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How to be a female superhero, according to Age of Ultron

Black_Widow_Age_of_ultron_poster

Another spring, another blockbuster Marvel movie, another conversation about women in superhero stories.

Overall, Age of Ultron was a pretty fun movie, although I thought it suffered from an overflow of undeveloped ideas and an insistence on Whedon-esque witty dialogue over consistent tone. But several moments unsettled me as I watched it, and that feeling of disquiet grew the more I thought about it after the movie ended. By the time I’d finished making my notes on the movie, I realized I wasn’t lukewarm about the movie any more: I was angry.

Because although Age of Ultron had more female characters than we might have grown to expect from a Marvel movie, it had some serious issues with those female character’s plot arcs, especially when it came to Black Widow. And it had some very worrying implications about what a female character should be.

And so, without further ado, I present to you the Age of Ultron guide to being a female superhero.

Be the damsel in distress

Two Avengers need rescuing in the course of the movie, beyond the normal heroes-helping-each-other-in-battle action scenes. And, surprise surprise, they’re both of the female characters.

Natasha, of course, is captured by Ultron and locked in a cell until Bruce Banner can rescue her. Unless I missed something, this added pretty much nothing to the plot. Ultron didn’t seem to have any reason for capturing her. He didn’t threaten her life; he just locked her up. The Avengers had no particular difficulty rescuing her, and weren’t forced to make any tough choices about what risks to take to help her. She was just captured long enough for the rest of the Avengers to make worried expressions, and then stepped through the prison door, unchanged. And although this not-so-important plot point could have been given to any of the Avengers, it was given to the only female Avenger at the time — something that feels significant, considering the general trend in movies for female characters to be the victims and male characters to be the rescuers.

Scarlet Witch’s situation was somewhat different. During the final battle, she collapsed, scared, in a house and received a pep talk from Hawkeye about how she’s free to hide, or leave, or become an Avenger. She’s the only one to express fear here, the only one who needs encouraging to fight, and it doesn’t even make sense, plotwise, for it to be her. Yes, the scene where she emerges and begins to fight is awesome, and her powers are awesome, but there’s no real payoff. Meanwhile, her brother has a plotline where he sacrifices himself, out of the blue, to save Hawkeye and a young boy. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for he to be the one who needed encouragement, so we could see how he abandoned his fear and embraced being a hero in the end?

Become a love interest

Is it just me, or has Natasha been implicitly tied to every available Avenger at this point? The first Avengers movie was full of hints of her and Clint, Winter Soldier played with chemistry between her and Steve, and now Age of Ultron decides against developing either of those to instead put her with Bruce. Almost every one of Natasha’s interactions during the movie was with or about Bruce, about her feelings, about their relationship. And her story arc became about that too. About getting him to open up to her. About wanting to abandon all the heroics and run away with him. About how Nick Fury must have predicted they would fall in love. About how she has to betray him to save the world. About her sadness after he’s gone.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong about a female character having a romantic subplot. And not every female character was a love interest, even though the otherwise all-business Helen Cho had to have one throwaway line about her crush on Thor. But, to steal a quote from IndieWire’s Open Letter to Joss Whedon, which in turn quotes Caitlin Moran: ask yourself whether the male characters are concerned with the same thing that the female character(s) is concerned with. Are they also worrying about it, struggling with it, focusing on it?

I’m not usually a fan of Caitlin Moran’s brand of feminism, but I think this is a powerful point. Just as earlier the male characters weren’t in need of rescue or encouragement, most of the male characters here are not concerned about their love lives. Pepper and Jane get a couple of throwaway lines each, just to remind us that they’re alive and well, and don’t come up again. Captain America’s tragic lack of dates was a running theme in The Winter Soldier, but doesn’t matter here. They’re kind of too busy trying to save the world from destruction.

