Why Black Widow is the strongest MCU character and the Age of Ultron sexism criticism is missing the point


Yes we’re a Spider-Man website, but thankfully Natasha Romanoff’s character is called Black Widow, which is a type of deadly spider, and that means that I can totally write an opinion article on the whole feminist argument that is surrounding the portrayal of her character in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Firstly, let’s take a look at what’s actually happening. The film’s director Joss Whedon has quit Twitter, now I beleive it’s because his Marvel obligations are through, however there is a chance it’s because of the sheer amount of vitriolic hatred he’s getting for perceived sexist elements in the film. Here’s a handy collage to show the type of comments that self-proclaimed feminists are giving him.

Now first of all I’d like to state that finding something objectionable in a film is absolutely fine, if you didn’t like Scarlet Johansson’s characer arc in Age of Ultron that is fine. It’s even fine if you perceived it as sexist. What isn’t fine, and what will never be fine is the above hounding, bullying, insulting, hateful attack that even contains death threats and threats of physical violence. These people may call

themselves feminist, arguing about a feminist point, but there is nothing feminist about their actions.

Secondly, there are absolutely times when Marvel have dropped the ball with Black Widow as a character. The fact that she was the only one showing her bum in the poster for the first Avengers, the fact she doesn’t have a solo film despite being around for over five movies and the fact that she has almost zero Avengers: Age of Ultron merchandise are all things worthy of protesting. Her character-arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron certainly is not one of those

But before we get to Black Widow I want to touch on another element of ‘sexism’ that people are complaining about, and that is Tony Stark talking about bringing back Prima Nocta if he can life Thor’s hammer and rule Asgard. Prima Nocta being detestable because it is the rights used by nobles of the past to have sexual rights to the wife of a man newly married on the night of their wedding

I shouldn’t have to make it clear that just because a character in a film says something, it doesn’t mean that the actor, or the director endorse or agree with what that character says. But the more important thing here is that Tony Stark was obviously making a clever joke, where he in fact shared the opinion of the scene’s detractors that think Prima Nocta is a bad thing and was using it as an example of something that would make him ‘Not Worthy’ to wield Thor’s hammer. Basically the scene was stating Prima Nocta is a bad thing the whole time.

Could we have done without it? Probably.

Now we can move on to Black Widow!

I want to start this off by saying that I personally feel that Black Widow is the most developed, fully realised character in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, more importantly, she’s a female character. That means that I think Joss Whedon has propelled Black Widow above any of the other male characters in the franchise.

She started in Iron Man 2 as an ass-kicking super-spy. Then in the first Avengers she received a huge amount of backstory regarding her relationship with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, as well as hinting at ‘red in her ledger.’ Then in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she developed a friendship with Captain America, as well as made the decision to reveal all of the ‘red in her ledger’ to the world. Then in Avengers: Age of Ultron she gravitates towards Bruce Banner and we learn a whole lot more about her past.

To understand Natasha Romanoff’s development in Age of Ultron you have to understand that she fundamentally doesn’t think she’s a hero, in fact she’s aware she’s done some awful, awful things and can’t move past them. Hence the dramatic element to her decision to reveal herself to the world in Cap 2, because she doesn’t like herself.

Now, one criticism is that she flirts with most of the members of the Avengers. But let’s remember that she is a woman who was conditioned to seduce men and assassinate them (hence the Black Widow moniker) and someone who hates herself so much she can’t form real relationships, which is why she uses flirtation as a bridge to human interaction. Basically it makes absolute sense for her character.

However the Avengers are slowly becoming her family and Natasha is slowly seeing herself not only as a hero, but as a human being. Her close relationship with Clint Barton, and his family and her growing ease with the rest of the Avengers is highlighted dramatically in Avengers: Age of Ultron because Whedon wants you to see Natasha as a woman that is slowly being healed by her experiences, slowly coming to terms with her past.

