Looking at the Internet today, it seems people are having a hard time understanding Natasha’s arc in the new Avengers movie. You’d think something like this wouldn’t be too hard, but a surprising number of people these days seem to have no idea how to watch movies, so here’s what you might have missed while you were too busy assuming that you’re smarter than the movie and everyone who made it (spoilers, obviously, for Avengers: Age of Ultron).
The film begins with Natasha fighting alongside the other Avengers to take out one of HYDRA’s secret facilities in an attempt to reclaim Loki’s scepter. If you’ve seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’ll recall that from the very beginning S.H.I.E.L.D. has been corrupted by HYDRA, a parasite quietly working from within. Now Natasha at numerous points has hinted that her life wasn’t so great before joining up with S.H.I.E.L.D. – if you’re familiar at all with the comics, you’ll know more about what she’s hinting at, but either way it’s clearly not a happy story. For her, joining S.H.I.E.L.D. was a way for her to turn her life around, to fight for a cause that was good. As you might imagine, the realization that she was working for the guys who got kicked out of the Nazi club for being too evil took a bit of a toll on her. When she thought she had finally turned her life around and was fighting for a noble cause, it turns out she was just working for another group of maniacs and murderers (in fact she says almost exactly that in The Winter Soldier).
After the battle is over, we learn something else about Natasha: she has a way of calming the Hulk and bringing Bruce Banner back to the surface, not only that, but there is a budding romance between the two of them. At first, this may seem like an odd pairing, but once you really look at it, it’s ingenious. Of all the members of the Avengers, Natasha and Bruce are perhaps the only ones who have to deal with the weight of killing innocents. Tony does too, to an extent, but there’s still a disconnect – innocents were killed by the weapons he created, but not by him personally. Both Natasha and the Hulk are somewhat reformed murderers, and the weight of that weighs heavily on both Nat and Bruce. There’s a connection there that stems from a deep brokenness and a desire for both of them to escape their monstrous potential.
The weight of all this becomes all the more pressing when Wanda plays with each of their minds. She brings the monsters back to the surface – quite literally with the Hulk, but Natasha is affected as well. She’s reminded of her origin, how she was made to be the perfect killing machine both mentally and physically. As much as she tries to escape it, the scars of her past are always with her. She confesses all this to Banner in an intimate moment, including the fact that part of this process involved being forcibly sterilized. The demons of her past ripped something away from her against her will, and as a result she’ll never be normal again.
She carries on, though, and goes with the rest of the Avengers to Korea in an attempt to stop Ultron, where she ends up being captured. She doesn’t wait to be rescued, though, and instead uses her ingenuity to lead the rest of the team to herself and to Ultron. Once they arrive, Bruce is the one who breaks her out, and he fantasizes about using the chaos to allow the two of them to escape forever, but Natasha takes charge of the situation and forces Banner to Hulk out and help her save the day.
In the aftermath, with the Hulk flying away in the Avengers’ Quinjet, Natasha calls him and invites him to join the rest of the team, but he can’t. He’s too broken, too damaged to keep playing the hero. Natasha mourns, but unlike Banner she refuses to be defeated. For all the physical strength the Hulk has, he’s too weak to face his demons and conquer them. Natasha, though, does just that, and at the end of the film, she’s there alongside Captain America, leading a whole new team of Avengers.
Now tell me again how this is sexist.
Joss Whedon’s stories are all about broken people learning to move past their brokenness to become better. We see it in Buffy and Angel and Firefly and Dollhouse; hell, even Toy Story is about that on its most basic level. Avengers: Age of Ultron is all about the ways each of these heroes are broken and how they cope (or don’t) with that fact. Natasha is no more broken than anyone else on the team, and by the end of it she winds up in a better place than most of the team. To claim to be a fan of Joss Whedon and then be offended by the fact that he writes broken characters is disingenuous.
The two main complaints I’ve seen raised against this movie are the notion of Natasha being “damseled” when she’s captured by Ultron and the idea that Joss Whedon is defining Natasha as “monstrous” by her inability to have children. The first is the more valid of the two complaints, but the important context most people don’t realize is that this was done to reduced Scarlett Johansson’s shooting schedule because she was pregnant. From my understanding, this whole subplot was never present in early drafts of the script and was only written to accommodate her schedule. Even then, Joss is a smart guy and he uses this to subvert expectations and make important statements about the characters of Natasha and Bruce. Even though Bruce storms the castle to rescue his princess, he doesn’t get to ride off into the sunset of his happily ever after as he’d like to. Instead, Natasha takes control of the situation and forces him to own up to his responsibility and be a hero. Nat’s the one trying to save the day, while Bruce just wants to run and hide.
