The arguments over Black Widow have gotten ugly. Last night, Joss Whedon quit Twitter, with an image that pointed the blame at Twitter haters. But there’s a real issue with Black Widow, and her role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it’s worth talking about. It’s worth talking about it like adults.
After Whedon abandoned Twitter, people were quick to point the finger of blame at rabid feminists and their Black Widow pile-on. Comedian/actor Patton Oswalt tweeted, “There is a “Tea Party” equivalent of progressivism/liberalism. And they just chased Joss Whedon off Twitter.”
Whatever the reasons for Whedon quitting Twitter (yet again), it’s clear the discourse around Avengers: Age of Ultron has reached a vile tipping point. That’s not OK.
But assholes on Twitter shouldn’t distract us from having a real conversation about this, so we’re going to talk about Black Widow... like adults.
A lot has gone wrong with the way Black Widow has been treated in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — before, during, and after Age of Ultron. There were signs before the movie premiered that the studio and even Scarlett Johansson’s co-stars weren’t willing — or able — to take the character seriously.
Once the movie came out, there were a metric ton of problems with how the character’s story arc was presented. And after everyone digested all that, the backlash started. A backlash that seemed centered on Joss Whedon as a person, and not on having a real discussion about the movie.
1. The Marketing
Some folks are asking, “How did it come to this?” But we’re left wondering, “How did no one see this train wreck coming miles ahead?” The writing has been on the wall for weeks.
The character was jokingly slut-shamed not once by her fellow Avengers, but twice. After already getting into it and being forced to apologize, Jeremy Renner was back on TV last night making the exact same mistake. He apologized on Conan, but he also reiterated his point that Natasha is still a slut:
“Mind you, we are talking about a fictional character and fictional behavior, Conan, but if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut. Just saying. I’d be a slut. Just saying.”
How is it okay to say this about Black Widow — someone who, to be very clear, has not hooked up on screen in any of the movies — but no one’s going “Tony Stark? Yeah, he’s a total slut.” We actually have seen that on screen. As a thing that actually happened. He may have reformed and found his one and only — but Tony’s badass boast in the first Avengers movie is “Billionaire playboy philanthropist.” He gets “playboy” as an accolade, but the Black Widow is somehow a slut.
Next up in the long line of Black Widow mishaps was the total lack of Black Widow merchandise and toys. The character isn’t even included with most Avengers toy sets, and has little to no presence on the shelves. The Mary Sue has a pretty eye-opening piece on the real reason that Disney’s toy arm had no interest in selling to girls: basically, they’re full up. “They already have the girls’ market on lockdown,” the piece explains. Great. Just great.
40% of the audience for the first Avengers movie was female. But, sure, Frozen’s got the girl market on lock — so why bother?
The lack of Black Widow toys was so apparent it even got cast member Mark Ruffalo to tweet asking to fix this problem.
All of that could just be a few out-of-touch marketing people, and actors making bad decisions. The movie could have a different message, couldn’t it?
2. The Movie Itself
As bad as all that was, it’s the Black Widow’s actual arc in the movie where things go well and truly off the rails.
If the Avengers represent peak Marvel (in notoriety and public recognition) then Black Widow by association is the main female character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And quite honestly, that’s not saying much.
To quote Jen Yamato in Daily Beast, “In 11 Marvel Cinematic Universe films thus far, strong female co-leads have only appeared in larger ensemble team-ups, primarily as lethal and emotionally impenetrable femme fatales who double as love interests (shoutout to Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora).” By the time Marvel makes a standalone female superhero film (Captain Marvel), Captain America, Tony Stark and Thor will all have had three standalone separate films. That’s 19 films before a singular film that stars a woman superhero.
Yes, there are other female-driven Marvel Studios properties (Agent Carter, Agents of SHIELD), but Black Widow is the only female Avenger, and she’s the only recurring female character in the MCU who’s seen real character growth. Avengers: Age of Ultron was supposed to feature her big character reveal. Whedon was teasing her character arc back in 2014 via MTV:
Joss Whedon: “Natasha is a huge part of the sequel because you do want to concentrate on the people who don’t have their own franchises. Although she in ‘Cap 2,’ [and] she’s great. She was the most fun for me because she’s not a hero, you know, and it’s something that I read—and I feel bad that I can’t remember who wrote the book—but it’s in one of the books explaining, ‘These guys are heroes, you are a spy. It’s a different thing—it’s a different skill set—and you don’t have their moral high ground or any of that good stuff.’ And that just makes her so interesting to me. So yeah, the stuff I’ve got going on with her in the second one is killer.”
Remember the whole (fairly baffling) accounting turn of phrase “red in my ledger” that was referenced way back in the first Avengers movie by both Black Widow and Hawkeye? This was (presumably) what Whedon was talking about. This “red” was Black Widow’s way of admitting that she’s not like the others, and that her role in the Avengers is an attempt to right the bloody wrongs from her past. Pair Whedon’s previous quote with the showdown between Black Widow and first Avengers villain Loki, and you’ve got one hell of a backstory:
Natasha Romanoff: It’s really not that complicated. I’ve got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.
Loki: Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Dreykov’s daughter, Sao Paulo, the hospital fire? Barton told me everything. Your ledger is dripping, it’s GUSHING red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything? This is the basest sentimentality. This is a child at prayer... PATHETIC! You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code. Something that makes up for the horrors. But they are a part of you, and they will never go away!