This is why he revisits her past in the flashbacks and shows us The Red Room because he wants to make the change between cold, robotic assassin to friendly superhero seem that much more empowering and important to her character. And that’s why he pairs her with someone who feels the same way as her, in Bruce Banner. This isn’t a woman ‘needing’ a man, she isn’t a damsel in distress. Gender doesn’t come into it, these are simply two people who fundamentally understand eachother.

Yes, it’s Bruce Banner that rescues her from Ultron’s prison cell, but remember when Natasha was tied to a chair and being tortured in the first Avengers film and she calmly revealed she was in control of that situation and kicked ass?

Remember when she saved Captain America by returning his shield to him whilst on a bike, remember when she led the Avengers to Ultron’s base. She practially saves the day almost all of the time.

And yes, Natasha is making Bruce a drink at the bar in the party scene at the start of the movie, but she’s certainly not a waitress. She makes herself a drink first and then makes Bruce one. She definitely isn’t making drinks for everyone else.  This wasn’t about the ‘woman’ being the servant, this was simply Natasha and Bruce’s relationship manifesting.

The fact that Natasha is slowly coming to understand that she has a family that she belongs to, and is worthy of, in the Avengers is then excellently juxtaposed with the revelation that Natasha can’t have a family of her own, especially in scenes when she’s talking to Clint’s pregnant wife Laura about baby names. It’s fantastic character development and really helps to cement Natasha’s bitter-sweet journey.

And it’s Natasha’s sterilisation that seems to have caused the biggest uproar

Okay, so in a scene at Clint Barton’s farm Natasha reveals to Bruce that she’s been sterilised so can’t have children before saying “and you think you’re the only monster on the team.” I took this as a general statement referring to each of the Avengers having their own personal demons, Natasha’s past, Steve Rogers not fitting in, Bruce’s Hulk, Tony Stark’s creation of Ultron etc etc. But some people were outragd at Natasha’s suggestion she was a monster because she couldn’t have children.

The entire scene also seems to have been taken out of context. She is telling Bruce that she was sterilised and is now unable to have children to highlight that it made her so much better at killing, to make killing people her sole and absolute purpose free from potential distractions like ‘humanity’ because in her head being human is having a family, like her best friend Clint. That’s why she thinks she’s a monster, that’s why she’s got ‘red on her ledger’. The loss of motherhood is just one aspect of many thing that she thinks made her into a killing machine, which is what she detests the most.

I understand the fact that Natasha calling herself a monster because she was involuntarily sterilised is problematic because people who can’t have children are not monsters, we all know that. But this is a real issue, this happens to woman all over the world in real-life and, yes, woman shouldn’t be defined by the ability to have children. A woman is so much more than a baby-making machine.

However some women really, really want kids and can’t have them. Some women think of themselves as less than human because they can’t have their own children, because they can’t do what they perceive they’re meant to do. Some women actually think they’re monstrous because of it. People really think like this.

So, even if Natasha does think she’s a monster purely because she can’t have children, which clearly isn’t the case, there’s a real-life precedent there and to ignore it would be an insult to the hundreds of thousands of women going through a similar thing and would actually be anti-feminist.

I also think too much weight is being put on Natasha’s character regarding the ‘no baby’ thing. This wasn’t the crowning defining moment in Black Widow’s backstory and life. It happened to add to her relationship with Bruce and as I’ve previously stated was used to insinuate that all of the Avengers think they are monsters in their own way but they’re not, they’re heroes.

Ultimately that’s what Natasha wants, she doesn’t particularly want children, I never got the impression she thought she was a broken, barren woman because of her inability to have kids, she’s a broken woman because of her inability to see herself as a good person, as a human being and as a hero and she more than proves that she is a hero several times throughout the movie.

Joss Whedon’s Black Widow has been more humanised in five films than she has in fifty years of comics. He hasn’t ruined the character, he’s made her a real, strong, and yes, female, hero.

Next: Doctor Strange has already been in a Spider-Man film

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