SPOILER ALERT: ‘Age of Ultron’ has a serious Black Widow problem

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Can Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron deliver like the first one did, or is it likely to get lost in this summer movie season against players such as Jurassic World and Mad Max: Fury Road? And after all this talk of Black Widow getting left out of merchandising for the film, is she given a half-decent, not to mention respectful storyline? The answers are more difficult than you can imagine, so brace yourself.

The Avengers have once again assembled. After Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) attempts to create an A.I named Ultron (James Spader) that will protect the world, it decides to turn on its creators to take over everything and destroy the super team for good. Together, Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) have to stop Ultron before he reshapes the world in his own robotic image. Standing in their way as well are the strange Maximoff twins, Wanda and Pietro (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson) and the mysterious Vision (Paul Bettany).

There is no denying that the movie starts off with a real bang, right in on the action as the gang raid a Hydra base in a snowy forest. It sets the bar and each action set piece proceeds to meet it, showing off fun and creative ways for the fighting to flow between each character working together, such as Captain America and Thor using their shield and hammer in tandem. In the final battle, we also get a 360 shot that, while maybe not as thrilling as the sweeping continuous battle shot in The Avengers, is a pretty fun sequence of our heroes taking down robots from every possible angle.

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Scarlett Johannson and Joss Whedon on set

The writing is typical Joss Whedon, and I mean this both in a good way and a bad one. He hits in on the snappy banter, but he also returns to the same plot beats again and again, making the writing a little thin in some places and giving us very muddled wider themes and character arcs (more on this real soon). It also seems as though Whedon is completely and possibly willfully ignorant of what has happened in the MCU in the intervening years since his last directorial offering, as none of the character development has being carried over.

As someone who loved Captain America: The Winter Solider, I found both Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff very mishandled. Gone is their shared camaraderie, and Whedon doesn’t seem to realize that just because Cap is from the 1940s, that doesn’t make him exactly like an old man. Making him like one is a cheap joke and it doesn’t work.

Also, after four films charting Tony Stark’s battle with his demons and egocentric failings and insecurities, seeing him once again make the same mistakes is unwelcome. However, there is a delightful surprise in that Hawkeye finally gets to have his moment. After only getting to join in the big end battle in the first film, this time he gets a subplot that provides the most effective emotional arc of the film and some of the best one-liners.

The new players are decent as well. Ultron is very entertaining and borderline creepy at times with how jokey he is. There is a deliberate parallel drawn between him and Iron Man in terms of his flippancy, but at the same time, he is a very deliberate threat to our heroes. The Vision is also a surprise and the decision to have him derived from JARVIS is a natural fit, allowing Paul Bettany to have a bit more of a presence in the films than he did previously.

Wanda and Pietro, meanwhile, are given a sketchily drawn backstory, but their powers are nice and different from what we’ve seen in the films so far. As origins go, it’s not much, especially compared to their comic origins, and it is one of the weaker parts of the film. There’s also a nice supporting turn from Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue (a.k.a. Klaw), enemy of Black Panther, that he really infuses with a lot of humour and charm.

IT’S OUTDATED, IT’S INSULTING, AND WHAT MESSAGE DOES IT SEND TO YOUNG GIRLS WATCHING THEIR HERO, BLACK WIDOW, SAY THINGS LIKE THAT?

On a less funny note, let’s get to Natasha. What we knew about her past and Black Widow training was already pretty grim prior to this film. Taken from a young age and trained until she is able to kill without remorse, Natasha has a lot that she wants to atone for. Here we have her little romantic sid plot with Bruce Banner which, while wholly unnecessary, isn’t as bad as I thought it would be, thanks entirely to Johansson and Ruffalo’s natural charm and talent. But during a conversation where Bruce tells Natasha that the Hulk is a monster and that his condition means that he will never be able to have children, she replies that she can’t either, having been sterilized as a “graduation” from her training. She ends this story by asking him, “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”

So just to clarify: Natasha basically says that out of all the things that she has done, it is the fact that she is unable to have children, something which was done to her, which makes her a monster. This is a really damaging statement. To equate “normal” womanhood with being a mother and that any inability to (and possibly choice not to) have children is an aberration on par with turning into a city-destroying monster. It’s outdated, it’s insulting, and what message does it send to young girls watching their hero, Black Widow, say things like that? Even if we take it as what Natasha feels about herself, rather than a statement about womanhood in general, there are still so many better ways it could be expressed than using that word.

