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.