Even Bruce, who is one half of this relationship, has an involved emotional arc about how he’s a danger to people and how there’s nowhere he can go and nothing he can do to truly be safe. His relationship with Black Widow plays into that story, but it’s not the whole of it. Meanwhile, while we get intriguing glimpses into Natasha’s past through Scarlet Witch’s mind tricks, her plot arc is almost solely about Bruce. Those glimpses of her dark past never seem to affect her beyond her relationship to the Hulk.

Of course, Clint is concerned with his love life, in the sense that his plot explores his conflict between saving the world and being there for his wife and kids. But again, it’s a bigger picture conflict about what he wants and where his responsibilities and loyalties lie. Mostly, Natasha’s “romantic subplot” is about her coaxing Bruce out of his shell and taking care of his needs and fears.

Be the motherly one of the group

Age of Ultron suggests that Natasha is the only one who can calm down Bruce once he’s become the Hulk. And perhaps this choice was made because of the intended romance between them. But really, nobody else can perform the “lullaby”? Only the sole female character in the group?

And this is ignoring the fact that I’m pretty sure Bruce Banner had control over his transformations by the end of the first Avenger movie. Or did I miss something there?

Although she’s not a superhero, I also took issue with the portrayal of Clint’s wife. Her entire role in the movie seemed to be waiting at home with the kids, worrying about him until he returned. She was safe, and homey, and she’d take in the heroes and feed and house them when things got bad,  and she provided an emotional tie for Clint, and that was pretty much it.

Make motherhood your biggest concern or regret

And so we come to the strangest moment in the movie, with absolutely nonsensical levels of tone-deaf-ness. Age of Ultron explores the theme of being a “monster” in depth, asking who are heroes and who are monsters, and where the line falls. This should have been the perfect opportunity for some Black Widow character development, with the groundwork clearly laid by her plot arc in Winter Soldier, her refusal to attempt to lift Thor’s hammer, and her flashbacks to her childhood. There was so much potential material here, and yet Black Widow considers herself a “monster” in this movie because she’s been sterilized and is unable to have children.

Seriously. She’s “just as monstrous as Bruce” because she can’t have kids, because not being able to have children makes someone tougher and more likely to kill. All of Black Widow’s complex unspoken backstory and guilt is reduced to sadness about being unable to have children, while that inability is almost implicitly set up as one of the reasons why she has such a violent past.

Not to mention how it’s insulting to everyone involved to suggest that being sterilized is as “unnatural” and “monstrous” as turning into a giant green rage creature that kills people.

I can’t figure out what this scene’s message was meant to be, no matter how hard I try. Was it meant to be Black Widow herself twisting the way her life has been taken from her, seeing this as a physical representation of her internal monstrosity? Because I didn’t get that sense, despite Scarlet Johansson’s great acting. It came off as simple fact, as the key reveal for Black Widow, and that interpretation is supported by the fact that Bruce said absolutely nothing to disagree with Natasha’s self-assessment after he big reveal. While other characters struggled with morality and the right way to be a hero, Natasha struggled with her love interest and her inability to have children. Great.

Wear a skintight costume

Whether you’re an assassin who needs lots of battle mobility or someone who can manipulate energy and read minds without moving an inch, the clingy costume is a key part of the job.

Just don’t be there

Perhaps not a comment on superheroes in particular, but on female characters in general. Although Age of Ultron made an effort to have more named female characters, it was still dominated by male ones, and the movie was pointedly aware of this disparity. Early on in the movie, we’re treated to a conversation between Tony Stark, Thor, and Maria Hill, where Hill comments on the absence of the characters’ respective girlfriends and jokes that they didn’t come because the party had too much testosterone. The script makes a point of awkwardly telling us just how busy and important Pepper and Jane are, as if to prove that it doesn’t have a problem with portraying women, and that it hasn’t forgotten they exist, but that doesn’t exactly make up for the fact that those female characters aren’t there. You can’t lampshade a problem as significant as the lack of female representation and then act as though that joke makes it all OK.

