The Entire Black Widow Timeline Explained

Natasha Romanoff is a founding member of the Avengers and one of the earliest heroes introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, first appearing in 2010's "Iron Man 2." Before Captain America, before Thor, even before Hawkeye, there was the Black Widow — the first of Marvel's mighty super spies. We knew almost from the beginning that Black Widow started out her career in Russia, but her early exploits went largely unexplored (except for a handful of brief mentions) until her 2021 solo feature film.

A close ally of Steve Rogers and an even closer friend to Clint Barton, Black Widow has lived a life full of torn loyalties that often led to momentous decisions. She's constantly forced to choose between conflicting sides, between duty and honor, and between her past and her future. After "Avengers: Endgame," we may have seen the last of Natasha Romanoff — at least in live action — so it feels like the right time to look back and examine her entire timeline in the MCU.

A false first family

Born in Soviet Russia in 1984, the young Natasha Romanoff — before she had that name — was purchased by the state from her parents as an infant after it was determined that she had great genetic potential to serve their needs. Early training helped Natasha learn to obey her masters, and soon she would have her first mission. Sent to the United States as a child, Natasha and fellow assassin-in-training Yelena Belova would be raised by adoptive "parents," a pair of Russian assassins named Alexei Shostakov and Melina Vostokoff. This fake family unit would allow the four to pose as a normal American suburban household.

This would be the only period in which Natasha would have a normal life, even if it wasn't truly real. It was here that she had a semblance of an ordinary childhood — going to school, playing outside, and in her eyes, having a loving family. But when Alexei and Melina completed their mission to steal valuable U.S. intelligence, they were discovered by SHIELD, a highly secret and highly effective spy organization. The two Russian agents scooped up Natasha and Yelena and, after a tense chase, flew them out of the country, where they would be taken in by Alexei's superior: General Dreykov, a ruthless Russian leader who oversaw the assassin training program known as the Red Room.

Training in the Red Room

Following their return to Russia, both Natasha and her "sister" Yelena were taken to be trained as assassins in Dreykov's sinister Red Room program. Incidentally, it was during this time that Natasha's birth mother — who had never stopped searching for her — would be killed by Dreykov, as the secrecy of the Red Room program demanded that its subjects be unconnected to family.

During her time in the Red Room, Natasha would become one of the best killers in the program, with unmatched instincts and marksmanship skills. She would also undergo rigorous psychological programming and conditioning that would essentially make her a slave to Dreykov. In a flashback scene from "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," we see her so mentally clouded by this manipulation that she fires at what she thinks is a paper target, but is actually an innocent hostage.

But her training in the Red Room was about more than just developing her skills. Doctors within the Academy also gave Romanoff a hysterectomy, as they did to all their assassins. The hope was that making the trainees unable to bear children would ensure the total absence of familial connections. In the end, Natasha's experiences in the Red Room did more than turn her into a programmable killing machine — they also gave her disturbing memories that would haunt her throughout her life, even into her time as an Avenger.

Defection to SHIELD

Romanoff spent years acting as one of Russia's best assassins, putting her on the radar of American intelligence agencies. Eventually she would be targeted by Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, as she had become a direct threat to their own clandestine spy operations. Agent Clint Barton — later known as the hero Hawkeye — would be assigned by Fury to kill Natasha. But over the course of his mission, Barton came to recognize not just the tremendous skill that Romanoff possessed, but that the young enemy agent also deserved a second chance. Though we don't know exactly how, Barton eventually convinced Natasha that she should defect to the United States and join SHIELD.

To earn the agency's trust, Natasha's first mission was to accompany Barton to Budapest and kill her former teacher, Dreykov. It wasn't a difficult assignment for her on paper, as Dreykov was the mastermind behind the Red Room program that had tortured her, but eliminating him with rigged explosives in his office also meant eliminating his daughter, Antonia. Romanoff hesitated at the prospect of bombing Dreykov with his young child in tow, but as shown in the "Black Widow" film, she would ultimately give the order to detonate, apparently killing both Dreykov and Antonia and officially earning her place as a SHIELD agent.

Life as a SHIELD agent

Now in the employ of SHIELD, Romanoff quickly became one of their best agents and was sent on a number of critical assignments, often alongside Barton, with whom she developed a close friendship. It was during this time that she became familiar with the newest assassin created by her former homeland: the brainwashed killer known as the Winter Soldier. During a 2009 extraction mission in Iran, the Winter Soldier — who was once Captain America's friend Bucky Barnes — ambushed her and killed her target, a nuclear scientist, by firing straight through Romanoff's stomach. Though she learned little about the Winter Soldier, she knew enough to fear him.

One person she knew a lot about was the future Avenger called Iron Man. After developing his first armored suits, Tony Stark came to the attention of SHIELD and was identified by Fury as a candidate for the Avengers Initiative. Sent undercover under the name "Natalie Rushman," Natasha became Stark's new assistant after his promotion of Pepper Potts in "Iron Man 2." Assigned to keep tabs on the budding hero, Romanoff would eventually reveal her identity as a SHIELD agent when Stark came into conflict with Ivan Vanko, and she aided him in stopping the new armored villain. However, the intelligence gathered by Romanoff on her mission led Fury to the conclusion that Stark was not suitable for his planned super-team, deeming the billionaire volatile, self-obsessed, and a poor team player.