The other complaint is frankly insane to me, because it implies a total lack of understanding of what this movie is saying. Whedon is absolutely not defining Natasha by her ability (or lack thereof) to have children, but is instead revealing the horrors she was put through to highlight just how far she’s had to climb to rise above the tragedies of her past. It establishes another parallel between her and Bruce which in turn shines a light on how much stronger than him she is. This is 100% what her arc in this film is about and I’m beyond baffled how people could miss this.
At this point, Natasha’s arc is the richest and most complex of any character in the MCU – Tony Stark is the only one that even comes close – and Age of Ultron furthers that arc in powerful, meaningful ways. To call any of this sexist is nonsensical, and to form a hate mob to go after Joss Whedon of all people is just plain harmful. It’s important we learn how to discuss and examine things without resorting to knee-jerk outrage, because sometimes something that looks “problematic” on the surface is actually in service of a much more nuanced goal.
7 thoughts on “On Natasha Romanoff in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”
Yeah, and if THAT had been the story in the movie, I might have liked it a little bit better. But that’s not the story it told.
For starters, there was never anything about “bonding over mutual guilt”. The reason which was given why Natasha is into Bruce is “because you are not a fighter”. And the movie never gives any reason why Bruce should be into Natasha aside from “well, she likes me, and doesn’t care about the Hulk”, which is not love, it is convenient.
I am totally ready to believe that the scene when she talks about her past was supposed to be about scars which run deep and the choices which were taken from her. In fact, I loved the idea. But by putting them into the context of a romance (plus the badly worded part about being a monster) made it awkward. It came off as if Natasha sees herself as damaged goods because she is not able to pop out children. I mean, really?
The whole thing is sexist because this whole romance arc was in the end not about Natasha, it was about Bruce, and by putting what was her arc in the context, it got cheapened and made very uncomfortable at parts. It was sexist because it smacks of “we need a female to calm down the Hulk, oh, there is Natasha”. But if you really look at the point at which the characters left of in Avengers (not even in The Winter Soldier), then you had Natasha positively terrified of the Hulk. She is the last person on the team which makes sense in the role, but hey, she is female, so she had to do it. And get kidnapped. And fall in love with a guy who is 15 years older than her (if it were the other way around, the writers wouldn’t even consider this).
For the first time since Iron Man 2 Natasha wasn’t written as “character who happens to be female” but as “female oh wait, does she have a pre-established character, too?” It was frustrating to watch and while they kind of “recovered” her when she put the “greater good” over everything else and betrayed Bruce, it doesn’t delete the trite nonsense which came beforehand.
I want to give you the benefit of the doubt here, but this whole comment smacks of “you’re reading too much into this, I’m actually smarter than the filmmaker,” which is the wrong way to approach watching and discussing a movie.
To your first point, there’s deeper stuff going on in their romance beyond the stuff they literally say to the camera, there’s implied nuance and weight behind it especially as they’re being playful and talking about their relationship as if it were about someone else. And even if we look at the exact words she says to the camera, it’s “he’s a guy who spends his whole life avoiding the fight because he knows he’ll win.” This plays into exactly the point I’m trying to make about the two of them sharing feelings of guilt. After Nat’s whole world blew up in WINTER SOLDIER, it makes so much sense for her to be drawn to Bruce.
As for Bruce’s side of the equation, this just forces you to take a little bit of a leap and imagine that these people’s lives exist before the first frame of the movie. This shouldn’t be hard considering the shared universe aspect of the whole thing, but here we are. Bruce and Nat have known each other for three years now (assuming the MCU plays out in roughly real time), and in that time the two of them have clearly worked closely to develop a method for taming the Hulk. More so than with anyone else on the team, Bruce has had to directly face his demons with Natasha, so of course romance is going to form there. Also, the idea that these characters change and grow even when we’re not looking at them plays into your comments about Natasha being scared of the Hulk. Yeah, she was… three years ago, before anyone knew how well Bruce did or did not have a lid on it, before she worked with Bruce to help him harness the Hulk’s power as a tool for good. To assume that Nat would still be terrified of the Hulk is just silly! *That* would be a betrayal of her character in a way that nothing in this film is.
