What follows is not a review of the new Avengers movie, which I flat-out loved. It does, however, contain some spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it’s not Spidey related. But it does need to be said. It is an editorial, and it’s strictly my own view.
Back in April, Avengers director Joss Whedon attacked the trailer for Jurassic World, implying it was sexist. Whedon took to Twitter (which he has since deactivated) and said: “… I’m too busy wishing this clip wasn’t 70’s era sexist. She’s a stiff, he’s a life-force – really? Still?”
Later, he admitted that this attack was “bad form.” Not for its content but in its visibility.
Flash forward a few weeks. Avengers: Age of Ultron hits theater screens and suddenly the very people Whedon supports and defends are attacking him for his “sexist” portrayal of the Black Widow. The mounting attacks aimed at Whedon by the angry feminists he always champions may have now chased the director off Twitter.
Live by the sword, die by the sword. And having said that, I will now defend Joss Whedon from his detractors.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is not sexist. Not in the slightest. Hell, it introduces the Scarlet Witch – one of the more powerful Marvel heroes – and she damn near gets the Avengers to fall like a house of cards. The furor has been manufactured by people who not only want to see sexism but who desperately need to see sexism in anything and everything to justify their own vitriol (and who, in some cases, make money off of the debate). They are angry that Natasha “needs” a man to “rescue” her. They are angry that she’s playing bartender at a party. They are angry that she reveals her origins as a spy left her sterile and incapable of having children. They are angry, angry, angry!
Let me break it down for the feminists that cannot (or who choose not to) understand what’s going on with Natasha in the Avengers sequel.
At one point in the film’s third act, Black Widow finds herself locked (literally) in a prison cell by the film’s villain, Ultron. This follows disturbing recollections of her early life brought on by the Scarlet Witch’s mental attacks. Natasha remembers, vividly, her training in Russia’s notorious Red Room (something Marvel’s Agent Carter also explored recently). She recalls how she was trained to kill as a young girl, and how it was once her only reason for being. Astute fans will remember Natasha admitting to having “red in her ledger” in the first Avengers movie. This sequence of events in the new film continues that story. Here, Natasha is now surrounded by friends who are quickly becoming family – a situation she’s not used to being in. She is slowly shedding one reality and realizing she wants more from life. Eventually, she begins to have feelings for Bruce Banner.
There are reasons why it makes sense in these films for it to be Banner who becomes her focus. In the first film, she was clearly terrified of Banner’s ability to “go green,” as they now say in the movies. To be clear, Natasha has “seen some shit” in her life; there are not many things that spook her. Early on in the first film when she draws her gun on Banner and is clearly nervous that he will “go green” and pound her flat. Later, aboard the SHIELD Hellicarrier, Natasha is the first one who has to deal with Banner when he rages, and Black Widow finds herself coming up against the Hulk. She gains a healthy measure of fear of what Banner is and what he can do, and that later turns into respect.
In the second Captain America film, Natasha is clearly becoming more comfortable with having friends other than Nick Fury or Hawkeye. She and Captain America are quite chummy, and she even tries to get Steve going out with girls again. Why is that important? In Marvel’s #ItsAllConnected universe, it shows that Widow is still romantically-minded. That’s not sexist. Women wanting to be with a man (or yes, with another woman) is not sexist. It’s a basic human desire to seek romantic companionship. It is in our genes. It is part of our nature. The universe hurls us at one another in an attempt to get us to find someone to be with and to connect to. This doesn’t mean Natasha is seeking a man to “define” her or anything like that. It means she’s freaking human.
There are two metaphors at play here. One is fear. Natasha still lives in fear of her past, and of the things she used to do. The first film establishes that, on a basic level, she’s fearful of Banner. But she also knows that Banner is not defined by being a green brute. He’s a human; a man haunted by his own past, much like she is haunted by hers. He is someone who regrets the things he has done, and things he could still do. Natasha is very much the same. Having the two of them start to come together because of that understanding makes a good deal of sense for the story.