Forming the Avengers

In 2012, Nick Fury and SHIELD began experimenting with the mysterious object called the Tesseract, discovered by Howard Stark at the bottom of the ocean after World War II. Unfortunately, activating the Tesseract summoned the Asgardian god Loki, who promptly stole it, took over Hawkeye's mind, and declared himself Earth's ruler. In response, Fury gathered the superheroes who would later be known as the Avengers. Romanoff was sent to India, where she located Bruce Banner — a scientist with expertise in gamma radiation, who also happened to be the human identity of the monster known as The Hulk. Convincing Banner to help SHIELD locate the Tesseract, Romanoff got Banner aboard Fury's helicarrier, where the two of them joined up with Tony Stark, Loki's half-brother Thor, and Steve Rogers, aka Captain America.

After capturing Loki in Germany, however, the team began to fracture. Natasha was able to trick Loki into revealing his plans to set off Banner's transformation into the Hulk, but was unable to prevent it — following an argument with Fury and the other heroes, Banner did transform, and the Hulk smashed his way through even the mighty Thor. But when Loki used the Tesseract to bring an invading alien army to Earth, the team began to gel, and Natasha joined them in the fight against the invading Chitauri warriors. After saving the day, Romanoff and the newly-formed Avengers went their separate ways, but they were now the world's mightiest team of superheroes on Nick Fury's speed dial.

Taking down HYDRA

Two years after the Battle of New York, Fury tasked Romanoff with stealing internal security files that the director had not been given access to. When Georges Batroc led a group of terrorists in an attack on the SHIELD carrier Lemurian Star, Romanoff retrieved the classified files while Steve Rogers took out the enemy soldiers. From that intel, Romanoff, Fury, and Rogers uncovered evidence that SHIELD was being secretly run by the remnants of the terrorist organization known as HYDRA, and planned on deploying three new helicarriers that would allow them to take over the planet.

Natasha had made the difficult choice to leave her homeland and join SHIELD years before, and she had done so to get away from the oppressive tyranny of the Red Room. Suddenly, she discovered that her new home in SHIELD was run by a different kind of tyrant, and engaged in actions just as despicable — HYDRA was willing to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people to achieve its ends, and they couldn't be stopped unless the world learned they still existed. Romanoff was faced with another fateful decision: If she exposed SHIELD (and HYDRA) to the public, she'd also be exposing her own past. Between her loyalty to Fury and her friendship with Steve Rogers, however, it wasn't a hard choice. Alongside Rogers and new hero Sam Wilson, she helped defeat HYDRA and take down SHIELD for good.

Sun's getting real low

As a member of the Avengers, Natasha Romanoff went on a number of missions with her new team (primarily hunting down the remnants of HYDRA) and grew closer to her teammate, Bruce Banner. Natasha was the one person capable of calming the Hulk when they needed him to revert to his human form, and their relationship slowly began to blossom into a tentative romance.

In 2015, the Avengers tracked the Tesseract and Loki's scepter to a group of HYDRA scientists led by Baron Strucker. In the process, they discovered a pair of superhuman twins named Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, the former of which had the ability to induce nightmarish visions in her enemies. After an encounter with Wanda, Romanoff was terrorized by traumatic thoughts of her time in the Red Room, while her teammates were affected by their own disturbing memories. When the twins joined up with Ultron, a malevolent artificial intelligence created by Banner and Tony Stark, the Avengers retreated to Hawkeye's secret hideaway, where Natasha revealed her friendship with his wife, Laura Barton. She also told Banner about her training in the Red Room and discussed their potential future together.

Romanoff would later be captured by Ultron, but still proved instrumental in his downfall. After defeating Ultron and his robot army, Romanoff attempted to talk down the Hulk over the phone while he sat at the controls of a Quinjet, but he ignored her pleas to return and flew away to parts unknown.

Choosing sides in a civil war

After Ultron's defeat, Romanoff found herself an elder statesman on a new team of Avengers that now included Wanda Maximoff, the android Vision, and Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Romanoff became a leader on the team alongside Rogers, but her position next to Captain America wouldn't last long. Following a mission to Lagos that resulted in the deaths of civilians, the Avengers found themselves at odds with the Sokovia Accords, a United Nations resolution that would see them become an officially sanctioned arm of the world's governments. Romanoff advocated going along with the order if for no other reason than to keep "one hand on the wheel," but Rogers, Wilson, and Maximoff (along with a briefly retired Clint Barton) split with the team and went on the run.

With a battle of heroes on the horizon, it was Romanoff who recruited the Wakandan prince T'Challa, the Black Panther, to join them in stopping Rogers' team. But in a confrontation in Germany between the two factions, Romanoff was once again forced to choose between her loyalty to Rogers and her other friends, including Barton, and the orders of her superiors. Forced to fight Barton hand-to-hand, she was stopped by Wanda Maximoff, but ultimately prevented Black Panther from capturing Rogers and allowed him to escape. When all was said and done, Romanoff left Stark's team and struck out on her own, in defiance of the law.

