Feelings about Superheroes Part 2

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE NATASHA

You’ll have to pardon the Sound of Music reference, but it drives me crazy when the only female avenger is described as a problem. But I think in this case there is a problem with Black Widow’s characterization in A:AOU, and it all stems from one source: she is the only main Avenger that hasn’t had a solo movie.

The audience has had at least two movies each for the other Avengers, not counting their first group outing. So that’s at least six hours of individual storytime for the audience to get to know someone. With Natasha Romanov, aka Black widow, we have far less time with her – she appears in Iron Man 2 and Cap 2 as a supporting player, and a team member in Avengers. So this trip down backstory lane in A:AOU doesn’t have as much to build on- she has fewer developed points of care.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t have any points of care: In Iron Man 2 she works closely with Tony and Pepper. In Cap 2 she develops a close friendship with Steve Rogers, and we see her genuine grief at Fury’s “death.” And in the first Avengers we have the relationship between Nat and Clint Barton, as I discussed in Part 1. So clearly even though we haven’t had a solo Widow movie yet, she does have relationships within the MCU universe.

So with this in mind, I don’t object wholesale to Black widow’s major points of character development in this film – the relationship with Bruce Banner and the revelation of her forced sterilization at the hands of the Red Room. I object to these things happening in what is essentially a characterization vacuum.

You know were would have been a great place to introduce Widow’s feelings about her sterility?

A solo Black Widow movie.

But since we don’t have a solo Black Widow movie, we have to go on the points of care we have previously been introduced to for Natasha. And this is where Part 1 of this post comes in. Natasha’s feelings about being unable to have children are given to the audience as a result of two weaker points of care storylines – the out-of-nowhere relationship with Banner and the out-of-nowhere Barton Family Farm.

Some people are saying that the Banner love story is actually foreshadowed in the Avengers, when she tries to talk him down from his green pedestal during the attack on the Helicarrier. I’m just going to throw it out there that “trying to convince a dude to calm down so that he won’t kill you” is not really a solid foundation for a relationship. And the way she interacts with Banner in this movie is just confusing – suddenly Black Widow is the one who gives Banner the “lullaby” that brings him down? This is another instance of something “cool” – the development of team strategies and tools offscreen, then introducing them to the audience with no exposition – being wasted on something that doesn’t uite earn it. Yes, it’s cool that Natasha can talk the Hulk down. But why does it have to be Natasha? I think the answer would probably be along the lines of “Well, she’s got more of an emotional connection, and her efforts in the first Avengers movie…”

Blah blah blah. She’s the only woman; she gets to be the one to calm Banner down.

The Russo brothers, who directed Cap 2 and steered much of the writing, understood what to do with Natasha. In one article about their vision for Black Widow:

“There were debates about whether Rogers should have a romance with Romanoff, but they opted not to do it because it would sell out both characters. In particular, they felt that if that happened it would appear that the only reason to have Black Widow in the film was as a love interest, and there was so much more her character could offer the story.”

Ahem. In the wake of A:AoU, this interview looks like prophecy. What did Widow contribute to this move? She was there:

-to calm the Hulk down
-to fall in love with Banner
-to introduce verisimilitude to the Clint Family Farm story
-“I’m always picking up after you boys.”

Sure, she did stuff in the movie, but that stuff could have been done by literally any of the extant Avengers (or Rhodey, or Falcon.) In this version of the Avengers we have a Natasha who is unexpectedly maternal, cajoling, and nurturing, which has never been the case before. And even if they were going from an arc of “Natasha only knows violence! She’s a hardcore agent of Shield with a dangerous past” to one of “Natasha is more in touch with her emotions! She’s starting to have regrets about her past!” the way it’s handled here is a waste. And it’s not Whedon’s fault that Natasha doesn’t have her own movie – though I suspect that, at this point, Marvel execs (who are already against the idea of a female-helmed superhero movie) will be able to point to the backlash against this storyline as evidence against making the Black Widow movie.

One of the frustrations has been that, in the press tour, Whedon continually talked about how exhausting it was to make this film, how the writing of it was a burden because of all the stuff that Marvel wanted him to include, that people were being hyper critical for no reason. It’s clear from Natasha’s storyline, however, that he was tired even before the movie started shooting, because this is the same storyline he has for every female character in every single world he’s built so far.