Eventually it is Banner who frees Natasha from the cage Ultron has placed her in. The prison cell is our second metaphor here. It is the prison that holds her back from moving forward with her life, and it is one that she puts herself in from the guilt brought on by the red in her ledger. This isn’t sexist. This isn’t a man “saving” her. It’s a friend showing her they can both accept who they are and that it’s okay for them to both move forward. It’s a lesson Banner can help teach but ultimately one he himself cannot live by, as the Hulk departs his new “family” at the end – and leaves Black Widow with a slightly broken heart.
Others have griped about the “damsel in distress” element of the story. Natasha is many things; “damsel in distress” will never be one of them. She’s captured, sure. But through her training and skillset she’s also the one who makes it possible for the Avengers to locate Ultron’s base of operations.
Another thing feminists have been hammering Whedon over is Natasha’s sterility. Again, given the character’s background – a Russian assassin and spy who is trained in seduction – this is something that makes sense. Russian intelligence spent a great deal of time and money on training and developing their murderous assassins in “the Red Room.” Knowing that they also removed their ability to have children and that they did not want their chess pieces to get pregnant while seducing their targets is not out of bounds. Again, this is not some misogynistic attack on the female gender; it’s in tune with her background as a spy who was considered an “asset” before switching teams.
Another criticism I read online involved Natasha playing bartender, i.e. “serving those evil males.” After taking down HYDRA’s new base and leader, and reclaiming stolen Chitauri tech from the first film, the Avengers decide to celebrate Tony Stark style. They all unwind and kick back with party guests up in Avengers Tower. At one point, Natasha pours Banner a drink from behind the bar and flirts with him. In the scene, she’s making a drink for herself first and then for Banner when he comes up to talk to her. Oh my God, the horror! Can you even imagine?! Yes – there are people out there actually mad about this.
When all hell breaks loose at the party, Banner and Natasha dive over the bar together to escape the line of fire. He winds up on top of her, his face staring down into her chest. You can look at that as sexist; or you can think of it as Banner being forced to admit he’s as interested in Natasha as she is in him. It’s entirely up to you. Either way, Black Widow springs back and up quickly starts to kick all kinds of ass. Because that’s what that terrible, no-good chauvinist Joss Whedon has her do most – kick all kinds of ass. How dare he! What a sexist jerk!
Aside from their manufactured wrath over Black Widow, there was one other moment I thought feminists would certainly freak out about, and it comes in the third act. As Ultron’s plan fails, a city is literally falling to the ground out of the sky. The Vision flies in and manages to catch a falling Wanda and “save” her. When I saw that, the fanboy in me that loves Vision and Wanda (especially Vision & Wanda together) squealed in delight – and yet I knew there would probably be a shrill minority out there bitching about it. Many critics and feminists who might freak out over it may not realize why it is important for these two characters and why it was a good thing to seed into the Avengers movies. But then again they probably wouldn’t care, either.
This is a glorious time right now for Marvel fans. We are finally getting to see things on the big screen we’ve waited on for decades. Revel in this magical time. Embrace it. Love it and thank Kevin Feige for it. And yes, especially thank filmmakers like Favreau, Gunn, the Russos – and for damn sure Joss Whedon. Resist any and all attempts by those who try to destroy this time for you on manufactured “social justice” gripes. I honestly feel bad for Whedon right now. He’s being attacked by the very people he’s championed before. I hope he learns something from that. I don’t agree with a lot of his thinking (that’s putting it mildly) but I implicitly trust his instincts as a filmmaker, as a writer and as a creative force of nature. And I will continue to enjoy his work.
EDIT 1: Seeing that some militants online are angry about Tony Stark’s ‘prima nocta’ joke from the film. I suppose they take that as Whedon (again, a longtime champion of feminism) somehow voicing approval of “rape culture” or what-the-hell-ever. In the film, Stark is joking about it by commenting on something that would definitely not make him worthy to wield Thor’s hammer while he’s trying to actually lift that hammer. At no point is Tony Stark (or by extension Joss Whedon) actually promoting ‘prima nocta.’ Good grief!
EDIT 2: Since posting this, I’ve since come across a collage of Twitter messages that Whedon received over his Avengers 2 “sexism.” It is posted below, if you can stomach it.
To call this “crazy” is an understatement.