Poor Black Widow. Introduced as a skin-tight catsuit, deemed a “monster” for her infertility, and finally sacrificed in favour of a grief-stricken revenge murderer who happens to be a dad. She doesn’t even get an original death. She’s the second MCU woman without superpowers to reject her upbringing by a tyrannical regime only to end up at the bottom of that same cliff. At least this time her adoptive family didn’t push her – though they didn’t formally mourn her, either.

It’s not exactly a surprise, since, of all the original Avengers, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff has suffered from the poorest handling. In the early days, it was a question of “where’s Natasha?“, but gradually she evolved into the peacemaker of the team. Sure, it felt suspiciously like women’s work, but at least it elevated her to an essential glue that held the team together. It’s that fundamental importance that has led to fan rumbling about the way the character’s exit was handled. Natasha’s lack of funeral, insisted Markus and McFeely, is in character. She was a “cipher”, they explained, not a public figure like Tony – despite anonymity being a tall order after you stand with a thundering demigod and the not-so-jolly green giant at the Battle of New York. And she becomes de facto head of S.H.I.E.L.D., an organisation founded in part by Agent Margaret Carter – whose work might only be partly publicly known but whose funeral was clearly a stately occasion.

Endgame Black Widow

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studios

Plus there was one last post-death indignity. One of Infinity War’s greatest fist-pumping moments in the battle of Wakanda came from Natasha, stepping in with Okoye to battle at Wanda’s side. But as “she’s not alone” became “she has backup” the awkward assemblage of all the women on Endgame’s climactic battlefield only served to remind the audience that what could have been Black Widow’s big moment – shoulder to shoulder with Captain Marvel – is awarded instead to Pepper Potts.

But let’s for a moment accept that this is all in the past – which is another country even if you do manage to visit it through the quantum realm. While we await Black Widow’s own solo outing, which can now surely only be a prequel, we do at least know that all is not lost. Marvel has certainly shown signs of more fully and enthusiastically integrating its female characters of late. So where do we look for future character development unencumbered by the kind of restrictive legacy Black Widow was forced to carry?

Until Captain Marvel, the very best female character development in the MCU happened on the small screen in the first season of Agent Carter – as near to perfect television as Marvel has ever achieved. A barnstorming first season of Jessica Jones followed (both suffered from uneven followups). Back on the big screen, Infinity War and Endgame fridged two of the most prominent female characters in quick succession – yet there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

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Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Although Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the most bloke-heavy franchises, with the scene set for a gleefully comic rivalry between Quill and Thor, Endgame made a surprisingly generous investment in Nebula. It suggests a chance to define her role as much richer than just Gamora’s tortured little sister – if James Gunn wants to take it (Mantis might be a lost cause, though). Ant-Man and the Wasp was the first MCU film to give a woman title billing, and with the arrival of Janet Van Dyne even opens up the possibility of an older woman, or mother-daughter team, taking centre stage.

There are other breadcrumb trails too. Clint Barton’s reference to his daughter as “Hawkeye” has prompted a flurry of rumours about Lila occupying the Kate Bishop comic book role in future. Zendaya stole every one of her scenes in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and looks set to do so again in Far From Home. Should there be a return to the Thor universe, it has a new queen in the form of Valkyrie, even if her character has so far been somewhat underdeveloped. Scarlet Witch is due to headline a TV spinoff with Vision. And Maria Rambeau gave Captain Marvel its beating heart and, through her daughter Monica, the promise of future female Captains.

Dora Milaje

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Still, clearly the franchise that has made the greatest strides in this arena is the one already groaning with the weight of expectation and representation: Black Panther. It packs an embarrassment of riches – Okoye and the Dora Milaje, Nakia, Ramonda, Shuri – and it does so without feeling the need to congratulate itself.

And that’s exactly where the biggest hope for the next phase rests. For Phase Four to set itself apart from other studios, and with another Wonder Woman outing nipping at Marvel’s heels, there’s a golden opportunity here. If Marvel fully commits to this shift from self-conscious inclusion to developing full, rich female characters – the sort that transform a popcorn movie into a deeply loved public property – it could be the crucial element in securing its continued leadership and dominance in the arena. And the sacrifice of Black Widow on the altar of progress might begin to feel worth it.