Don’t believe me about his kink for the violation of female bodily and mental autonomy as plot?

-River Tam in Firefly, whose mind was warped and twisted even as her body was trained to become a killing machine by the Alliance in Firefly.
-Whatsherface in Dollhouse, who volunteers to have her mind wiped (and her body violated) over and over, because of Reasons (I didn’t watch more than one episode of that show)
-Oh, and the non-entity character Dr. Helen Cho in A:AOU is mind-whammied by Ultron into building him a body.
-I would even argue that Buffy has some of this, in the lack of choice she has over how to be a slayer, over what her body was born to do.

This is the same well he goes to over and over for emotional motivation. River Tam doesn’t have a normal brain; Natasha Romanov can’t have children. And Wanda Maximoff volunteers for the experiments that turn her into the Scarlet Witch. At worst, this weird element of women’s minds and bodies being medically violated to make them faster, stronger killing machines is a bit of latent misogyny. At best, it’s narrative fucking laziness. It’s bad story economics.

I say laziness because of what I pointed out earlier regarding how a) the relationship that sparks this revelation was not earned by previous points of care b) how the audience is being cheated of Natasha’s character development by introducing this as a subplot rather than an element of a solo film. Some people on my dash have been very critical of the backlash to Natasha’s storyline, saying that those who oppose the sterility storyline are anti-feminist. Infertility is no joke – it’s a serious issue that many women struggle with, and forced sterilization has been used as a political tool of oppression for years (in this country, no less.) I want to make it very clear that when I criticize this storyline, I am doing it because to have used Natasha’s (canon) forced sterilization in this throwaway manner is to trivialize this issue, both for the character and also for society.

So, instead of the snarky, funny, deeply loyal and protective friend we saw in Cap 2, we get Natasha the Wet Blanket, crying out of nowhere and begging Banner to date her. What can we learn about this for writing?

All subplots should have bearing on the main plot. That’s my takeaway, at least. Compare Nat’s arc in A:AOU to Cap 2. In Cap 2, Nat had to face the destruction of the organization she had fought for for years AND the knowledge that, as part of her work for that organization, she had very likely made calls that had helped Hydra. So her emotional development fed into the plot as she helped Cap and Falcon destroy Shield. The sterility storyline has no bearing on the events of Age of Ultron. How could Nat’s storyline have been improved?

For one thing, the “graduation ceremony” idea is actually a pretty good one – train someone into doing something heinous as a test of their loyalty. The recent (ridiculously enjoyable, emphasis on the ridiculous) movie Kingsman: The Secret Service played with this idea. In that movie, at the start of their training, Kingsman recruits are given a dog to bond with. They have to take the dog everywhere, and then to become a Kingsman knight, they have to shoot the dog.

What if Nat had been forced to shoot a child as part of her Red Room training? Perhaps one of the children who she had helped train? That would have tied in nicely to the bits about Tony feeling ambivalent about destroying his own creation, even though I didn’t love that part either, and also given weight to her tenderness towards Clint’s Miracle Children. But I hope you see what I’m saying – that there are ways to do these things without introducing a ham-handed nod to an issue that is heartbreaking or so many and then never mentioning it again. In the economy of a story, a story is stronger when different parts have an effect on other parts, and when something is introduced that so clearly doesn’t have a place with the rest of the action, it feels off.

WHERE MY GIRLS AT

I talked about the lack of Pepper Potts in Part 1. What’s interesting is that even though there are technically two other female supporting characters in A:AOU, they were practically nonentities. Maria Hill and Dr. Cho in this movie are just… there. Their lines could have been said by anyone. And I don’t think they even ever have a conversation with each other, or with Nat. (If they did, the writing was so un-memorable that it has escaped my memory, and Lord knows I’m not paying to see this movie again.) The only memorable Maria line is when she complains about the testosterone. I always say this to writers – if a character is complaining about something and the reader agrees, that is a problem. This happens the most often with characters who are being written as cynical or ungrateful, in my experience. At a certain point, the audience loses tolerance for that kind of thing. So when Maria Hill did the cough*testosterone*cough thing, I could only agree with her- Yes, Maria, there are too many dicks on the dancefloor! And many others in the movie theaters I was in thought so too, if the murmurings I overheard were anything to go by.

