Unimaginably powerful beings battle over the fate of the world, millions of people are directly threatened by incredible destruction, a woman possibly has an issue with unfulfilled maternal urges. It's Joss Whedon's and various unnamed Disney and Marvel Executives' The Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie I thought was an entertaining season finale to the grand Marvel television series played out on both the big and small screens.
I think back to how people said you couldn't have done the sprawling multimedia campaign an accurate adaptation of Watchmen would have required but ten years from now I wouldn't be surprised if such a Watchmen would really be called for. Right now, the new Avengers movie is actually our insightful commentary on popular superhero media. As Kyle Buchanan points out at Slate, the new Avengers film is kind of a "fuck you" to DC (I'm paraphrasing), most specifically Man of Steel which portrayed Superman engaged in massively destructive conflict in a crowded city with little apparent concern for the innocent people being killed by collateral damage. It's hardly surprising to me that the director of that movie, Zack Snyder, would fundamentally fail to grasp the point of Superman. It's equally unsurprising to me that Joss Whedon does get it. As he says in the Slate interview:
Something that Kevin and I talked about from the start was that we’d seen a little bit of a trend in movies where the city gets destroyed and the heroes say, "We won!" And I’m thinking, Define "win."
. . . get back to what’s important, which is that the people you’re trying to protect are people. We knew that we wanted to play with a lot of big, fun destruction, but at the same time, we wanted to say, "There’s a price for this." So we got very specific about it, because whether the Avengers are heroes or not is called into question in this movie, or whether the hero as a concept is still useful for society.
There's also a continued dialogue with the Dark Knight films--Ultron even has a line where he says something like, "You rise only to fall!" which sounds like a reference to a repeated line in The Dark Knight Rises--"Why do we fall? So we can rise." But more prominently, the Avengers continued to explore the concept that The Dark Knight has so far expressed most perfectly, whether there's any point in helping inevitably doomed humanity and combines this with Whedon's favourite supervillain idea--the same one Loki had in the first Avengers--that to save the world you have to dominate or destroy it, which goes back to the finale of the penultimate season of Whedon's television series Angel and was also important in Serenity, the follow up film to his television series Firefly. One of the ways Whedon sets up the conflict between human and inhuman, life and death, is to set up a contrast between family and self-imposed isolation through destruction. Family not just in terms of the Avengers team as a sort of work family but also in a long, lingering scene on a hidden farm where Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) keeps his wife and kids, the sibling relationship between Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and budding romance between Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who envies Hawkeye's lovely family.
But wait a minute, a million voices have been crying over the past week. Natasha can't want a family--she's a woman!
To understand the logic here, one needs to backtrack through a path of confusion and resentment. I think Mark Ruffalo may have said it best in this interview, "The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to." Natasha wanting to be a mother hasn't been earned, essentially, because there haven't been enough women who don't want to be mothers--wanting to be a mother is a traditional role of the sidelined female character in movies like Swiss Family Robinson, also by Disney, though over half a century ago.
But there is evidence that directives from Disney now, from a sheer marking standpoint, are behind a disappointing lack of good female characters in the Marvel and Star Wars universes. A former Marvel employee writes at Mary Sue about unambiguous coordination in Disney to only market properties like Frozen to girls and Marvel and Disney to boys. But I didn't need that post to tell me, it's been clear from watching Rebels, the follow up to the pre-Disney acquisition Clone Wars which featured a variety of characters including a female character, Ahsoka Tano, whom many consider to be the best new Star Wars character created in decades. It was apparently only with reluctance that Ahsoka was finally included on Rebels which focuses on a dull father and son relationship where female characters are sidelined into mother and girlfriend roles.
So I can see why people would think this about Natasha in The Avengers. However, in this case I don't think the criticism is justified in terms of the actual content of the story. Let's look at the problem in the way this review by Marlow Stern examines a crucial scene between Bruce and Natasha:
Later on, Romanoff is describing her origin story to Banner. Like the comics, it involves her taking part in a ballerina/black ops project as a young child (think: Black Swan crossed with the fraternity of assassins in Wanted). She complains of being sterilized by her captors. She turns to Banner and somberly says, “You’re not the only monster on the team.”
But Stern fails to point out the reason Natasha brought up her sterilisation is that Bruce had just told her he could never have children. An article on io9 by Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta criticises the same scene, saying, "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." The unselfconscious irony here is that in trying to argue how Black Widow is not like the male superheroes, the authors actually say she's "like the Hulk".
But Natasha isn't calling herself a monster because she can't have a child any more than Bruce is calling himself a monster because he can't impregnate a woman. It's that the reason the two of them can't have children is similar. Bruce can't because when he feels strong emotion he turns into a furious killing machine, Natasha can't because she grew up in a system designed to make her into a furious killing machine. In both cases, by the nature of what accident and design had made them, they are isolated, they are excluded from that "together" Captain America talks about and both find self-fulfilment through destruction.
The movie ultimately brings a message of how things are beautiful for being ephemeral, ironically while connexion and togetherness are honoured, the inevitable loneliness of existence cannot be stopped. Paul Bettany as the new character the Vision doesn't want to kill Ultron because, he says, Ultron is "unique" and yet it is ultimately necessary because Ultron is killing everyone.
I thought James Spader did a great job as Ultron, I love that his delivery was just reminiscent enough of Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Tony Stark. It was a reminder, too, that they're both former members of the Brat Pack. Maybe what we need is a superheroine played by Molly Ringwald.
*Screenshot suggestive of oral sex nicked from The Daily Mail, naturally.