I was blissfully ignorant of most of the gender-related criticisms of Avengers: Age of Ultron for several days after its release. When Andy did his great review of the movie, my comment lauded Black Widow as my favorite character in the film — something that, at the time, I didn’t think about as being controversial.
But it is. Black Widow has become the center of the criticisms and debates over the films since its release, culminating in a some Twitter squabbling that apparently crossed some lines. Two writers whom I enjoy and respect, Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta, wrote a scathing critique of Natasha’s treatment at io9. Some of their complaints are inarguably fair and I agree with; the conspicuous lack of Black Widow merchandise has been fairly embarrassing. Stuff like that and the lack of a woman-led film (Marvel’s first attempt will be Captain Marvel in late 2018 — 10 and a half years and many male-driven films after the MCU’s inception) does suggest that on the whole, women simply have not been a priority for Marvel.
But as for Natasha in Age of Ultron itself, I differ wildly. My point here is not to argue that Woerner, Trendacosta, and other similar commentators are wrong in their criticisms. I find few things more offensive than members of privileged class telling a minority or underrepresented class how they should feel about something that offended them. So as a male, I certainly think there’s an element of this conversation that will never affect me the same way. Rather, I’d just like to share why the character’s arc in the movie had such a radically different impact on me. Some spoilers included.
Natasha was the biggest hero of Age of Ultron to me. The film tried hard to blend the heroic and personal sides of these characters’ lives, with mixed success. Bruce is still struggling with the destructive force within him, afraid to let it out even in service of the team’s heroic efforts and failing to keep that fear from affecting his ability at a relationship. Clint is revealed to have had a happy family all along, but fears that his doing his duty with the Avengers might cause him to lose them. Wanda and Pietro are struggling with the desire to avenge a lifetime of pain and loss while remaining good people. It’s a central theme of the film: the idea of war within one’s self playing out simultaneously with war with outside forces.
But only Natasha and Clint really seemed to have achieved a peace in their struggle. And while Clint definitely struggles to leave his happy family knowing he might never return, his struggle still seems the easier of the two; he has a loving, supportive wife who can accommodate all the the craziness in his life. But Natasha has far more to contend with as she tries reach a sort of balance. Her past (more on it later) is far darker than Clint’s, as far as we know. And her present love interest isn’t a calm and accepting source of encouragement, but a man too damaged by the knowledge of what he is to possibly open himself up to her. So her finding a sense of calm purpose is probably the most impressive character trait to me that anyone displays in Age of Ultron.
And her sense of purpose really pops on screen. She knows what she did, and what was done to her, but it doesn’t stop her from pursuing what will make her happy in the present: namely, Bruce. While Bruce’s hesitation is understandable in the context of the film (which shows us again how dangerous the Hulk can be), the fact remains that he does let it get in the way of his happiness. Natasha could have let her past do the same, but she doesn’t. She has a stronger sense of self than Bruce, maybe than any of the Avengers, and it guides her. Her great one-liner during the team’s attempts to lift Thor’s hammer — “That’s not a question I need answered” — is comic relief, sure, but it also speaks to the essence of her character relative to her teammates.
Yet as Black Widow, she never lets those personal issues get in the way of her job. She’d be willing, in her personal life, to leave all the heroism behind and start a life together with Bruce. But she recognizes that there’s a time and place for a happy ending, and theirs hasn’t come yet. I don’t think Bruce was likely to run away with Natasha regardless, but I can only imagine that her pushing him off a ledge to force the change to the Hulk was not any boost to the possibility of their relationship. Bruce hates and dreads that change even when it’s necessary, and with the world on the line, Natasha put his personal feelings second.
All of this is without even mentioning how incredibly competent Black Widow is at all aspects of superheroing, from saving Cap’s ass against Ultron to working her captivity to the team’s advantage by alerting the others of her (and Ultron’s) location. She flat-out kicks ass. This includes her ability to calm the Hulk. I think perhaps too much is being inferred from the reference as a “lullaby” as if Hulk were her surrogate child. If anything, I think AoU went out of its way to show us that the Hulk is far beyond a mere child throwing a temper tantrum. Seeing the massive destruction he wreaks in the Hulkbuster fight makes Black Widow’s skill all the more impressive. Her rapport and self-assurance with the Hulk accomplishes what takes extremely heavy advanced machinery from Iron Man to do — subdue the team’s strongest member — and without the massive amounts of collateral damage. That made her less of a motherly stand-in and more of an even bigger badass to me when watching.
But let’s finally talk about the big reveal that bothered many: that the culmination of her Black Widow training involved a forced sterilization to prevent her from ever getting pregnant. She confesses this to Bruce in a conversation that ends with her telling him that he’s not the only monster on the team. It’s not hard for me to see how badly this can all be taken. But I think there’s a conflation occurring that I don’t think is the way the movie intended this scene to read; at least, it’s not the way I read it.
The flashbacks to Natasha’s backstory were confined to a fairly brief sequence of images, and Natasha’s later explanation about the sterilization. I think it’s worth noting here that more than an hour was cut from the film, so I expect/hope Whedon’s original version was a bit more expansive. But confining ourselves to the theatrical version, we still saw more than just the no-pregnancy issue in her backstory. Natasha was clearly trained strictly and brutally, with at least one implication that she was probably asked/forced to kill a hooded and bound man. I think that’s absolutely crucial context to the sterilization issue. A big criticism of that reveal was that it takes away the idea that Natasha simply chose not to have children. But never does she say she even wants kids; she reveals her sterilization as a means of relating to Bruce’s fears of not having a future together. (It’s not clear if this would still be the case, given the character’s changes since the movie, but The Incredible Hulk gave us a scene where even having sex was a problem for Bruce because of the elevated heart rate.) The line about being a monster didn’t seem like it followed simply from the sterilization, but from her backstory as a whole. This is a character who was programmed to be a killer, and performed that task for years. The sterilization reveal felt like a big blow to me, and it wasn’t because it meant Natasha can’t have kids; it was was because it meant she never even got the choice.
And that’s the tragedy of the Black Widow I think. She’s a character for whom choice was long removed. She didn’t get to choose whether to learn to kill. She didn’t get to choose whether to not have kids. Maybe she would have done a lot of things the exact same way if she had gotten those choices, but she never had them; she was made to be the perfect spy and assassin, as artificial and unconscious of a creation as the Hulk itself. And that’s why she relates to Bruce as them both being monsters.
That backstory, in turn, plays back into why her inner peace impressed me all the more. She’s lived a life of hell, having her choices taken away and being forced to become certain things (a killer) while being forced to never have the chance at being other things (a mother). Yet, to paraphrase Pinocchio/Ultron, now she’s free. And unlike so many of her male counterparts, she’s actually making the most of the ability to make her own choices. Given actual agency, she chooses to play a major role in the team’s successes, but she also chooses to chase personal happiness that might someday take her away from that life. Joss Whedon has a history of strong heroines, but his greatest successes have involved walking the line to make his women characters strong and tough, but still allowing them to be human and vulnerable. I thought he walked that line brilliantly again with Black Widow here.
Age of Ultron tries to take the Avengers and make them larger than life. But to me, its greatest success was on that smaller, more personal level with Natasha, and that’s why she was the highlight of the film for me. But Marvel’s failures with its female characters on a larger scale still leave me understanding of the far less sympathetic interpretations of her AoU role, even though I ended up on the opposite extreme. As much as I liked her in Age of Ultron, how much more nuanced and better developed could that backstory have been if Marvel had made a Black Widow solo movie years ago?