Caution: Generally I try to avoid spoilers, but this piece must involve a few.
Some critics are hell-bent on reading ill motivations into Marvel/director Joss Whedon and others by condemning Avengers: Age of Ultron for Black Widow’s role in the superhero story.
In the film Natasha (Black Widow) and Bruce Banner compare notes about their dark sides.
Bruce: I can’t have this. Any of this. There is no place on Earth I can go where I’m not a monster.
Natasha (about her assassin training): 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 monster on the team?1
I had a feeling this moment would be controversial.
For example, one critic complained, “Haven’t we gotten to a point where the one lonely female superhero in our current landscape can just pursue the business of avenging without having to bemoan not being a mother?”
At The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg gives a deep, balanced, yet devastating rebuttal.
Marvel’s critics aren’t wrong that the franchise has been oddly slow to put women at the center of its movies. But this line of criticism, or Jen Yamato’s contention that the films have treated Black Widow like nothing more than a cheap temptress, seem to me to miss the mark.
Rosenberg quotes a description of one strong woman “who burrowed into her work, kept secrets, shopped with glee, cooked with flair, and tenderly looked after her friends’ kids.”
And ultimately that’s a great deal of what I want from my female action heroes: that they not be required to take off their femininity when they suit up for battle, and that they not be required to leave it hanging in the closet when they return from the wars. Certainly, there are some female characters for whom violence may be straightforward and have few other implications for their senses of self. But isn’t the whole point of having women as well as men be superheroes and swordfighters that they bring a new range of perspectives to our experiences of these very old stories?
Some critics, of course, took to Twitter with vengeful rage. And Joss Whedon left in protest.
Later Whedon observed about the fanboy rage as well as the “social justice warrior” rage:
I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That’s something I’m used to. Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause.
Perhaps Whedon misses that for some folks (on Twitter and elsewhere), attacking is the cause. When you live for the battle as a means to its own end—when conflict itself is your “paradise”—you have no standard of victory or what Thor would call “revels.”
I can’t help but make a few casual and necessarily very-generalizing remarks about this.
First, this may confirm that unregenerate folks—who remain “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1)—don’t have the long-term capacity even for simple pleasures. Something new comes along and we love it, start the fandoms, get hyped, share excitement with others. But it can’t last. Even with small gifts, eventually our Me-ism and desire to abuse storytelling and Art and all that trumps even our honest popular-culture enjoyments.
It’s not that these things are necessarily bad. It’s us who are bad. We’re not big enough for even these tiny gifts. How much more infinitely too small are we to enjoy the Giver. That’s why something must change. He must bring us to life and start making us bigger so we have capacity for Him. Only then can our view of His gifts be transformed (1 Tim 4:1-5).
Second, some critics are apparently opposing simple pictures of human weakness. So is it oppressive to show Black Widow crying? Or suffering? Or in any kind of vulnerability?
Third, I would go so far as to say this demonstrates a possible desire to place moral-agenda over story. In the minds of some who call themselves “social justice” activists, there is no joy, no peace, no fun, and no simple pleasure. There is only The Cause. If we cannot picture a world in which all unjust enemies are gone and leave only beauty, truth, and goodness to enjoy, even a secular version of Heaven is impossible—a cosmic square circle. How much more inaccessible would be God-centered true eternity?
Fourth, we need to stop being so legalistic and uncharitable about stories and their makers. Even some of the best “social justice” critiques of this scene and its supposed insidious motives are far worse than the worst fundamentalist Christians’ pop-culture criticisms. They do not presume the best about the story-makers or even care to ask what they meant.
As one internet acquaintance informally remarked:
I saw the movie and I picked up on a few of the moments that people are angry about, but I just interpreted them differently. Like when Natasha’s character thinks she’s a monster for being sterile, the message I got was that she had a wrong view of herself, but that love could help heal and show her the truth (ie show her that her identity is NOT in her fertility). I certainly never felt the message to be that sterile people are actually monsters. To get that impression is to interpret each character’s feelings as the literal intended message and belief of the story-writer, which is the dumbest, most asinine, flat-minded thing a person could do.
Another friend said:
This is one of the main problems with the internet: people suck at hermeneutics. Their emotions, stories, histories, limited comprehension become the ultimate and immediate standard by which a piece is to be judged. No patience, no interpretive charity is shown.
Or ponder this wisdom from James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy:
As a young person I was very angry, and it’s something I have worked on, both personally and through years of therapy. And if I can say one truth about anger, it is that anger is almost never anger. Anger – especially aggressive and abusive anger – is a way to deal with feeling insecure, sad, hurt, vulnerable, powerless, fearful, or confused. Those feelings, for many of us, are a lot more difficult to deal with and acknowledge than anger. Anger makes us feel “right”. And powerful. But it also usually exacerbates whatever the underlying, more uncomfortable feeling is.
I had to respond with an example from Gunn’s own story (“trigger warning”: bad word).
Drax says, “I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am that you’ve accepted me despite my blunders. It is good to once again be among friends. You, Quill, are my friend. … This dumb tree is also my friend. … And this green whore is also …”
Gamora irritatingly shushes him, but then when Nebula appears to (in Drax’s view) insult Gamora even worse, he blasts the heck out of Nebula.
Drax: “No one talks to my friends like that.”
Not to “juke” this moment full of awesome, but I think this scene goes a long way to illustrating something about human nature: Yes, often we use words intentionally. Other times we don’t mean to do this at all; instead we are naive (or metaphor- or vocabulistically-challenged) and would actually die (or raygun-blast) to protect the friends who would have taken offense at something we thoughtlessly said.
So keep this in mind, in this and any other internet comments section—or their real-life equivalents—that words mean things, but sometimes speakers mean differently. Let’s keep that in mind especially if we get into fandom-fights or other disputes over Age of Ultron!
- May 13 correction: An earlier version of this article relied overmuch on a scene quote posted at IMDB, which substituted the correct term “monster” with the incorrect term “loner.” ↩