Critiques of feminism

The strong feminism behind Black Widow, and why the critiques don’t stand up

This post discusses the plot of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Joss Whedon, the auteur who rose from indie television sensation “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to stewardship of some of the most important movies in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, has seemed more than a little burned out lately. And . The reasons for his departure are as yet unknown, but some speculation has centered around criticism Whedon received for his handling of the character Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), a former assassin and the lone woman in the Avengers lineup.

Indeed, a feminist critique of Natasha, motivated as much by Marvel’s failure to deliver merchandise and a stand-alone movie around the character as by anything in the script, crescendoed as Whedon’s latest film, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” arrived in theaters this weekend. I’m sympathetic to many of the larger complaints, but I find the criticisms of Natasha’s story lines baffling. “Age of Ultron” has its failings, including choppy editing that make Whedon’s character-driven action sequences less coherent. But it’s hard to think of many movies or television shows that spend more time exploring what it means to be both a woman and a action hero. It’s a worthy entry in the oeuvre that made Whedon a feminist icon in the first place.

Ultron returns to cause even more trouble for the heroes in another trailer for Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Walt Disney Pictures)

One of the great delights of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is the way the movie pokes at our assumptions about what’s happening when a man and a woman appear close on-screen. It was clear that there was something more than mere camaraderie between Natasha and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) in “The Avengers.” When she went to visit Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in an attempt to figure out what he’d done to the brainwashed Barton, the Asgardian trickster jumped to the logical conclusion: “Is this love, Agent Romanoff?” “Love is for children, ” Natasha told him coldly. “I owe him a debt.”

It was a response that left room for her to be in denial, but “Avengers: Age of Ultron” revealed something rather more subversive, at least by the standards of contemporary filmmaking: Natasha and Clint are what they say they are, not soulmates in denial but the best of friends. And Natasha’s close to Clint’s wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), too: “How’s little Natasha?” she asks Laura when they arrive at Clint’s house. “Actually, he’s Nathaniel, ” Laura confesses. “Traitor, ” Natasha whispers to the baby. In a few efficient lines, Whedon’s sketched in a warmer side of Natasha’s personality. It’s not that it didn’t exist before; it’s just that, until the trip to the Bartons’ farm, she wasn’t around the people who deserved to see it.

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