Too bad none of that set up was actually followed up in Avengers 2.
She does get some great moments in Age of Ultron. Black Widow’s the one who gets the Vision body away from Ultron. She saves Cap’s bacon by getting his shield back to him. All of that could have been part of her being an assassin working off her past — she even talks about how being an Avenger is a dream, and the reality is that she’s a monster.
When Banner tries to tell her it’s not their fight and they’ve got to run, she kind of betrays him by bringing the Hulk out to join the battle. That would have been a more interesting story — the assassin so caught up in wiping out her bad deeds, she’s willing to sacrifice personal happiness for the greater good. That all would have tied into what we’d seen before. Would it have been perfect? Probably not. But it would have been better.
But instead, all of that was aggressively pushed aside for a new phenomenon: Mommy Widow.
For months we scanned trailers picking out promises of a Black Widow’s soon to be revealed backstory. So imagine our disappointment, when Black Widow’s secret backstory, about training as a cold blooded spy, was boiled down to a forced sterilization. A horrifying reveal, but not really the “red ledger” reveal we’d been promised. Julie Delpy appears in a forced Black Widow flashback, showing her young spy training culminating in one horrifying gesture. Would Black Widow have to kill her parents? Her friends? Her puppy, Kingsman-style? No her “graduation ceremony” would be that she would be sterilized. Foisting a frustrated desire for motherhood and self loathing onto this character. It makes her feel permanently alone. We know this because that’s what she tells Hulk during a quieter character reveal moment for Black Widow.
Instead of an assassin constantly struggling with finding moral lines she didn’t know existed, we got a woman who feels incomplete because she cannot have babies:
“You know what my final test was in the Red Room? They sterilized me, said it was one less thing to worry about. You think you’re the only monster on the team?”
That’s what the Red Room did to her. It’s not the loss of innocence through killing or being forced to live a life of betraying people. The greatest loss is motherhood. That’s why she’s a monster like the Hulk. Poor Black Widow. She leaned in, and where did it get her? She’s a lonely, incomplete, monster.
But it’s OK because The Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to give Black Widow a baby. A gigantic baby named The Hulk, and a brand new superhero power of “the lullaby.” Not a whisper or a song or a knock-out juice — a lullabye to coax her baby to sleep. This new power is trotted out over and over again, as if to say: Black Widow don’t be sad — you have a baby Hulk.
And her role as the mother of the team, as a whole, is also implied when Black Widow ruins a perfectly great empowerment moment after picking up Captain America’s shield and stating, “I’m always picking up after you boys.”
This blows. Instead of wading into the “red ledger” of a complicated person who did seriously heinous acts and is trying desperately to buy redemption with good deeds, we get the character who feels ruined by her barren womb. And even worse, the movie tries to fix it by infantilizing another character into her big baby. This stings even worse when you compare the great scenes that Black Widow did have in Avengers 2. For instance when all the boys are squabbling over who was worthy to hold Thor’s hammer Black Widow just kicks back and remarks, “That’s not a question I need answered.”
Also great: her new escrima-sticks weapons, her light up suit, and the whole action scene where she takes on Ultron after jumping out of a jet on a motorcycle. (There were some complaints online about Black Widow being a “damsel in distress,” because Ultron kidnaps her and brings her back to his lair. But after her general ass kicking, seeing her get temporarily captured didn’t bother us. Plus, once kidnapped, Black Widow cobbles together a signal to tell the team where Ultron was, so she kind of saved herself and also saved the day.)
So Black Widow gets plenty of heroic moments in this film — but they’re overshadowed by her big “no kids” reveal, and the fact that the Hulk becomes her substitute child. How did this happen? We can only assume that the plot morphed over time (as many movies do) in various script drafts. But it’s sad, because it really casts away all the slow work the previous movies did teasing out that Black Widow’s past was built on bloodshed.
She can’t just be the coolest aunt, or have made the valid choice that, as an assassin and spy, maybe kids are not in the cards for her. Or even the more radical choice that she just doesn’t want them. No, she can’t ever have babies, so her life is ruined. She is an incomplete woman. Of course, only Hawkeye has kids — although he has to have them on a secret farm.
Black Widow is barren and therefore dead inside. Poor, empty-nested Mommy Widow, who even loses her love interest and pseudo-baby in one fell swoop at the end of the movie. The Hulk vanishes, to have more solo adventures later. Meanwhile, Black Widow is what? Captain America’s number two in The Avengers: The New Class. Sigh.
3. The Backlash
But instead of sitting down at the table of the Internet and discussing these issues like calm, collected folk, the Internet responded as only the Internet knows how: with pile-ons and death threats.
The people who criticized Whedon publicly — which may or may not have spurred Whedon leaving the Internet — are, themselves, getting death threats. It’s a snake eating its own tail.
People have been writing about the many ways that the treatment of Black Widow has sucked, but that’s all going to get lost now. Instead, everyone’s going to talk about the abuse. And about Whedon, personally, instead of the work. But that’s just playing into the Internet’s many ongoing culture wars, and it’s going to ruin everything.
So, it’s time to sit down like big boys and girls at the adult table — and talk about this, without flipping the goddamn thing over.