That’s my secret, Cap: I’m always angry about Age of Ultron.
Fair warning: this article will go into detail about certain plot points and character interactions in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Safe to say, there’s spoilers ahead.
That being said, R.I.P. Natasha Romanoff’s characterization. We hardly knew ye.
Yes, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are angry with Joss Whedon’s portrayal of Natasha Romanoff in Age of Ultron (AOU). If you’re a casual observer of fan interactions or the media in general, it might be hard to pin down exactly why. Is it merely shipping wank? Is it about petty comparisons between her comic counterpart and her film counterpart? Is it all about how she’s such a ‘slut’ for being romantically linked with so many male Avengers (thanks, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner) (and thanks to Renner again for sticking his foot in his mouth about the same comment later)?
R.I.P. Natasha Romanoff’s characterization. We hardly knew ye.No. It’s not about any of that. It’s about how the only woman in a team of male superheroes, the only woman that serves as the female representative on the team, the only woman on the team that little girls can look up to, was turned into a pining, blushing, eyelash-fluttering schoolgirl whose only narrative in a two-hour and twenty-one minute movie was about her romantic feelings for the Hulk.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with girls being caught up in a romance. There’s nothing wrong with being a giggly, blushing girl. Girls are awesome no matter how they choose to express their romantic feelings. The problem is: that’s not who Natasha Romanoff is.
Granted, before Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was difficult to really pin down who Natasha was as a character. The first Avengers movie did a fairly decent job of showing off her combat skills as well as highlight how badass it is that she’s one of two humans in a team made up of high-tech geniuses, super-soldiers, and gods, but that movie can’t come close with the characterization and depth that she was given in Winter Soldier. Natasha truly came into her own there; we learned more about her but the more we learned, the more questions we had, making her a truly dynamic and multi-layered character. She truly grew as a character, and her arc was so well-constructed in that movie that by the time the climax comes around, Natasha is the one making the ‘big hero sacrifice’ in the end, dumping all of Hydra and SHIELD’s files onto the Internet, compromising all of her secrets, her history, her covers and identities. She goes from a place of insecurity and serious doubt – “I guess I just traded the KGB for Hydra” – to accepting and embracing her role as an Avenger and as a hero, one of the good guys.
In AOU, all of that progress, all of that characterization, is undone because of this out-of-nowhere blossoming romance with Bruce goddamn Banner. There isn’t a single one-on-one scene that Natasha shares with anybody that isn’t either A) shared with Bruce, where they talk about their feelings for each other, or B) shared with someone else, where she subtly or outwardly hints at her feelings for Bruce. Her whole movie arc revolved about Bruce. If she weren’t an Avenger, it would be easy to mistake her character as “the superhero’s girlfriend.”
In AOU, all of that progress, all of that characterization, is undone because of this out-of-nowhere blossoming romance with Bruce goddamn Banner.Worst of all, any development she did get was sidelined in favor of developing Bruce. At one point in the movie, Natasha and Bruce are having a conversation about possibly ditching the team and running off together. Putting aside the very blatant character assassination by Whedon wherein he takes Natasha’s progress and plops her about fifty paces back to where she started (did he not bother watching Winter Soldier or what?), we the audience get another big piece of Natasha’s past revealed to us: that in the Red Room, as part of their process in unleashing their trained female assassins into the world, they undergo a forced hysterectomy and are made sterile.
Natasha tells this to Bruce, followed by the rhetorical, mind-numbingly obtuse question: “You think you’re the only monster on the team?”
I’m not sure where to begin with how insensitive this is, on so many different levels, and why this is the scene in particular that rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. The first thing that comes to mind is how ridiculous it is that even now, a piece of Natasha’s past and characterization is being used to prop up Bruce’s storyline; the story about her forced sterilization is meant to further Bruce’s arc, not Natasha’s. The other thing that fans are (rightfully, to be honest) angry about is the fact that Natasha refers to herself as a ‘monster’ for being unable to have children.
According to the Office of Women’s Health, about 10% of women in the U.S. are infertile (that’s about 6.1 million women). It’s, as the website says, a “common problem.” The fact that the only woman Avenger refers to her own inability to have children as something akin to being a ‘monster’ is about as insensitive to women’s issues as a script can get.
And again, the monster reference is only there as a means to have someone relate to Bruce’s ‘monstrosity’ as the Hulk. There’s something sinister in the implications that being unable to have children is paralleled with someone who turns into a giant green rage creature, and the underlying cultural belief that woman are ‘supposed’ to have kids and raise a family, lest ye be socially cast out into the proverbial street.
The story about her forced sterilization is meant to further Bruce’s arc, not Natasha’s.The worst of it (I keep saying that phrase, don’t I – it just gets worse and worse) is that Bruce doesn’t even comfort her after she likens herself to him as a ‘monster.’ He doesn’t contradict her, doesn’t tell her she’s not like that at all, doesn’t so much as pat her on the back. He just sort of takes it at face value and continues on with the conversation as if nothing happened.
Because, again, this scene and this personal development aren’t about her, they’re about Bruce, and all that matters is what Bruce later does with this information, how he later quantifies and factors this into his eventual decision to leave the team at the end of the movie.
In the end, Natasha bares her soul and deepest insecurities just so a guy can have his existential crisis.
The sad thing is that we the fans pile so many high expectations on Natasha because she’s the only central female character in the Avengers. We’re so critical of her treatment because, well, what other choice do we have? What other women are as front-and-center as Natasha? Natasha’s our only source of female representation on the main team; hence we’re so protective of her.
Perhaps with the way the film ended, this will change for the better – after all, one can only hope that with Whedon’s exit and the Russo brothers of Winter Soldier fame taking the lead for the next two Avengers films, things will be different. And by different I mean ‘better.’
There’s a sharp divide between those who love AOU and those who hate it. Obviously, we can’t dictate to each other how the other is supposed to feel – everyone’s movie experience will be different – but hopefully we can be more open to having discussions about why fans feel the way they do, why they feel angry or let down or flat-out insulted, instead of simply brushing them off with the generic label of ‘fanboy/fangirl ire.’ It’s much deeper and more serious than ship wank, than comic-to-movie adaptations. It’s about the character mistreatment of a woman in a male-dominated franchise, and that’s something worth having a discussion about.
Gabby Taub, the Fantasy Reviewer at Girls in Capes, is a recent graduate of New York University. She enjoys reading, writing, watching TV, and spending time getting lost among the bookshelves at Strand Bookstore.