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?