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Avengers: Age of Ultron- Could the portrayal of Black Widow have been so much better?

Warning: Spoilers

In true geek couple fashion, me and the boyf ventured outside to see the new Avengers movie on Saturday. Warning: unless you enjoy the idea of swapping your cinematic experience with the feeling of being trapped in a gigantic soft play area for 2 and a half hours, DO NOT go to a 12A rated film on a Saturday.

But eventually the noisy smaller humans settled down as the lights dimmed and the screen came alive to a rip-roaring action scene with all the whizzy camera angles, explosions, invisible fortress defense systems and L’Oreal worthy shots of Chris Hemsworth’s hair as any Marvel fan could want. It’s a testament to how far Marvel have come that they can now open their films with the sort of epic, butt-clenching fight scenes that the first Avengers finished on. The precedent has been set, they can do action and we expect nothing less. But that’s not quite the same thing as expecting nothing more.

Sure, there was the banter, the witty repartee between characters, even while they’re being shot at by *cough* definitely-not-Russian baddies, which reassures us that no one is in any real danger. There was the light-hearted satire of a movie poking fun at itself, something that we hadn’t really seen before Guardians of the Galaxy blew the roof off Marvel Studios last year, placed the satire bar in the sky and stuck multi-coloured ribbons on it. Unfortunately, although it had some amusing bits of scripting, Ultron fell a bit short of Guardian’s Satire May-Pole of Wonder and set their own sort of bar, a much lower and duller one which seemed to mark the comedy limit for the “serious” Marvel films.

But that’s a side note, really. Overall the film was exactly what a Marvel fan would expect from a Marvel film; Tony Stark with more tech and toys, Bruce Banner with more inner conflicts, Captain America being solid and trustworthy, Thor being all “worthy of Asgard”, people popping back into existence shouting “surpriiiise” (yes I’m looking at you Nick Fury, again) and Black Widow being sassy, bootilicious and unbreakable.

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Only, not quite.

If you like the Marvel franchise and you keep up with any kind of social network at all, you will know there has been quite a lot of noise about Black Widow getting her own film. This is something fans want, not anything Marvel have yet committed to. Aside from the obvious bonuses of representation that a female-centred super-hero movie would provide (and by the way that DC is providing in a Wonder Woman movie, circa. 2017), the general consensus seems to be that she deserves one. She’s a highly-skilled professional killer with an intriguing and mysterious past, hell yes we want a movie about her. Iron Man has three independent films for god’s sake and he has all the complexity of a jigsaw puzzle for 2 year old’s.

But as the screening went on, my heart sank further and further as I realised that Ultron has pretty much sealed the grave of an independent Black Widow movie. It was like they were trying to make her less interesting. Firstly, there was the, frankly, poorly scripted romance between her and Banner. Now, I did not see that coming, and while I tried to lay aside the lack of build up that would have made the relationship more credible, I could not lay aside the feeling that every conversation they had felt forced and out of character on both sides. Of course, Banner isn’t the most romantic of people, and Romanov is notoriously reserved, but the encounters weren’t awkward because of their characters. The encounters were awkward because I simply didn’t believe them. The Natasha Romanov from the previous films would have baulked at the idea of looking coyly up into the eyes of a man with a shy smile, while he fails to understand her advances. The Natasha Romanov from the previous films would have looked him straight in the eye, asked if he wanted to get busy and then found the nearest cupboard.

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This is not to say that Black Widow is less interesting because she wants to be in a relationship, it’s not even to say she’s less interesting because she was coy and shy about it. She’s less interesting because the departure from her character has made her less credible, and no character is anything until they are credible.

And then we came to the “glimpse into her past” scene, where a teary-eyed Natasha tells Bruce of her inability to have children because of the sterilisation she underwent as part of her assassin training. This is a side of Black Widow we haven’t seen before, one that opens up about her past and gets visibly emotional. And, I suppose, it makes sense that she does so to the person she loves. Although I again struggled with this departure from character, I put my qualms aside with the thought that some women would, of course, find sterilisation upsetting, even the ones that have hitherto been cold-blooded manipulative killers and seem to have made their peace with that.

Black Widow can always be emotional, vulnerable, hurt, weak – even when this seems far removed from her previous character. After all, women are not one thing and one thing only. But Ultron went a step further than that (and this is where the feminist in me got mad and contemplated leaving the screening). Towards the end of the scene, Natasha compares herself to Bruce, calling herself a “monster”. That’s right, Bruce Banner, the Hulk, the Green Giant’s angry and unstoppable twin, a whopping great mountain of rage, muscle and terror is equivalent to a woman who can’t have children. Nat also says that being sterilised was practical as it removed the only thing that “might be more important than a mission” and made “everything easier, even killing.”

There are several problems with this, not least the fact that she supposedly loves Banner but has just spoken about herself in the same terms with such self-loathing that you would’ve thought would make Banner question if she is able to love him the way he is. But more importantly are the damaging ideas that motherhood is the be all and end all for a woman, that a woman who cannot have children (whatever the reason may be) is monstrous. That women are biologically less capable of keeping focussed on tasks, less capable of doing their job, because their friggin’ ovaries distract them. The thought of being able to have a child someday in the future is so heavily present in every woman’s mind all the time that it pervades every aspect of her life and when she can’t have children, it makes her less of a person.

That is what Black Widow’s speech told countless children that Saturday, and it’s what it’s telling countless children at every screening across the world.

Joss Whedon and the Marvel team had it within their grasp to create a female character in a super-hero franchise who is all at once, vulnerable, sensitive, loving, badass, efficient, in control of her sexuality and her body, and good at her job. They had it within their grasp to show girls everywhere that they can be all of those things at once, and they can operate in a male dominated environment without sacrificing any bit of themselves in order to succeed. Instead what Age of Ultron has ensured is a Black Widow whose entire backstory now screams ‘damaged woman’, defining her against what she cannot do rather than what she can.

So what would a Black Widow film look like now?

Well judging from Ultron, it would look like an awkward romcom flop in which Natasha, flipping between sarcastic and soppy, runs away with Bruce to a cottage in a field. They deal with the inevitable couple struggles of not being able to have children and wonder what their purpose is and if they are enough for each other. They have to ‘go on a break’ in which Natasha goes back to Avenging but no longer finds it fulfilling because it was just a substitute for the gaping hole in her womb. Eventually she returns to Bruce who has been tending an aromatherapy garden for an indeterminate amount of time, decides he’s enough for her and they all live happily ever after. All interspersed with flashbacks to Natasha’s assassins training and faux-nightmare scenes of naked abdomens, scalpels, blood and screaming.

All in all, not something Marvel is going to make. And thus, the Age of Ultron firmly closes the door on what could have been a New Age for women in superhero franchises.

I guess we’ll all just have to keep on waiting.

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