I can’t resist talking about Black Widow. I spent a lot of time following the release of the first “Avengers” defending Widow to non-believers. Many people thought Natasha Romanoff was included specifically for the male gaze, totally overlooking the fact that she outsmarted the Norse god of lies and deduced the way to close the portal unleashing alien assailants on Manhattan. She was essential to the film, and plenty of people rushed online to squash haters and sing her praises. Her co-lead role in last year’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” increased her prominence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so much so that her lack of a solo film seemed ridiculous; #BlackWidowMovie became a rallying cry.
Things are different this time around. Thanks to more than a few points in the Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the people that were previously united in celebrating Black Widow are now divided by debate. Here’s the obligatory spoiler warning. I’m going to be talking about “Age of Ultron” freely, so bookmark this until you’ve seen it if you’re one of the few people that didn’t contribute to the film’s massive opening weekend.
A lot of stuff happens to Black Widow in “Age of Ultron,” and most of it has been met with analysis (here’s even more of that!) and derision (less of that to be found below). I greatly enjoyed “Age of Ultron.” I don’t think it’s perfect, but I also don’t count Natasha’s portrayal as its greatest sin (that would be the film being as overstuffed as a Chipotle burrito). In the vacuum of my first experience with the film, I cautiously watched a love story unfold for my favorite superhero and left the theater overjoyed by where Nat ended up. I had a hunch that not everyone would share my viewpoint, because we’re all opinion-having humans, and the past few days have proven this to me. Oh boy, has it been proven!
Our own personal context affects how we intake media. I’m a cisgender man; I do not view pop culture the same way as people that identify as female. I’m not used to seeing the action heroes I relate to continually saddled with maternity/fertility storylines (Ripley with Newt in “Aliens,” or Melinda May’s recent “I’m ready to have babies now” backstory in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”). When Romanoff brings up her sterilization in an intimate conversation with Banner in “Age of Ultron,” I see the thematic continuation of her unguarded one-on-one chat with Steve Rogers at Falcon’s house in “Winter Soldier.” But just because I didn’t see red flags doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
I’m also a gay man, so I don’t think that my relationship with Black Widow is that similar to the one felt by straight men — men that, even on a subconscious level, enjoy the character’s body/face shape. Honestly, I feel that way about Bruce Banner; any affection I have for that character comes from Mark Ruffalo and those arms/that chest. I love Natasha because unlike the rest of the Avengers, she’s the one member that is simultaneously a force of nature and an underdog. Every fight is one you know she’s going to win — but only if she literally uses her entire body to fight. She’s the most inspirational Avenger to me because she embodies relentless perseverance and confidence.
That’s where I’m coming from, so all of the problematic patches from “Age of Ultron” either read totally different to me or were canceled out by awesomer moments. The three biggest complaints I’ve seen involve her love story, her kidnapping and her sterilization. Consider what follows either a valid interpretation of the text or, if you’re slightly more cynical, a look at the way my brain addresses problematic pop culture things — or a mix of the two.
First up, the love story. I can totally get behind people being turned off by this because they just don’t like Romanoff and Banner together, or because they think it supplants the unique dynamic they had in the first film with a generic Love Story. I don’t personally think Black Widow should be excused from having a love interest forever strictly because she’s the lone female member of the team. Yes, women tend to always be romanced in superhero movies. Carter (Peggy), Foster, Potts, Sif, Ross, Carter (Sharon) — a lot of women in a lot of these movies are introduced as love interests both actual and potential. Black Widow was not used as a love interest in her first three Marvel movies. Stark found her attractive in “Iron Man 2,” but his real relationship was unquestionably with Pepper Potts. In “Avengers,” some fans looked past the text and ‘shipped Black Widow with Hawkeye even though she flat out said “love is for children, I owe him a debt” when asked about him. “Age of Ultron,” which introduces Hawkeye’s wife, unequivocally proves that he and Widow have one of the few platonic mixed-gender best-bud-ships in all of superhero-dom. “Winter Soldier” is void of romance entirely, even though Natasha’s most recent squeeze from the comics is the titular bad guy.
Speaking of “Winter Soldier,” I give Whedon a pass for putting Natasha in the romance zone because of where the character is left at the end of that film. Her cover has been blown, she has nowhere to hide and every stable aspect of her unstable life has been crushed by a helicarrier. She exits that film on a quest to find out who she is and what she wants away from S.H.I.E.L.D. The walls around Romanoff that were firmly in place when she infiltrated Stark’s inner circle in “Iron Man 2” were slowly torn down in “Avengers” and “Winter Soldier.” This is a Natasha that feels fear, wants to atone and desperately seeks the trust of others. I have no problem with this Natasha, the one we’ve seen grow over a trilogy of films, try to find love.
