Love it or hate it, #AvengersAgeofUltron left many people feeling conflicted about certain plot developments, not least of which was the romantic relationship that suddenly sprang up between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner. Some fans loved it, others hated it. Me? You can include me in that latter camp. The storyline felt forced and I never really bought the rationale given for their mutual attraction.
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But the real reason I dislike it so much is that there is another, better romance just waiting to unfold in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that has a long and storied comic book history: #BlackWidow and #WinterSoldier.
They Have A Long History Together In The Comics
It might surprise you to learn just how far back the relationship between Natasha Romanoff (or Romanova, depending on which you prefer) and James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes goes, especially if the majority of your knowledge of the characters comes solely from the movies. If you just read that and guiltily raised your hand, it's all good. That's what I'm here for. The timeline is a bit confusing (retcons, you know how they go) but let's see if we can simplify this.
As an orphan, the young Natasha accepted a deal to enter into the Soviet Government's top secret Red Room facility, where she was trained as an assassin and spy for the KGB.'s Black Widow Ops Program. And wouldn't you know it, one of her trainers was none other than Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, who had undergone the same brainwashing program and was working as a Soviet spy.
The relationship eventually blossomed into a romantic one, and there was nothing shallow or forced about it. Even after the romance ended, the pair continued to have a deep and abiding mutual affection, often working together on covert missions.
Years later, after Steve Rogers was assassinated and Bucky Barnes took up the mantle of Captain America, he struggled with the weight of responsibility, feeling that he wasn't a worthy successor due to his past as a killer. It was Natasha who helped Bucky find himself and repair the trauma in his psyche as a romance between the two once again blossomed.
Why Bucky And Natasha Are So Good Together
Remember in Age of Ultron when Natasha says this to Bruce Banner?
Had she said this line to Bucky Barnes, it would not only have made more sense, but also been absolutely fitting. Natasha and Bucky are so good together in the comics because they understand one another like no one else can, not even how Clint Barton understands Natasha or Steve Rogers understands Bucky. It stems from their shared past, and their parallel circumstances bound them together. They were both brainwashed against their will, both went through the same Russian spy program, both spent years as assassins.
But more than those shared experiences, they're good together because they understand the aftermath of those experiences. Turns out, it's not easy to have brainwashing reversed yet still leave you intact, mentally.
While they're now on the side of heroes, it's something they each continue to struggle with in their individual redemption arcs. They understand the deep self-loathing and overwhelming guilt that comes with learning you were a murderer in your previous life. The psychological damage left by a traumatic past is different for every person, but it helps if you can lean on someone who has experienced the same sort of trauma. It occasionally comes with very low moments, and throughout their history they've saved each other as many times mentally and emotionally as they have saved one another from bodily harm.
Bucky Once Broke His Own Heart Rather Than Disrespect Her
So unshakeable was their respect for one another that the great, abiding heartbreak of Bucky's life happened because he refused to hurt Natasha. Toward the end of Ed Brubaker's Winter Soldier run, Natasha is taken and has her memories of Bucky — or, as she always called him, James — permanently wiped. When he rescues her, she breaks his heart, just as he did Steve's years ago, when she has no memory of him or their deep love for one another.
Simple solution, right? He'll just restore her memories of him and their life together, the same way Steve Rogers once did for him. Easy enough in comic book continuity.
Except Bucky refused to do that to the love of his life. The one reason they were so close was their shared traumatic past of being brainwashed and having their minds tampered with over and over again. Out of respect for her and his unwillingness to ever put her through that sort of horror again, he instead chose to let Natasha continue on without her memories of him, no matter how it broke him.
Bucky's stars have often changed colors and design to indicate his current status: Traditional red Russian star for brainwashed Winter Soldier; white during the events of Civil War; red, white and blue during and after his Captain America stint. After losing Natasha, the star on his shoulder turned black with a red border. It was Bucky's equivalent of a mourning armband, a widower without his Widow. It's the star he currently wears in the comics to this day, albeit a slightly modified version.
How Could It Work In The MCU?
Naturally, the portion of their comic book relationship that was centered around the aftermath of the Civil War would work perfectly within the timeline of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it would be great to see that unfold with the Avengers or in #AvengersInfinityWar.
But I think there's a better option where their romance could play out. For years, fans have wanted to give Black Widow her own movie, and recently both Kevin Feige and the Russo brothers have commented on the fact they're very interested in developing the project. Now, while Natasha could certainly hold down a solo film on her own, I'd love to see a Black Widow and Winter Soldier spinoff movie, or a film similar in structure to #TheWinterSoldier where she headlines her own film but Bucky Barnes is essentially a co-lead. There is that one brief moment in #CivilWar in which she says to a brainwashed Bucky, "You could at least remember me!" Could there have been a hint at what's to come? It's a definite possibility, at least if the Russos have anything to say about it.
Imagine, if you will, a slick spy film that would find the pair of them heading back to Russia to uncover details of their shared, murky pasts. Or, with Hydra having its tentacles everywhere in the #MCU, maybe they infiltrate the evil organization on a covert mission. With Marvel committed to its "different genre for every franchise" approach, the possibilities are endless for a taut, fast-paced thriller in the vein of the Bourne franchise or the sexy, sultry James Bond franchise. I don't know about you, but I'd watch the hell out of that movie.