The fruits of Joss Whedon’s latest labor of geek love, Avengers: Age of Ultron, has officially hit theaters, and the internet is officially ablaze with feminist backlash surrounding Whedon’s treatment of Black Widow. Feminists are angry. Whedonites are angry. Comic fans are angry. Hulk smash. So much anger. And now the king of geek has officially left the Twitter-sphere. Sure, maybe it’s simply because he’s finished with the franchise and needs a break from the exhausting chore of keeping up with social media. Or maybe it’s because of the death threats, because who wants to listen to all that hate when a film you just poured your heart and soul into was just released to the world?
I will make a brief admission that Joss Whedon slightly dropped (or at least fumbled with) the ball in terms of the character development of Black Widow, but I refuse to believe that he’s entirely at fault here. And I don’t think the missteps with her character are bad enough to deserve the anger that the most hateful trolls are sending in Whedon’s direction, just because some of us aren’t happy with the direction he took the character. Yes, the Bruce/Natasha romance felt extremely underdeveloped and out of nowhere. I don’t like being automatically expected to fall in line with a romance without being offered an intimate prelude. It can’t just exist without question. Yes, most of Widow’s storyline revolved around her new romantic interest and the concept of her mothering abilities and lack thereof (in the literal sense), and yes, she was temporarily reduced to the equivalent of a damsel in distress.
With the knowledge that so much of Whedon’s original finished product was cut because of the extensive run time, I can only hope that the semi-sloppy way this character arc was presented is due partially to the studio-enforced time in the editing room. Nevertheless, we can’t speculate on the unknown. But really, is everything that happened to this character in Age of Ultron so terrible? After all, Whedon has a reputation for writing powerful female characters, and what’s wrong with him reminding viewers that Black Widow is, in fact, a woman? Is it so bad that he cracked open that hard shell a little bit in this film and gave her a semi-marshmallowy center? So she fell for a guy a little bit, so she thinks about motherhood, and she makes quips about having to pick up after the boys all the time. Does that make her any less kick ass? That’s what Whedon does. He doesn’t try to make his female characters blend in with the guys, he makes them stand out as women, reminding us that we don’t have to be a heartless assassin to be just as powerful as our male counterparts. Highlighting some femininity doesn’t eradicate all of the groundwork that’s been laid for her character, particularly in The Winter Soldier. She willingly exposed the red in her ledger, revealing her bad deeds for the greater good, and now she’s opening up even more in a different way. Why do we cheer for one and criticize the other?
So what if she’s bonded with Bruce Banner during a time of crisis? While Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America are dealing with existential woes of their own, Natasha has no question of who she is. She’s embraced her past, she owns her present, and she looks bravely to the future. She’s allowed to share a moment of vulnerability with the one other member of the group who has a darker side. Black Widow isn’t leaning on Hulk for support, she’s owned her dark side and is the one trying to help him come to terms with his. She’s offering her strength. Does Black Widow really need a love interest at all? Maybe not. But if she’s getting one, at least it’s one that sheds light on how empowering she really is. And don’t forget, she doesn’t go chasing after Bruce Banner. She pushes his limits and forces his hand because the world needed the other guy. She stays. She rounds up the troops for the next round. She fights.
Even the fans (haters) who disagree with every single thing I’ve said up to this point can’t argue with the fact that it’s astronomically unfair to be willing to disregard Whedon’s longstanding reputation as a feminist over his handling of one character in one forcibly shortened film that had to balance a slew of other character developments and storylines along with a heavy plot. How can one instance negate the years Whedon has spent creating and maintaining strong, unique, inventive, layered female characters? It always comes back around to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but really, how could it not? That television show paved the way for so much female centered pop culture. Buffy Summers was stronger than every male who crossed her path, and those she surrounded herself with admired and respected her for it. Did she compromise her femininity in order to be the hero? Hell no. She gets to kiss the boy and kill the bad guy. And why shouldn’t she?
Joss Whedon takes us on a journey through the most difficult seven years of a person’s life (on a Hellmouth, no less), showing viewers that it’s possible to emerge even stronger on the other side of every obstacle growing up has to give. First loves, loneliness, struggles with sexuality, heartache, bullying, loss, sacrifice, death, it’s all here, and it’s all scary, whether it’s in real form or the supernatural kind with a head that can be chopped off. And when it all ends, she doesn’t choose the guy. She stands strong on her own. She stays. She rounds up the troops for the next round. She fights.
See a pattern forming here? Maybe some of us didn’t get the Black Widow we wanted, but we got the one we deserved. And don’t forget, she’s not done yet. If you’re a Buffy fan (I’m only assuming you are if you’re cool enough to be reading this site) then you’re familiar with her cookie dough speech toward the end of the series. Buffy wasn’t done baking yet, and neither is Black Widow. Natasha has plenty more to offer us, and even though Whedon has penned his last entry in the MCU, we’ll look back and realize this chapter is pivotal to who she becomes when she’s finally cookies. So don’t let the haters get you down Joss, we still need you to explain to all these people why you keep creating such strong female characters for years to come.
Featured Image: Walt Disney/Marvel Studios