That aside, yeah, parts of it felt rushed — like a lot in “Age of Ultron.” There are reasons to not like it that go beyond, “Black Widow should never have a love story.” Whedon tried it and, regardless of whether or not you think he succeeded, he very firmly reinforced the idea that romance will always come second to her. In the last scene Johansson and Ruffalo share, Banner asks Natasha’s to run away with him, but uh-uh, he’s talking to Natasha Romanoff. The mission isn’t over yet, it’s just beginning, so she pushes him off a ledge to turn him into the Hulk. She “needs the other guy.” Black Widow hasn’t been changed by love, she just allowed herself to feel it — and it didn’t work out. That’s all right, because she’s back in action again, ready to co-lead the Avengers with Captain America.
The damsel in distress thing holds almost no water with me. By the narrowest definition of the trope, yes, Black Widow does get kidnapped. But her five minutes of onscreen captivity should not cancel out the two actions that bookend her time in the Ultron Suite. Black Widow gets captured because she single-handedly rescues proto-Vision from Ultron and delivers him to Hawkeye’s Quinjet. Her specific skillset and quick-thinking gives the Avengers a victory in Act Two and gives them the key to Ultron’s defeat in Act Three. That same skillset ensures that her captivity is short-lived; she radios to Hawkeye using old school spy tactics and leads the team to the villain’s HQ, thus setting up the entire end battle. But I get it — if one Avenger had to get kidnapped, why did it have to be the one female Avenger? It could have been Hawkeye, sure, but do you really want to rob Natasha of that awesome bike-riding and Vision-saving badassery? The way that set piece is structured, whoever saves the casket gets kidnapped by Ultron. I want Black Widow to get that victory.
This moment reminds me a lot of Widow’s gunshot injury in “Winter Soldier,” yet I don’t recall there being a lot of discussion about her being the only member of Cap’s crew to get taken down by Bad Brains Bucky. She quickly bounced back from getting shot by placing a rocket launcher over her bullet wound and saving Cap’s life. The same happens in “Age of Ultron” when Natasha vacates Ultron’s prison right after checking in.
So that leaves us with the most controversial Black Widow scene of the film. While at Hawkeye’s farmhouse, Romanoff and Banner share an intimate and intense conversation. Scarlet Witch’s mind control caused Bruce to unleash all sorts of hell on South Africa as the Hulk and it drudged up all of Natasha’s Red Room memories. They’re both rattled and vulnerable and Widow, much like in this scene’s non-romantic counterpart in “Winter Soldier,” wants to make a connection. Banner waves her advances away, saying that he can never give her any semblance of a normal life — which includes kids. Natasha then reveals that the Red Room sterilized her as part of her “graduation ceremony,” something they do with all of their agents. They did this to preemptively strip her of attachments that could be more important than her mission and the killing. She then calls herself a monster.
The order of these reveals is very important and, as the movie is just a few days old, everyone is operating from memory alone. If I’ve misremembered this scene, I will concede this point once the GIFsets and YouTube videos are available to prove me wrong, but I’m 98% sure that her monster statement immediately follows her admitting to Bruce that she’s a murderer. I’ve seen numerous people say that Nat calls herself a monster because she is barren, but this is her acknowledging the red in her ledger out loud to a teammate for the first time. That is why she’s a monster. If I’m wrong and she’s equating being barren with being a monster, then yeah, we got a problem.
But I don’t think she is. And I also don’t take this conversation as proof that Black Widow has gone baby crazy. The only reason she brings it up is because Bruce does (which maybe BW should call Bruce out for jumping to babies so quickly when all she wants to do is maybe go on a date?) and, as I interpreted it, she offers the information to him as a way to relate to him. He can’t have kids because he turns into a green monster, she can’t have kids because she was turned into a killing monster.
As I saw it, this scene is not Widow mourning the fact that she can’t have children; nothing in previous films and nothing else in this film indicates that she wants children. This is Natasha mourning the fact that she had no choice in the matter. Black Widow is a character that is all about choices. She’s a character with a traumatic history of manipulation; the most harrowing emotional moment we’ve seen her face so far is when she learned that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been taken over by Hydra. She thought she had made a choice to stand with the good guys only to discover that she never had that choice to begin with; the bad guys were there all along. At the end of “Winter Soldier,” she chooses to expose her history in order to take down those bad guys. In this movie, we see her choose to go after Banner romantically, we see her choose to stand and fight with the Avengers, and we see her choose to stay behind and train new recruits with Captain America.
The only problem I have with the scene is that it was included to begin with. I do think it’s a totally plausible thing for an evil spy organization to pull, but it’s still a development that plays up the double standard that exists for male heroes. Banner’s sterility reveal is glossed over while Romanoff’s is played for real emotion, with Scarlett Johansson giving a gut-wrenching performance. And on the spy front, has James Bond ever been sterilized? Do male spies ever get a vasectomy? Bond’s handlers should consider it, given the fact that dude leaves a trail of DNA all over the globe (and maybe the moon? I haven’t seen “Moonraker”).
This whole discussion has turned rather nasty, and it’s not my intention to further divide a once unified front. This is how I interpreted everything in “Age of Ultron,” but the key word there is “interpreted.” My feelings aside, the fact that these moments have touched such a nerve with so many people proves that more care should have been taken with every one of these plot points, just like more care should be taken with how we discuss what made it into the film’s final cut.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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