see her for the first time not as a spy, an Avenger, or a friend, but as a big sister. Seeing Natasha as an older sister recontextualizes her character in the MCU thus far.
Seeing her in this role reminded me of another strong female character for whom being an older sister is at the core of her identity: Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” (2012). Natasha and Katniss are female characters who share many characteristics and the way that sisterhood is portrayed in the two films is very similar.
After many delays due to the pandemic, “Black Widow” was released at the end of June 2021. It’s a retrospective story, set in between “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) and “The Avengers: Infinity War” (2018). The film was directed by Cate Shortland and written by Eric Pearson.
In the movie, we learn that Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) spent several years of her childhood living in Ohio with Russian agents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) acting as her parents alongside Yelena (Florence Pugh) as her fake little sister. Later, the crew are united as Natasha and Yelena plan to take down the Red Room, the secretive Russian training center run by Dreykov (Ray Winstone) that turns young girls into assassins.
Meanwhile, “The Hunger Games” is based on the novel of the same title by Suzanne Collins which was published in 2008. It was directed by Gary Ross from a screenplay by Ross, Collins, and Billy Ray.
“The Hunger Games” depicts a dystopian society in which children from the districts are chosen randomly every year to fight to the death in a filmed survival game, sort of like reality television but with deadly results. Sixteen-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her 12-year-old sister Primrose (Willow Shields), or Prim, live in one of the poorest districts where children may enter their name in the “Reaping” additional times in exchange for food.
After the death of her father in the coal mines, Katniss has worked to take care of Prim and keep her sister’s name from being entered multiple times in the Reaping. But when Prim’s name is called on Reaping Day, Katniss volunteers to take her place and must figure out how to survive the bloodbath, emerge victorious, and return home to her sister.
Katniss and Natasha are not only similar characters, but also very similar as older sisters. They’re both a bit rough around the edges, guarded and closed off to most people, and very skilled because they had to be in order to survive. Both of them have a friend who helps them, Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenle) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), and is romantically interested in them but they don’t have time for romance. Both are also women who, at some point in their stories, are trying to move on from their trauma. At the end of the film, Katniss says, “I guess we try to forget” what happened in the Games and Natasha is very concerned about atoning for the “red in [her] ledger.”
We’re introduced to both characters in these films in a domestic setting. “Black Widow” opens with Natasha as a child playing in the backyard with Yelena, whereas we first see Katniss comforting Prim after a nightmare. They are incredibly protective of their younger sisters and hope to spare them the horrors of what they have experienced, Natasha in her previous time in the Red Room before going to Ohio and Katniss in the sacrifices she has made to ensure their survival.
Because of this protectiveness, they’re not above threatening people – even their parents – when they perceive that their younger sister is at risk. Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games, knowing that she has a miniscule chance of winning. But before she leaves, she also sternly instructs her mother to take care of Prim, telling her that she can’t remain detached from the world anymore like she has been since her husband’s death since Katniss is no longer there to take her place.
A young Natasha pulls a gun from a Russian soldier, threatening everyone around her including her pseudo-father Alexei to try to keep them from taking Yelena to the Red Room. “Don’t touch her, I will kill you all,” she tells them. Later as adults, Natasha sees Yelena falling and jumps off of the airship as well to put a parachute on her younger sister, rather than taking it for herself.
Yelena and Prim are not as alike as their older sisters are, but they do share some similarities. Both of them are the blonde younger sister who is more talkative and more open than their older sister. They each look up to their older sister and crave their attention. Prim is very innocent in comparison to Katniss and so is Yelena when we first see her as a child. Though Natasha is aware that their family unit is fake and for the purpose of a mission, Yelena believes that they are her real parents and sister. By the time we next see Yelena, she is a trained assassin who has been hardened by her experience but even so, she is more vulnerable emotionally than Natasha.
Katniss and Natasha both resent their parents, while their younger sisters have a better relationship with them. Both sets of parents, for different reasons, have not adequately cared for the younger sister, despite having a better relationship with her, causing the older sister to feel that she must step up to the task. Katniss resents the way in which her mother shut down after the death of the girls’ father.
Natasha resents her pseudo-parents for returning her to the Red Room, telling Alexei and Melina, “You are an idiot and you are a coward.” Meanwhile, Yelena is hurt by hearing them discuss that their family was fake and by the fact that they abandoned her as a child. She tells them, “It was real. It was real to me. You are my mother. You are my real mother, the closest thing I ever had to one. The best part of my life was fake and none of you told me.”
There are, of course, major differences between the sisters’ dynamics. Natasha and Yelena don’t spend their entire childhoods together, but later bond over their shared, though separate experiences in the Red Room. Yelena feels abandoned by Natasha and asks her why she never tried to find her after she made it out of the Red Room herself. She accuses, “You just didn’t want your baby sister to tag along while you saved the world with the cool kids.” They also bicker more because they have more of a sibling dynamic, whereas Katniss essentially functions as a second mother to Prim.
Both Natasha and Katniss could essentially fall into the category of capitalized Strong Female Characters: the sort of female figures whose only trait is being strong and aren’t allowed any vulnerability. In fact, until “Black Widow” was released, Natasha has been a tricky character in the MCU (as opposed to the Marvel comics, in which she’s had more characterization).
Until perhaps even “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), Natasha has functioned as a sex object or a love interest more than a character in her own right. She’s been everything to everyone, all in a skin-tight suit, with no real personal connections of her own. In fact, before this film, we didn’t even know that much about her.
But showing her relationship with Yelena humanizes her. When we see her grave in the mid-credits scene, it’s labeled, “Daughter, Sister, Avenger.” The order of those words feels significant. Natasha is finally a person with relationships of her own first, a spy and a superhero second. Showing Natasha with Yelena makes her feel more approachable from an audience standpoint too.
Natasha is not a character I would ever have thought to relate to before the release of “Black Widow,” despite the fact that I also am the person who tries to keep the friend group together and ends up trying to play both sides when there’s an argument. I saw her primarily as a sexy spy and love interest. But seeing her as an older sister and a daughter made me recognize characteristics in her that I also see in myself.
I’ve always understood the character of Katniss Everdeen because I, too, am an older sister to a significantly younger sister. I know what it’s like to be willing to sacrifice to ensure her well-being and to feel the obligation to take care of her. My little sister is similar to Yelena in many ways (not least the way she pokes fun at Natasha), so after “Black Widow,” I felt I had a better understanding of Natasha.
There’s another similarity between “Black Widow” and “The Hunger Games” that, at first, feels insignificant. Both movies feature a lot of hairstyles involving braids on Katniss, Prim, Natasha, and Yelena. Perhaps it’s reading too much into it, but braiding is something that has to be taught and is often passed down through families from mothers to daughters and from older sisters to younger sisters. It’s fair to assume that Katniss taught Prim to braid and perhaps we can guess that Natasha taught Yelena too.
Natasha and Katniss’s love for their younger sisters makes them more relatable and approachable as characters and gives them motivation for their actions. The main difference between the two is that Katniss is able to protect her sister from the Hunger Games by sacrificing herself, whereas Natasha is not able to save Yelena from the Red Room. Despite this, Nat continues to try to protect Yelena when she can. By introducing the character of Yelena, Marvel was able to deepen the characterization of Natasha Romanoff even in the film that serves as our goodbye to her.