But don’t forget to kick butt and hold your own in battle

Because if you fight well and have some awesome moments in group battle scenes, there can’t be any problems with your characterization, right?

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

17 thoughts on “How to be a female superhero, according to Age of Ultron

  1. I totaaally agree with all of this! Also as much as I loved Scarlet Witch, I couldn’t help but think that Joss turned her into another River…

    One little note/question: When Natasha says she’s a monster for not being able to have kids, I’m pretty sure it’s after Bruce says he’s a monster because he can’t have kids (he doesn’t say it explicitly, but he talks about how he can’t have a family because of how the radioactive/whatever stuff sterilized him). It doesn’t really make the scene any more tolerable, but (if I am remembering correctly) Natasha brings up her own sterilization “monsterhood” because Bruce says it first, and is responding to that and not the Big Green thing. (Like I said, doesn’t make the scene ok. Just wanted to see if I was remembering correctly!)

    1. (I only mention/remember because I was SO CONFUSED about that scene and discussed with with A & J on the bus back)

    2. I seem to remember it like that, too. (Although I only saw the movie once and there’s a lot of snappy dialog so I might have missed something.) And while I agree that it doesn’t make it better, I find it weird that we’re taking anything Natasha says at face value when just one movie ago she was telling Steve she can be whoever he wants her to be.

      Natasha is as much spy as Nick Fury (of ‘I lost my one good eye’ fame) and I can’t help feel like she would tell Bruce whatever she thinks he needs to hear to play ball. That bit where he takes a tumble off a high ledge courtesy of Natasha’s helpful shove tells me she’s not a smitten lady who can’t think with her ladybrain because of the smittenness. She knows what she’s doing; she’s trying to forge a relationship she suspects may have been planned for her (the chat with Fury certainly implies she’s given this a bit of thought) while running into constant roadblocks due to Bruce’s hangups. She answers his objection about infertility by bringing up her own in a sort of ‘see? we’re the same so this CAN’T be an obstacle’.

      1. Hmm, that’s an interesting take on it. I would actually be totally here for that sort of plotline, if it was well-developed… but I didn’t see that on my first watch, at least.

        And this is the problem with writing about new movies. You can’t rewatch the important scenes to double check your interpretation — you can only go on your gut reaction and your imperfect memory.

  2. I definitely came out with a lot of the same feelings, and though there are plenty of people defending the movie’s portrayal of its female characters, I think time and a few rewatches will make things clearer for them. Only so much can be justified by the fact that Scarlett Johannsen got pregnant – probably the reason why Black Widow got kidnapped by Ultron, but they couldn’t at least have done something interesting with that? And the monster conversation, I know that she meant she was monster not specifically because of the sterilization but because she was warped into a murder machine. But its just not there in the dialogue. If someone had read that scene cold, without context, she said that she’s a monster because she can’t have kids. That’s a huge mistake.

    So yeah, it’s getting to be clear why there hasn’t been a Black Widow movie, and Captain Marvel is so far out. Marvel has tons of great stories and female characters to work with, but they only seem to be interested in walking the same path over and over.

    1. I agree with how the monster comment was meant to be read–but how it is stated in the film is definitely problematic. With the context of the flashbacks (being forced to kill a helpless person in cold blood, other training, etc), the read of “everything I let them do to me (up to and including forcing sterilization) made me a monster” makes sense, but the line writing and editing came off…poorly. I knew it was a problem the instant I heard it, and it was the one thing that made me uncomfortable in the film. I could see how they *meant* it, but…ugh.

      ———————

      More general comments:

      I also get the feeling the 30 minutes of cut material makes a BIG difference in some things, like Widow’s capture by Ultron–which, granted, she finds a way to message Clint and tell the team where to find Ultron, but that still seemed a really clumsy way to do it.