As for the ”monster” scene, I’m not sure what to tell you beyond go back and watch it again and *really* pay attention this time. She’s not saying she’s a monster because she can’t have kids. That’s just, plain and simple, an incredible misreading of that scene. She’s calling herself a monster because of the ways she was physically and mentally ripped apart so that she could be more effective at killing. In this case you don’t even have to read into it, she says almost exactly that to the camera. I’m not sure how people are missing this other than by just being unwilling to engage with the film.
Nope. I am just trying to point out that what you see in the movie might or might not have been the intention of the film maker, but it was badly executed.
For one, why does it make sense for Natasha to seek out a romance after what happens in Winter Soldier? You just claim that, but I honestly don’t see it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to trust less, not more?
Two, you say they spend the last three years with each other. They didn’t. The Avengers split up at the end of the last movie. I guess we can assume that Bruce was in New York because that’s where he is in Iron Man 3. But Natasha was in DC. The last movie, which was set roughly a year ago, shows her working with Shield and just building up some sort of friendship with Steve. Barely. I can somehow believe that in the year or so the Avenger already were together, they managed to built a team. But let’s imagine that they would decide who does what in this team: Would you really send Natasha to calm down the Hulk? She and Hawkeye are the only ones in the team which would most likely get killed immediately should this go wrong. If I were Steve and I had to pick someone for this job, I would pick either Tony, because there is already a connection between him an the Hulk (one which actually involves Hulk rescuing his life instead of trying to kill him), Thor because he would be easily able to survive the blow or do it myself to risk no-one else. The only reason why Natasha gets this role is because she happens to be female.
And you didn’t read my post careful enough. I totally understand what they were going for with this one. I actually would have loved the scene if it had played outside of a romance, preferable between Natasha and Laura. I get that they didn’t intend to say that she is a monster for being sterile. But that doesn’t change the fact that the scene was badly worded and I really can’t blame anyone for making the connection.
See, you dismiss the honest concern people express on the ground of “well, they haven’t understood the movie”. And that’s too easy. There is something about the arc and about the same which rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. This doesn’t come from nowhere. It is easily the weakest written in the whole movie. There is really every trope I hate about arcs like this. The young woman who has totally fallen for a much older man and is perusing him aggressively. The good friend who encourages the reluctant male. The female character who sees at one glance that there is something going on between those two. The male character who rescues the female one from her cell. Up to the point at which Black Widow finally become Black Widow again and does what needs to be done, it plays out like every badly written romance I have ever seen. On top of this, we are never SHOWN that they have interest in each other. We get told. Again, again and again. There is flirting on her part, but Bruce never flirts back, which makes the whole thing really awkward to watch. When she gets captured, Bruce is barely worried about her. Hawkeye shows more interest in her fate than him.
The only reason this isn’t any worse is that those are two actors which do their very best to give the arc meaning which isn’t there in the script or the staging. They nearly succeed. But that doesn’t make the whole arc even remotely good or less disappointing for the only female avenger.
I’m really trying here, but your so completely missing the point that it feels like we’re speaking different languages.
I think the key problem here is that you seem unwilling to consider the idea that maybe the movie is smarter than you think it is. You’re approaching it from a position of superiority and looking for ways that it’s wrong and in turn you’re not really hearing the movie out and missing the larger context for tangible details. You’re zeroing in on things and ignoring the larger context in which they exist. It’s an evolution of the plot hole culture nurtured by the villains over at CinemaSins and it’s ruining the way we watch movies.
The idea that Natasha is a poor choice for working with the Hulk because she can’t match his physical strength is to miss the entire point of what that relationship is about. It’s not about challenging the Hulk, it’s about calming him, and Natasha has a connection to Banner that that none of the other Avengers do.
