This seems a hard one to do without causing a lot of emotions, so let me just say that her arc in this movie was both as bad and not as bad as people have made it out to be. It’s not as bad when you look at the general standard. Lots of action movies these days have a male lead, and he’s interested in a kickass lady that he ends up with. She’s awesome and independent, but her most important role in the film is as the hero’s love interest. That’s the standard. We’ve at least reached the point where these Hero Lady Love Interests have agency and are competent and are generally not passive and have some sort of affect on the plot. That’s better than where we’ve generally come from, but it’s one things Black Widow has managed to not be up until this point, and that was honestly pretty awesome—that the biggest acting woman in the crew could sustain her importance in the films without being reduced to a love interest, and that’s why it’s so sad that in Age of Ultron, she was.
And that’s the biggest failing. She becomes the Hero Lady Love Interest, not the Hero Lady Who Happens to be in Love with Another Hero. Everything that Nat does in this movie, and everything that happens to her, eventually gets framed in the narrative of her romantic relation to Bruce Banner. There are two ways Nat subverts the trope of Hero Lady Love Interest and that is in that she is the active pursuer and that she does not end up with the guy at the end, even if she ends up pining after him.
Still, let’s look at her narrative roles besides just fighting off NPCs. She performs the lullaby with Hulk which allows him to transition back to Bruce Banner. She flirts with Bruce. She protects Bruce when Ultron first attacks, trying to help him keep from becoming Hulk. She then battles Ultron and minions in the shipyard where Scarlet Witch makes her see her inner demons. These inner demons show us clips of her past, being raised as an assassin, which ends in her being sterilized. This becomes a topic of conversation between her and Bruce when she tries to make a move on him and he tells her he can’t have a life with kids with her, and she reveals that she can’t either because of this past (so they’re perfect for each other!!). Then she chases down the semi in Seoul to get the body of soon-to-be Vision into their custody, which she manages but gets captured by Ultron in the process. She’s a listening piece as Ultron tells her some of his plans and reveals his new form, gets put in a cell, magically notifies Hawkeye of her position, and is ultimately rescued by Bruce. She then forces Bruce to Hulk out so he (they) can go help the others in Sokovia and fight of NPC villains.
The thing that should be clear about this rundown is that none of it is independent of Bruce. Bruce’s main plot-relevant moment is triggered by Scarlet Witch and resolved by Stark; Nat plays no role in his biggest moment, whereas Bruce always plays a role in each of Nat’s plot-relevant scenes and shows up in a lot more of any other scene she’s in. This is rather disappointing, particularly for an ensemble cast. Thank god for her comments of “Take care of my best friend” referring to Hawkeye and her relationship with his kids to remind us that she does actually exist to other characters outside of Bruce.
This, more than anything else, is what’s so disappointing about Black Widow in this movie in my opinion. Before, Nat existed on her own merits and motivations. In this movie, she existed as an extension of Bruce, and as the only female Avenger (till this point), that’s pretty disappointing. At least she has agency for… most… of the movie. (she doesn’t seem to have agency during her flashback, while being affected by her flashbacks, and when she’s captured by Ultron, though there’s some wiggle room there with her communicating with Hawkeye.)
I still can’t get over the fact that this team literally only has ONE PERSON WHO CAN DISABLE THEIR MOST POWERFUL AND VOLATILE WEAPON with any success that doesn’t wreck a whole unnamed city in Africa (Hulksmash City).
This doesn’t seem to be the most controversial moment for Nat though. Most people are talking about her sterilization, and I can well understand why. That was a pretty poorly executed scene. Nat tells Bruce about the ‘graduation ceremony’ she underwent during ‘assassin academy’ which is that she was sterilized. They all were, so that they couldn’t be tempted away from their mission by the only thing that could become more important to them. So there’s this piece of dialogue (not fully accurate):
Bruce Banner: [looks at Barton’s home] I can’t have this, any of this. There is no place on Earth I can go where I’m not a monster.
Natasha Romanoff: 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 loner on the team?
What Nat means is that the process she underwent, the whole of it and what it allowed her to do and what she ultimately did do, made her a monster. Her sterilization is the physical manifestation of the monster they created, likely because it’s the one thing she feels she can’t undo, change. She can learn to be a better person, she can learn to be more honest, more open, even actively pursue someone she genuinely has feelings for in an attempt to find someone to be open and vulnerable with, but what she can’t do is make herself ‘fertile’ again. And that has to be truly horrifying and painful.
Forced sterilization is a serious and real problem. This might even come off as a bit insensitive a thing to do narratively, especially in light of the fact that there are many other ways in which pregnancies can be prevented—from birth control/IUDs to abortions. This presents a way in which Nat’s agency is denied her, one that genres like this are notoriously bad at avoiding. It usually takes place as a mystical pregnancy, but the essence is that choices and agency are removed from the character.
But the way the dialogue progressed perfectly juxtaposed and compared her sterilization with Bruce’s monstrousness. It directly sounds as though Nat is saying that her inability to be a mother makes her Other, requires her to be lonely. And for many who choose not to have children, or CAN’T have children, this leaves a bad taste in the mouth. To others who want children and understands the history of sterilization, they understand this is a horrifying experience Nat went through, but not one that makes her a monster, and also one that perhaps wasn’t necessary to add into the narrative. Why couldn’t Nat have just not wanted or needed children? You don’t have to hate children or be unable to fully love children in order to not want to have children yourself. They could have made her inner demons be something she’s done given her “red in my ledger” conversation with Loki earlier. It would have been something about her that didn’t include Bruce, and that whole conversation could still have happened. “Whoever said I want this?” she gestures to the home around them. “I’ve never wanted the white-picket fence life. Have you met me?”
Pick any of the above for why that scene is being treated as problematic. The intentions weren’t all that awful, but the execution was poorly done and was problematic, and given the fact that everything else that happens to her happens because of Bruce or to further Bruce’s arc, it would have been nice if the insight into her past could have fully and 100% been there to reveal to us stuff about her instead of providing a reason why it’s okay for her to end up with Bruce. We don’t need a reason. Love doesn’t need a reason, and wasn’t her liking that he’s the only one not looking for a fight good enough?
Don’t get me wrong, forced sterilization is something that happens, but if you want to deal with an issue like that, it cannot be a side note to a romantic plot. That is something you treat with care and delicacy and as it’s own thing, and certainly not for the purposes of convenience because the love interest can’t have kids.
By the way, did I mention it blows my mind the team relies on a single individual to be able to calm Hulk down? I did? Good.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron – Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow” ©thoughtfulfangirling, originally posted on 6 May 2015
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