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Black Widow in a flashback

I have seen the film twice now and wondered if maybe it was just a poorly worded sentence. But other people I’ve been with have said the same thing: the statement and its message are very wrong and it is, quite simply, bad writing.

The movie ends on a springboard that I think has a lot of potential to tell more interesting stories with the Avengers, ones that don’t necessarily revolve around the Avengers being in conflict with each other. However, compared to what’s gone before and what’s to come, it just feels like a stepping stone and in many ways, not the most solid one.

 

All photos courtesy of Marvel.

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9 responses to “SPOILER ALERT: ‘Age of Ultron’ has a serious Black Widow problem

  1. I think that her question about being a monster was not saying that being forcibly sterilized made her a monster, but that the entire way she was raised/trained wherein being sterilized was considered a necessity to do a good job of killing without feeling… that all of that made her a monster.

    • They really didn’t make that clear if that was the case. But with the way that she got on to the topic from Bruce saying he can’t have kids still makes it feel like it’s more about that.

      So it’s either bad characterisation, or sloppy writing.

  2. I have to say, I never got the impression that she was saying being infertile made her a monster. Then again, I’ve had the chance to watch Agent Carter, where you get a lot more detail on the horrors of the Black Widow program. Still, I agree that the chance of someone interpreting it that way is a definite possibility, one that they should have treaded more carefully. I definitely agree that the character arcs could have been handled better. Then again, the film can only be so long, and the reality is that 95% of the audience really just wants to see the Hulk tear shit up.

    • There’s nothing else on the “graduation” thing in Agent Carter, but you do see the young girls engage in killing their classmates.

      I know I’m certainly not the only person who took the “infertility is monstrous” reading, some have also had a much harsher reading of the film overall that I didn’t have, especially the Bruce and Natasha romance. It definitely is a case of personal reading and interpretation of a film.

  3. Some good points in the article overall, but I didn’t understand her monster comment to be a commentary on women who can’t/choose not to have babies. I thought she was saying more that being a part of thus training programme that teaches you to kill without question and remorse, and that forcibly takes away your choice to procreate or not just to graduate was a programme that she went through and didn’t really rebel against it until much later when she had already become this ultra spy. Having her view point now she feels she was a “monster” for being complacent and not trying to get away from the program when she learnt that she would have to kill without question and be forced to be barren …. Basically she was OK with an organisation taking away her right to choose and think critically, not that women who choose not to have babies (or can’t have babies) are monsters.

    • If it was a general feeling of being a monster due to the assassin training she’d gone through, then it could have been much, much clearer.

      The whole “we are the monsters” thread that gets brought up a few times by characters in the film is a very thin one and not the most effective one to begin with.

  4. Pingback: Being a “monster” to Joss Whedon online to support Black Widow is not okay | Cinefilles·

  5. I am sorry, but I feel that in this day and age everyone does their very best to find something they consider offensive. I think it’s become such a problem that people go so far as to read into something that isn’t there and take something the complete wrong way in order to find something offensive. I think they do it to try and find a cause to stand up for to fulfill some self importance or make them feel more sophisticated. With all that said this movie is one of those subjects. Maybe you have no understanding of the character or the source material so it could just be ignorance or maybe you completely ignored everything else in the scene when you heard her start talking about being made sterile. I’m assuming it’s the latter. She was trying to relate to Bruce Banner that is why that was relevant. Bruce feels he had created a monster when the Hulk accident happened. She was telling him all this to show how far these people went to make her the ultimate killing machine. Ultimate killing machine = monster. The fact that she even says after telling him they made her sterile that they did this to make the killing easier proves that this is the way the scene is to be taken. She isn’t saying she is a monster because she can’t have kids. She was using that as an example of how far they went to make her a killing monster. Also, it was to relate to Bruce. So stop. Please. You are wrong.

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