And you know what? Why is it so bad for a woman character to open up about the tragedies of her life to someone she loves? Is it somehow anti-feminist to see women be real, complex people? To be vulnerable and strong in equal measure? To have deep pain, but be able to move past it? And further, the whole notion of complaining that Natasha is hurt by the fact that she was sterilized well before she was old enough to consent to such a procedure super gross. In a moment of intimacy with someone she cares deeply about she’s not able to express pain over this? Bruce is allowed to express pain over his inability to have children, but Natasha just needs to suck it up and be a “badass?” In a way, that’s the most sexist thing I’m hearing on either side of this argument. Our male heroes are allowed to be heroic and tortured and funny and sad and feel the full range of human emotions, but when a woman is anything but a badass action hero we cry “misogyny!” How in the world is that fair?!
Again, Whedon writes stories about broken people. All of these people are broken and they all have to deal with that brokenness in different ways. All things considered, Nat deals with her brokenness in a far more mature and healthy way than just about anyone else on the team. If you’re not into that kind of story, that’s totally fine, but it’s disingenuous to pretend that you’re smarter than the film.
Is it great to have a woman who does all that. And we got it. In The Winter Soldier. Perfectly written and perfectly logical for the character, and we didn’t even need a romance to do it. We only needed a writer which was focussing on her as a character instead of her as a female.
(And, btw, I don’t think that the arc did Bruce any favours either. It was a tired repeat of his love story with Betty in The Incredible Hulk…from the “calming influence” to the whole “we can’t” reluctance. I never thought that it was exciting enough the first time around, I certainly didn’t need a repeat).
You seem to be set to “defend” the movie from the narrow minded feminists who scream wolf at every opportunity. To clarify something: I spend the last month pointing out how much Marvel has improved female characters in their movies. I don’t think that they are perfect, but I think that they try to do better. I defended entries like Agent Carter from people who like to put the “not good enough” label on everything. But I also think that they slipped up this time. They made a huge step back with Natasha. They took a character which was layered and interesting for all the reasons you mentioned and turned her in to a “love Interest”…and not a one of the Gwen Stacy kind, which is sweet and engaging, but one of the Louis Lane kind, which makes keep wondering “why exactly are those characters in love with each other?” The only good thing is that they didn’t slip in Mary Jane Watson territory.
And I am totally into that kind of story. That’s why I love The Winter Soldier so much.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Age of Ultron. I think when all is said and done, it is still a good movie which discusses some interesting themes. But this arc is easily it’s biggest weakness. You could have done all the good parts about it – Natasha dealing with her past, the betrayal in the end – without the awkward romance and used the screen-time on some aspects which really needed to get fleshed out a little bit better.
I really enjoyed this article. I think everyone needs to take a step back and consider the context in which the contested events occurred. Instead of drawing out hot button topics because it’s convenient.
Nat, is the emotional driver for this film. Her arc defines the internal challenges that all of the characters face. She’s literally the emotional (and emotionally strong) linchpin of the film.
She was made to murder and destroy, broken down, torn apart and built back up to be a killing machine. Killing is all she knew for years. She and Hawkeye are the only members of the team who have faced these darkest parts of themselves and grown because of it.
From this theme the movie builds on the back story of the other characters.
Hawkeye – is a soldier, fighting and killing but wants only to be a father, a spouse and a homemaker.
Cap – is a soldier who has his strength only because someone wanted to make the ultimate killing machine. Somehow he has to find a way to be the ultimate soldier and live up to the ideals that are so important to him. None the less he thrives on war and wouldn’t exist without it.
Tony – All that tony has was paid for by the deaths of others.
Thor – plays high and mighty but must face the fact that all of earth’s woes (thus far in the MCU) were sparked by his people.
Banner – Must face the fact that he’s a murderous rage monster
All are faced with Quick Silver and Scarlett Witch – The very people harmed by their murderous ways.
On top of all of this, she holds her own (as a mere human) both physically and intellectually. Standing toe to toe and shoulder to shoulder with what are essentially god like beings. Not to mention kicking ass on a grand scale.
Over the course of the films in the MCU Black Widow has gone from overtly sexualized eye candy (Iron Man 1). to one of the strongest and most important aspects of the MCU as a whole. Where Agent Coulson was the glue that held together Phase 01. Black Widow is the anchor for Phase 02. Keeping it real and giving it human emotion as its events grow to totally unbelievable proportions… also did I mention kicking serious ass?
What more could the world ask for?
I, for one, am proud of the growth that female characters have seen in comic culture.
Natasha being the Phil Coulson of Phase 2 is SUCH a great observation! I never thought about it that way, but you’re 100% correct.