On Writing

Dueling Death Scenes


Pic of Scarlett Johansson (Nat/Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Clint/Hawkeye) from Avengers: Endgame.
Black Widow and Hawkeye plot how to outfox each other in Avengers: Endgame

Last week, an alternate version of Natasha Romanoff’s death scene in Avengers: Endgame surfaced on Twitter. Cue the debate over which version is better. (And also a revival of the debate over which character should have sacrificed themselves. I don’t want to get into that here, but I do sympathize with Team Black Widow.)

This article cherry-picked a few tweets to claim that Marvel fans prefer the alternate version. But a quick survey of the replies and likes on @MCUPerfectClips’ post of the clip shows the opposite: most fans found the original to be more emotional and impactful.

It’s easy to understand why, if you take into account the first rule of storytelling: stories are about people. People who want something. Who meet other people who want different or opposing things. Which creates conflict to drive the story forward.

This conflict could lead to people shooting each other and blowing
things up — or it could lead to acerbic comments over cups of tea, as in Happy Hogan’s favorite show, Downton Abbey. Either way, the action starts in the characters’ motives and goals. The more the story focuses in on that conflict and the relationship between those characters, the more compelling it’s going to be. All the sword fights and shootouts and other activities that pass for “action” are just offshoots of this internal drama.

So let’s look at how this plays out in both versions. First, the setup: Natasha, aka Black Widow, and Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, are after the Soul Stone, one of six Infinity Stones that are key to beating the series’ super-villain, Thanos. And not just beat him, but reverse the events of Avengers: Infinity War in which he wiped out half of all living beings in the universe. To get the stone, they have to trade a soul for a soul by sacrificing someone they love, specifically by throwing them off a cliff. That means one of them has to die, or the timeline in which Thanos destroyed half the universe will remain the same.

Of course, these are heroes who are also good friends, so neither is going to sacrifice the other. They’re going to race to see who gets to go over the cliff in a glorious act of self-sacrifice.

Here’s the original:

And here’s the alternate version that didn’t make it into the movie. You have to watch it in two chunks, which overlap by about a minute. The important thing to know is that in this version, they end up racing Thanos for the Soul Stone.

For me, the original is far better. It focuses in on the sacrifice each character is ready to make. The dialogue and the skilled performances pull us right into the moment. The conflict between them grows for over a minute, through several beats of rising tension, before Clint tries to physically prevent Nat from making the sacrifice.

During that conversation, they reveal a lot about their motives. We see how much each character has grown over the course of the series of Avengers movies when Clint says, “Don’t go getting all decent on me now,” making a reference to Nat’s assassin past, and when he says, “You know what I’ve done.” They both have stuff to atone for. The stakes for Clint are also revealed in a natural way when he says, “Tell my family I love them.”

Nat especially makes it clear that this is her choice, a sacrifice she’s been willing to make since Thanos turned her friends to dust in the existing timeline. It also refers back to her statement in an earlier movie about wanting to erase the red in her ledger. If there’s any way to do that, this is it. It doesn’t really have anything (or much) to do with the fact that she has no family or children to mourn for her, whereas Clint does.

When the action starts, it seems much more impactful because of the depth of the preceding exchange. Everything they’re doing grows out of who they are as characters and what their immediate goals are. They’re both tough and can take hard hits, so each has to disable the other in a nonlethal way, and this shapes the short fight scene. (Some found it gimmicky and silly, but I thought it was much more interesting than a standard fight.) It also seems in character that Nat is able to outsmart Clint by trapping him at the end of the dangling wire once they go over the cliff’s edge. He can’t release himself from the wire without letting her go.

The long moments when he’s trying to hang onto her and she’s pleading with him to let her go are like knives to the heart. But in the end it’s still her choice, as she kicks off from the cliff, overwhelming the strength of his grip. The scene doesn’t have a lot of shooting and knife-fighting, but it’s filled with tension and pathos. From the realization of what they need to do to get the Soul Stone right up to the climax, the scene has a perfect narrative arc, providing both edge-of-your-seat adrenaline and raw emotion.

For me, the weakest part of the MCU has always been its cartoonish villains (go figure, it’s a cartoon!), while its strongest points are exactly these moments where the action slows down and characters and their relationships get room to breathe. So by that measure, the version without Thanos is automatically better for me.

The scene with Thanos, on the other hand, goes mostly for a big action sequence, with much less of the character development of the original release. And the briefer verbal interaction is far less compelling. Nat shouldn’t need to remind Clint that “If this works, you know what you get back.” He already knows that his family will still be alive if the Avengers change the timeline and beat Thanos. Not only is this bald exposition unnecessary, but it also makes explicit what was only hinted at in the original: that people, especially women, who don’t have families are worthless. The original was criticised for that implied perspective on women (for instance, in this Vanity Fair article), but this version is worse.

The whole conflict between Nat and Clint is cut short when Thanos appears. Now they have to beat him to the cliff’s edge, and they need to battle their way through a bunch of his minions to do it. This provides them both an opportunity for much more standard heroics, but for me, Thanos’s appearance only waters down the conflict, rather than strengthening it. The goals and the stakes become muddled and confused.

In this version’s ending, Nat also makes the choice to sacrifice herself, after having also saved Clint from a sword-wielding minion, but it seems much more rushed, and much less dramatic than in the original. There’s far more dramatic action in her one whispered line from the original, “It’s okay,” than in an hour of sword skills and futuristic weapon blasts.

Pic of Black Widow about to sacrifice herself in Avengers: Endgame

Which goes to show, you don’t need to go out in a blaze of energy pulses or light saber thrusts to have a heroic death. And in writing, you can throw in all the event and spectacle you want, but it won’t mean much if that action doesn’t emerge from character.

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