      As for Quicksilver’s sacrifice, I feel like that was a comics fan thing. They quickly set up the friendly antagonism Hawkeye and Quicksilver have in the comics, telegraphed hard that Hawkeye was going to get killed–and then pulled the switch, despite the rivalry they’d displayed. Roommate and I dubbed Clint “Team Dad” for his family as well as his mentor-like relationship to the Romanoffs, not to mention his wife’s comments about taking care of the others as one of the nearest to baseline human on the team (not that they showed that at all, though, given the focus on Tony, Steve, and Bruce).

  3. Great post! As much as I loved the movie, I felt Bruce’s/Natasha was just all completely unnecessary. The most awesome thing about her in the other movies was that she wasn’t a love interest and she totally didn’t need one. I caught more of a platonic vibe between her and Steve in Winter Soldier, and I was fine with them being just friends.

    Also, I don’t think Natasha meant that she was a monster just because she couldn’t have kids. I took it as her emotional baggage over all the people she killed and being brainwashed as a child…she was saying that was the reason why she was glad she was sterilized. At least that’s how I saw it.

    Anyway, i hope that Marvel will get stronger female character moments in the next movies…I’m still waiting for confirmation of Agent 13/Sharon Cater in Captain America 3….

  4. I reacted less on Caps (yet non-existent) love life and more on the fact that he just seems to have dropped his mission to find Bucky / Winter Soldier. That wasn´t even mentioned, even though his last movie ended with a kind of cliff hanger. I know their individual movies are not the same as the Avengers movies, but some continuity in the story line should be possible anyway. Bad writing!

    Other things to laugh or shake your head about:

    1) Jarvis looks like a cyborg version of Man of Steel. The suit is very similar, I wonder what DC will say about that?

    2) Hawkeye´s secret family life. So his wife and kids live hidden away on an isolated farm??? It was a nice place, but still…

    3) Black Widow calling herself a “monster” because she can´t have kids. My God…

    More women in this one than in the last, though. Scarlet Witch was cool and both she and BW did kick som ass.

  5. I agree that BW probably meant she is a “monster” because of all things she has done, not becuase she can´t have kids. The problem is that it came out that way. Again: Bad writing and editing.

    I also agree with some of the other criticism. Why do female heroes always need to have – or be – a love interest, and focus on that, while male heroes 1) don´t always have a love interest 2) if they do, it´s rarely the main focus of their storyline.

    Black Widow was a refreshing exception from this, and so was Maria Hill (and still is, thankfully). I wonder where they gonna take Scarlet Witch in the future, when it comes to that.

    1. But every one of the male superheroes has a love interest. Why is it that people get upset only when a female superhero, or female character in general, has a love interest? Why is it assumed that this will consume and destroy her as a character, while male characters are above it and it won’t affect them? I don’t see anyone complaining about Bruce having a love interest, and he’s focusing on it in this movie just as much as she does. And Clint’s only arc in this movie is to have a wife and children.

      1. I think it’s the difference between HAVING a love interest and BEING a love interest. Obviously neither are inherently bad, but often when a female character is the love interest of a supposedly more important male character, she loses all other aspects of her personality and it becomes her sole role in the story. This isn’t entirely what happened to Black Widow here, but it wasn’t great, either.

        As for why people don’t complain about, e.g., Clint’s arc here (which I actually also found kind of dull and out of place, but that may have just been me)… I think it’s to do with what we’re used to seeing. If a male character has a plot arc about his secret family and balancing heroics with being there for his wife and kids, it feels fresher, because it’s not as common. But if a female character does that, it feels like so many female plot arcs that have come before. And Clint is only one of many male characters in the story, all of whom have different arcs, and most of whom don’t have love interests present. But there are only two female superheroes, so the amount of time given to Black Widow’s romantic plotarc seems more significant.