Eliminating the Red Room

Romanoff and her fellow fugitive Avengers soon found themselves being hunted by an obsessed Thaddeus Ross, the Secretary of Defense. Alone and in hiding, Natasha sought the help of old friends around the globe, including former SHIELD agent Rick Mason, now operating as an independent contractor. But when she received a mysterious package and became the target of a shadowy assassin called the Taskmaster, she began a new mission to track down her adopted Soviet sister, Yelena Belova. When they met in Budapest, they realized that the Red Room was not destroyed after all, and that Dreykov had escaped Romanoff's assassination attempt back when she first joined SHIELD.

The two sisters reunited with their "parents," Alexei — suited up as one-time Russian hero the Red Guardian — and Melina (still an agent of Dreykov). The former false family worked together to stop Dreykov and take down the Red Room once and for all. To do that, however, they'd have to get past the Taskmaster (who turned out to be none other than Antonia Dreykov) as well as a new group of deadly Black Widow agents whom they also hoped to free from Dreykov's mind control. The plan succeeded — the Red Room was destroyed, and Dreykov was killed by Belova — but it also put Romanoff back on Ross' radar. He arrested her, but she escaped his custody with ease and went back into hiding.

Battle for the fate of the universe

Still a fugitive from the government and still being hounded by Ross at the start of "Avengers: Infinity War," Romanoff joined Rogers and Wilson as a team of heroes who used their expertise and abilities to act as underground do-gooders. But in 2018, the interstellar tyrant Thanos sent his Black Order to Earth to steal the Mind Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones Thanos required to wipe out half of all existing life forms, and which happened to reside in Vision's head. With fellow heroes Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange unexpectedly off-planet, Romanoff and her team stepped forward to help defend their planet once again.

Reunited with Bruce Banner, Natasha began assembling forces and making plans to prevent Thanos from retrieving the Mind Stone. Assisted by T'Challa (now formally crowned King of Wakanda) and his army of Wakandan warriors and elite Dora Milaje guards, Romanoff would hide Vision in Wakanda in a last ditch effort to defeat the overpowered Titan. Thor, Wanda Maximoff, Colonel James Rhodes, and Bucky Barnes (freed from his Winter Soldier brainwashing) all helped Natasha and her forces in their valiant defense of Vision, but in the end, Thanos simply proved too much for them. The alien conqueror ripped the Mind Stone out of the android's head, destroying him, and placed it alongside the other five Infinity Stones in the Infinity Gauntlet. Then, with a snap of his fingers, Thanos eliminated half of all life in the universe.

After the Snap

Retreating to the Avengers Compound back in upstate New York, Romanoff, Rogers, and the other heroes who survived "the Snap" licked their wounds and took stock of their situation. It wasn't pretty. Half of all the humans and animals on Earth had disintegrated into dust, and they had no plan for what came next. Even taking their revenge on Thanos didn't help matters — the Infinity Stones had already been destroyed, and the damage was done. Gone were heroes like Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Wanda Maximoff, and with Rogers struggling to cope, Natasha took on a leadership position in the Avengers, coordinating global recovery efforts and assisting cosmic heroes like Rocket Raccoon and Captain Marvel. But five years after the Snap, the pressures of leadership and the trauma of loss were clearly starting to take their toll. When Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, returned from the quantum realm with a plan to change history, Natasha gladly suited up as the Black Widow once again to save the world.

Of course, to do so, she had to first travel to Japan to recruit her old friend Clint Barton, who had lost his entire family to the Snap and who had become a violent anti-hero called Ronin. Once they were back together, however, Romanoff and the rest of the original Avengers — alongside Rocket and Thanos' estranged daughter Nebula — embarked on a mission to travel back in time and re-assemble the Infinity Gauntlet in order to undo Thanos' heinous act. 

The ultimate sacrifice

Upon journeying into the past, the remaining Avengers split into smaller teams to accomplish individual tasks. Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, and Ant-Man traveled to New York in 2012 to retrieve the Mind Stone, the Time Stone, and the Tesseract, which contained the Space Stone; Rhodes and Nebula targeted the Power Stone on the planet Morag; Thor and Rocket headed to Asgard to get the Reality Stone; and Barton and Romanoff took the Benatar — the spaceship formerly used by the Guardians of the Galaxy — to the planet of Vormyr, home of the hidden Soul Stone. There, they found the ghostly form of the Red Skull, banished there since attempting to wield the Tesseract back in World War II, who told the pair a grim truth: to obtain the Soul Stone, one of them had to die.

In one of the most tragically thrilling moments in the entire MCU, Natasha and Clint battled one another one last time, this time for the right to die. But in the end, it was Romanoff who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving her life so that Barton could be reunited with his wife and son, a final gift to him for his years of friendship and restitution for rescuing her from the Red Room. The debt she felt she owed Barton had at last been repaid, for it was he who had given her a new life as the Black Widow — a daughter, a sister, a hero, and an Avenger forever.