It starts to get obvious after a while that a creator or a studio doesn’t value female participation. The problem is, half their dollars are lady dollars – and they know this, which is why they cast hotties as all their major heroes. So I’m not going to go on about this, because it’s so obvious as to be embarrassing – If you don’t have fully-realized female characters in your story, your writing is lazy!

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN

Before I wrap up, I’d like to say a few words about my very favorite Avenger, Steve Rogers.

Of all the Scarlet Witch visions, IMO, Steve’s was the only one that was truly believable given what we know about the character so far. The dance hall filled with celebrating soldiers, who begin clutching wounds in their revelry, the appearance out of nowhere of Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers standing alone—all this was rooted in what we’ve known of the character so far, and it worked brilliantly.

The problem was everything else. Why, in Whedon’s vision, is Steve Rogers a humorless soldier? Why “Language!”? I just really hate that in Whedon’s eyes, Cap is a grandpa who hates everyone and wants to go back to the 40s. Cap 2 moved him past this. In Cap 2 he’s engaging with the world, listening to Marvin Gaye and eating Thai food. He’s making new friends and tough choices. But in the Avengers, he’s sniping at Tony about language. Where is the guy that lied on his enlistment forms in five separate attempts to get into the army? Where is the guy who voluntarily wore tights and booty shorts to help his country? Where is the guy who stole a plane and parachuted behind enemy lines against orders to bring back his best friend? Did Steve Rogers serve in the only part of the European theater in World War II where no one used swear words???

This brings me to a larger point-

IT’S LIKE WHEDON DIDN’T WATCH ANY OF PHASE 2

Whedon’s vision of the characters in A:AOU doesn’t feel like moving the characters forward – it feels like a major step back.

In a lot of ways this is the same exact movie as the first Avengers – the team has to learn to work together! Personalities are hard! Cap hates Tony! There’s an enemy that they’re not strong enough to fight, but if they work together, they can beat anything!

We’ve seen that movie! But more importantly, we’ve all seen what happens in between in IM3, Thor 2, and Cap 2. We’ve see Thor deal with the death of his brother and Tony deal with his anxiety and Cap make jokes while lapping Falcon around the National Mall. We’ve seen Natasha pop giant bubble gum bubbles and call Steve a fossil. We’ve all seen this- but I’m increasingly wondering whether Whedon did.

IN CONCLUSION, KIND OF

What I’ve been trying to say over the course of these two posts is that when you’re writing something, especially when you’re writing a series or working in a shared universe like the MCU, you have to trust that the reader is going to remember what has happened up to that point in a story. And you have to trust that the reader (or viewer) doesn’t just want more of the same, however tempting it may be to deliver it. We want to se the further adventures– not the same adventure, now with a more confusing ending. (Seriously, I tuned out for about the last half hour. Thor used lightning to destroy Sokovia? Is that what happened?)

The relationships that were developed in the solo movies and the first Avengers are the economy of the MCU, a constellation of points of care that the viewer roots for. What does A:AOU mean for future installations in this universe? Will the Banner/Natasha storyline be developed? Will they forget all about the Barton Family Farm?

Basically, I’m delighted that the Russo brothers and the writers of Cap 2 are coming on for the next three Marvel installments (I’m pretending that Ant-Man isn’t happening, because Jesus Christ, we’re getting an Ant-Man movie before Black Widow? I’m being punk’d). In interviews they’ve already said things that are encouraging to me about their general ideas about the characters and the direction they’re headed in.

And who knows. Maybe at last we’ll get a Black Widow movie.

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Feelings About Superheroes, Part 1

I saw Age of Ultron last night and like much of the Internet, I have Some Thoughts. But I thought that instead of doing a straight up review, this could be a Learning Moment ™ for all of us. Of course those thoughts ballooned and now this post is nearly five thousand words, so in the interest of time, I’m going to split this up. And there are massive, massive spoilers throughout for Avengers: Age of Ultron and the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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