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The penultimate episode of What If...?, titled "What If...Ultron Won?," may have been the MCU's best Clint Barton/Natasha Romanoff story.
The episode also featured a surprising and fun Black Widow easter egg—to both the 2021 film and the Marvel Comics.
Knowing a bit about Red Guardian (David Harbour in the film) pays off in a big way.
Don't look now, but Episode 8 of Marvel's animated series What If..? might just have been the best Black Widow/Hawkeye story in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Look, Natasha Romanoff is always a badass, and we've got high hopes for the new Hawkeye series, but in just a half-hour episode, "What If... Ultron Won?" cast Clint and Natasha as the two final heroes in a world threatened with a seemingly unbeatable threat: an amped-up Ultron, complete with Vision's body and all six Infinity Stones.
We knew from all of those movie outings that Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) had great chemistry together, and it was nice to see that relationship still crackled with What If...?'s Lake Bell version of the character. But what worked best here was actually what put the pair at such a disadvantage in the episode itself—they had no competition. Black Widow and Hawkeye are badass, but sometimes a guy who's really good with the bow and arrow isn't quite so impressive standing next to, uh, The Incredible Hulk, or Thor. By casting Natasha and Clint as the last two, we get to see that these two really are superheroes in their own right, even without giant stature or superpowers.
The episode also provided a great moment between the characters that provided a quick payoff for MCU fans who went to see the Black Widow movie: Natasha grabbing Red Guardian's shield from the stacks of SHIELD storage. Red Guardian, played by David Harbour in the Black Widow movie, was her "father," a Russian alternative version of Captain America who posed as the father figure in her sleeper cell family. Seeing Nat grab his shield and try joking around with Clint (who wasn't having it) reminded us of the humanity of these two—they've been through pain, and at this point, Nat still wants to be optimistic, but as the episode showed as it went along, Clint was tired. He'd had enough.
The episode turns out to have a really exciting, almost Infinity War-esque structure (Ultron is victorious at the end, with a cliffhanger) that also features a subversion of a plot point we saw in Endgame (Clint is the one who sacrifices himself here, dropping from a high height to take on and destroy a sea of Ultrons). Throughout all of this, Black Widow's prime weapon/defense is Red Guardian's shield.
It adds an even further emotional layer to the episode. Granted that the episode centers on Ultron, we assume that everything up to Avengers: Age of Ultron remains true in this universe (Black Widow references a prior encounter with Zola, meaning Captain America: The Winter Soldier is canon). That means that while this Natasha hasn't reunited with Red Guardian (that happens in our main universe after the events of Captain America: Civil War), she does still have plenty of memories of him as her "father" from her childhood.
Is "What If...Ultron Won?" a better Black Widow vehicle than Black Widow itself? Hard to say, considering the What If... episode is only 30 minutes, and just kind of different in a lot of ways. But it certainly does the characters of Clint and Natasha well in ways that we've rarely seen before in the MCU–and that Red Guardian shield adds a nice touch.
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