My capsule review of Age of Ultron will appear, as normal, on Sunday. This article discusses one particular element and will contain spoilers. Duly warned.
this article that focuses on the Widow calling herself a monster because she can't have kids, and turning the Hulk into her surrogate baby, which is somehow anti-feminist (all women want is to be mothers, etc.). While the film has its weaknesses (which I'll get to next Sunday), I don't think misogyny is one of them.
Now, I don't mind criticizing a film for its sociopolitical agenda. It's a valid reading. HOWEVER, one must take the film as a WHOLE because it is meant to be SEEN as a whole. We can't simply take scenes, characters or lines out of context. We also can't blame a film maker for things that are happening outside the film. That the promotional toys failed to include female action figures is a major lapse in judgment, the cast interviews that slut-shamed the Widow were tasteless (and took implied relationships for granted, I'm sorry Hawkeye, but she never slept with you), and indeed, there is a systemic problem in both superhero films and their source comics with female representation, none of this really has anything to do with Age of Ultron directly.
Guardians of the Galaxy, to use another example, completely fails the feminist litmus test, I would agree. Gamora, despite all the hype, is never allowed to win a fight, needs the boys to rescue her consistently, etc. FAIL! Taken as a whole, Guardians is deplorably sexist. You don't need to isolate moments to see that. Avengers 2, though? Let's look at the various criticisms:
The Widow as damsel in distress
If the Widow gets chumped in the movie, so does every other Avenger. She's no damsel in distress. She still gets as many badass moments and successes as the rest do. Her capture by Ultron near the end doesn't change that; had Captain America been the one to slip off a flying vehicle while doing a super badass thing, then he'd have been in the dungeon.
I love Mark Ruffalo's reaction to this criticism on Twitter, that it's funny because he thought BANNER had been turned into a love interest. And he's absolutely right. She's the aggressor, she initiates it, and while she's also been a femme fatale who uses her looks as a weapon - and is EXPECTED to be flirting and leading the audience to at least believe she's running a romance subplot - Banner is an unlikely suspect. The Widow makes her own choices and isn't being forced into anything, nor does she need a man to define her. Banner is the damsel in distress here, a man who keeps talking about running away, and she's the one who believes in duty and pulls him back in (or pushes him into the Hulk role). The Black Widow is a spy, so she's "running her asset", whether that's Banner or the Hulk. It looks like it started out as a manipulation, but something real grew from it.
The Widow as sterilized monster
The point of the sterilization isn't to be the be-all and end-all of her, but symbolically, an attempt by her Russian masters to control her (couched in the language of the abortion debate), and remove her empathic side. A killer can't have a mothering instinct, can't feel for other people's kids or parents. And foo on them, she's great with kids, she's turned things around. What she admits to in that scene is to have been violated and mutilated; it's a secret shame she would only share in the strictest intimacy, which speaks to the Widow/Banner relationship.
I was surprised they threw these two together, quite frankly, but in retrospect, it makes sense. Both are (or were) unthinking weapons "aimed" by third parties. Being a "monster", while coming on the heels of the sterilization reveal, is also part of an overall discussion on her being an assassin, and relates to the Marvel universe as a whole. The MU proper started with monster tales, and Stan Lee put a lot of monsters in the original stories. What if the monsters fought their monstrous impulses and worked on the side of good? The Thing. Hulk. Creepy Spider-Man. Iron Man's original look. Four Avengers seen in this movie started out as criminals in the comics, and the Vision was designed as one. Monsters fighting the monstrous impulse is in fact one of the film's themes. Are the metahumans monsters? Look at the destruction they cause?
The other and even more important theme is parenthood. It's everywhere. Tony Stark creates Ultron, a child with a rather mean Oedipal complex, who in turns also creates an unruly child in the Vision. Hawkeye has a secret family, something to fight for. The Maximoff twins have lost their parents and are bent on revenge. One team of Avengers begets another, with Cap and Widow in parental roles. There's even the obligatory scene where a child must be rescued and brought back to his mother. This is all contrast to the Widow and Hulk's situations (and to some degree, Cap's) since they cannot have children. Banner even doubts he can have a sexual relationship. The idea that the Widow was sterilized in order to graduate from assassin school is false. It is merely the graduation ceremony. Killing a man in cold blood, as per the flashbacks, is what showed she was ready. The point of the sterilization is that choice is taken away from her, and the tragedy is that, for all the red in her ledger, she probably would have made a good mother had she chosen to be, and settles for being the cool aunt to Hawkeye's kids, and babysitter to the child-like Hulk. She is incomplete because she doesn't have the full range of choices open to her, nor does Banner, and if she describes her existence as a monstrous one (and we just saw violent flashbacks to that effect), it's to get closer to Banner who most definitely considers himself a choiceless monster.
In a reversal - Whedon's bread and butter - the first time Banner makes a choice, the Widow takes it away from him, forcing him to be the Hulk. The second time, when he chooses to run away and ignore her lullaby, he takes a choice away from her. If there's a love story here, it's a tragic one, not a romcom where the Widow is forced to race to the airport because she can't live without her man. Life goes on, Avenging does too. It is, I think, a misread to equate sterility with monstrosity, and any choice other than motherhood as an aberration. That's not the context of the scene.
I'm surprised people aren't making more of the scene where Hawkeye gives Scarlet Witch a pep talk. Isn't the scared little girl hero having to be told to buck up a more annoying feminine portrayal? But I'm not sure it should be. If every female character showed the exact same kind of weakness consistently throughout the film, it would be a problem. but can't a female hero fail or express doubt? So does Hawkeye, after all. All he's doing is giving her the benefit of his experience, and then letting her decide if she wants to be an Avenger. He doesn't stick around to protect her. She's left on her own and she makes the choice. That specific character has her own arc, which doubt was a part of (just as it was for Banner). And doubt isn't a bad thing necessarily. At the other end of the spectrum is Iron Man, whose LACK of doubt becomes dangerous hubris.
Another objectionable bit was Stark's glib comment about wanting to sleep with Asgardian girls. Again, it's a matter of character. Wouldn't a sexist macho jerk like Tony Stark make such comments? The film doesn't hide the fact that the Avengers are very much a boy's club, and the women who work with them openly mock their testosterone levels. Just because a character says something doesn't mean the writer AGREES with such sentiments, nor that he or she believes any given character speaks for their entire gender or ethnicity. And it doesn't even mean the CHARACTER means what he's saying. A few moments earlier, Stark and Thor were arguing about whose girlfriend was the more accomplished woman! We may not think the boys' banter is appropriate, but does it feel true to life given their various backgrounds?
So in short (yeah, I know, this has been anything but), I think it's important to ask QUESTIONS about gender and ethnic representation, and require our media makers to do better. But it's just as important to accept the natural answers that follow those questions. Just because we ask if a film is sexist doesn't mean it IS, but it's important to have that dialog so that we develop a language and criteria by which to actually judge such things and improve on them, something more than how high one's knee might have jerked.
But I'm open to other interpretations if you have them...