        1. But Natasha and Bruce are characters of the same level of significance in the Avengers movies, and I don’t see that she lost personality or was just there for him or anything like that. The movie wasn’t focused on his POV at the expense of his. As to why Tony, Steve and Thor didn’t have their love interests present, it’s because they have their own movies where they have love interests and romantic plots. The only characters who got romantic subplots in this movie were those who don’t currently have movies focused on them alone.

          And it’s not like Tony, Steve and Thor got an awful lot of development here – in anything, they got less. There just wasn’t enough time with the movie spreading itself on so many subplots, the new characters, the action scenes… In particular, the theme of Tony’s narcissism and megalomania, the parallels between him and Ultron and his responsibility for creating him, was raised but never really properly dealt with and seemed to be tossed aside, even though it seemed really intriguing and promising.

          On the other hand, I agree that the scene where Natasha talked about her history did turn out wrong and had unfortunate implications – they were clearly trying to convey that she considered herself a ‘monster’ for the way she was made to be the perfect killing machine, but it turned out like she was saying she is monstrous because she can’t have children. There was a bit too much of the emphasis of “normal life” defined as a heteronormative marriage and family throughout the movie, the revelation about Clint was clearly a part of that.

          But overall, I have much bigger problems with how disjointed and unfocused the movie felt, and how almost none of the characters and subplots got proper attention.

  6. I sort of agree with most of this however I do not know why. It could have been bad writing or the cutting of 30 minutes. Not sure, it might be that it was so fast paced. I have scene people read stuff where people missed Klaw losing his arm.
    I am sure when we can review the scene again, Natasha says what she says in a way that it is the choices she made that makes her a monster. The first one being to give up having children.
    Natasha rocked in the Winter Soldier, the character who was if anything the leader of that covert team was absent in this film. If you think about it, the conversation between Natasha and Cap in the plane at the start is character driven and it does not matter that she is a woman, and that holds true for most of the film. In the first Avengers film Natasha is one of the professionals, surrounded by amateurs which seems to be lost as well in this film.
    This film made a boys vs girls thing from early on. I can think of so many ways, they could have added or made certain stuff work better. For a start, what Natasha said about Thor’s hammer? Almost anything would have been better, a line about a female Thor maybe.

  7. If you’ve seen Agent Carter, the early model Black Widow (named Dottie) is extremely screwed up by her training.
    So I think they wanted to convey that with Natasha: that her training had warped her.
    But editing fail.

  8. Great article.

    What I also really hated about the “monster” scene was that the subtext heavily implied that: “you can’t have a fulfilling long-term relationship unless you have kids”. I feel that is an insult to couples who are child-free by choice. Why can’t Bruce & Natasha be child-free and happy, I asked to myself? A: Because in the writers mind that is not an option. To me, that is rather problematic and a bit “nuclear family”. Perhaps that was not the writer’s intention but if so it comes back to what others have said: bad writing/editing.

    Also, shouldn’t Bruce actual talk to Natasha first about whether she wants kids before using it as an excuse for them not to be together? Because if she doesn’t then there is no point for them to continue together anyway, as that is an irreconcilable difference (as it is implied that Bruce sees having children as a key component of a long term relationship). Bruce just assumes she wants kids and that there is no way for them to be together unless they do. Using the excuse “I’m a big bad green rage monster” would be perfectly acceptable as a reason to angst over whether to be in a relationship, so I don’t see why you need to add the “I can’t have kids” excuse on top of that. Unless, of course, you go back to my original point: “In the writer’s mind that is not an option”. ie. You can’t have a happy long term relationship unless you have kids.

    Of course, that is not to say that you can’t be happy if you do have kids but my problem is that the text doesn’t even present the alternative as a choice. Bruce is not called out on his stereotypical view of the family unit at all, so the subtext implies that that is the way relationships should be.

    It’s definitely not a problem confined to just Age Of Ultron. Hollywood is still very much a stereotyped, nuclear family world. I guess I was just expecting more from Joss Whedon/Marvel. Sigh.

    Hope I’ve conveyed my points articulately :-)

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