Avengers AOU — What Makes a Monster?
Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist.
SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses plot points of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of abuse and rape culture.
Joss Whedon tossed a number of Big Thought Subjects at us with Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
Birth and Parenthood.
He tied that one to the one that most fascinates me: monsters, and what defines a monster.
The movie asks over and over what makes a monster. It even makes some faltering attempts to answer.
Is Bruce Banner a monster? He’s a gentle scientist who hates himself for what he did to himself and by extension, the world. He’s the science bro who tries to keep Tony Stark from going off on wild tangents. He may have his mean moments, but we know it’s the other guy, the Hulk, who is the monster. Bruce just had the misfortune of stumbling across the way to let him out. Bruce would be the first to tell you that it’s him who is the monster, despite how hard he obviously works to keep the cork on the bottle, and to keep puny humans safe from him when the cork inevitably pops. Bruce is a modern day Dr. Jekyll, and Hulk his Mr. Hyde rendered in vivid green. The Hulk doesn’t really care about anything other than being left alone or, failing that, smashing whatever is between him and his solitude. When you get down to it, though, the Hulk is only monstrous when circumstances provoke him into it. Or Scarlet Witch’s mind magic.
Is Tony Stark a monster? He would instantly throw a no into the face of anyone asking, and chase that denial with a reminder that he’s a “billionaire genius playboy philanthropist.” Pepper, Happy, and Rhodey, his nearest and dearest, would agree. But the terrorists who tried to force him to work for them would say better to have the monster on their side. Wanda and Pietro, the twins, would say, at least early in the film, the man whose name was on the missiles that killed their family is definitely a monster. Probably at least some of the women he’s dallied with might say he’s a wolf in expensive lambswool. His casual rape culture “joke” about Prima Nocta would certainly support any woman thinking him capable of monstrous things. Tony recoils from the reality of having manufactured weapons and now seems monofocused on “peace in our time.” But he’s still doing the same thing — manufacturing weapons — with his Iron Legion, only rationalizing it to be different because he intends it to be. His genius creations are often stolen or replicated by the less scrupulous. His thoughts created the humanity-hating intelligence of Ultron, so who’s the real monster? Frankenstein or his creation?
Is Thor a monster? The Asgardian probably doesn’t give it a moment’s thought, given his adopted brother who appears to revel in being a monster — up to and including threatening to rape Jane to hurt Thor. There’s also the fact that he has to walk a very specific line to remain worthy to wield Mjolnir and he knows it because he’s already been on the wrong side of that edict. Really, Asgard is the only place it’s his job to care about. But he loves Jane and Erik, and by extension Earth. He feels compelled to protect them for that reason more than any other.
Is Steve Rogers a monster? He was almost tragically progressive for his time and now lives in a world where more people think like him about the marginalized and those without power. When danger comes calling, his first thoughts are for the innocent non-combatants in the crossfire. Deep down he seems to fear there’s no purpose for him other than fighting. I believe he’s more in touch with his humanity as a result, even if he hasn’t got the social skills of the 21st century mastered yet. He may fear he’s a monster only good for war, but he’s also the most vigilant against his personal inner darkness.
Is Hawkeye a monster? By all appearances, and Jeremy Renner’s comments notwithstanding — by the scope of the world the Avengers walk in, he’s about as ordinary as they come and he knows it. Like Natasha, he was an assassin who took targets off the board. He doesn’t seem to be losing any sleep over it. Though he was forced into Loki’s service for a good 75% of the Avengers’ first adventure, so maybe there’s a little concern there. We never get to see beyond “Captain, it would be my genuine pleasure” what he thinks about that.
Man. Monster. Dark. Light. The men of the Avengers are men or monsters strictly as a result of their own decisions — or mind control.
Then there’s the Black Widow. Is she a monster? She seems to think so. Psychologically speaking, Natasha seems to have herself really together. But appearances are deceiving, and she’s one of the people who lives that as part of her personal creed.
In the first Avengers movie she played Loki like a little Asgardian fiddle, enduring his misogynist sneering to do it (Which raises the question of why he bothered to hurl a gendered slur since all “mortals” are inferior to Asgardians, but that’s another blog post entirely). She played that Russian gangster the same way before Coulson called her in. In Iron Man 2, she put Happy on the floor for underestimating and dismissing her, and without missing a beat, stepped into the role of both flirtation for Tony and competent assistant to Pepper.
This is what she was raised and trained to do from childhood, first for the KGB, then for Fury and SHIELD. These are not lifestyle choices and situations that Natasha made for her own purposes; they have all been in service of whatever mission she has been assigned.
These are not choices that make for good mental health. Tash could use a good session with Doc Samson, in my opinion — if they ever put him in the MCU. Tony’s PTSD got alluded to in Iron Man 3, so it’s not that big a jump that a therapist for the super would be necessary. Perhaps Netflix could consider adding a series to the lineup.
When all she had was the KGB and Natasha just another cog in the wheel, she was expected to give up everything, including her own personal life and desires, for her mission and her country. Now, though, Clint and Fury have gotten her away from that and she has found a family, friends, and a life where she never expected to have one. It seems like those old gears are grinding up against the new ones now that she’s an Avenger.
She seems to blame herself for what was done to her when she was only a child, not in a position to have agency, make her own decisions, or have them honored and respected. In that scene where she says she’s willing to go with Bruce, who wants to run away after the Scarlet Witch sent him on a mindless rampage, she makes out that she’s a monster because she accepted the terms and conditions of her graduation ceremony — sterilization, to prevent her ever having a motherly attachment that could influence her more than adhering to her assigned missions.
Unfortunately, the line was placed in a setting and conversation which undermines its apparent intent. Natasha describes herself as a monster in response to Bruce telling her he can’t give her what Hawkeye has: the idyllic farmhouse full of kids. By her description of the cold decisions of the KGB, it sounda like Natasha believes she’s monstrous for allowing it when she was not in a position to decline. As a result, the line comes across, to me and to a lot of other women I’ve seen discuss the line, like she’s saying “I’m a monster because I’m biologically incapable of childbearing.” Most women aren’t raised to be assassins, so sterilization is never a subject that comes up except in dire circumstances — if Natasha draws a comparison between herself and “most women,” it’s still a stretch to see her as a monster. Though our world does place such pressure on women to bear children. That couldn’t have helped Natasha’s perspective on her “graduation.” In the end, it comes across as weak writing on Joss’ part, considering Natasha has seen more than one type of genuinely inhuman monster.
Then there’s the fact that she picked Bruce. The “Lullaby” protocol looked to me like shorthand/justification for how she and Bruce began to grow closer, since they seriously weren’t close at all by the end of the first Avengers film. Remember “Sorry, that was mean” and Bruce’s fauxpologetic smile? Remember the Hulk chasing a terrified Widow through the helicarrier? There’s a long way they had to come for Natasha to get from “terrified of the Hulk” to “maybe we should bump uglies despite the Hulk being in there somewhere.” It feels forced, contrived. To my mind, there should be a division between Natasha doing her job and Natasha’s feelings; we knew in Iron Man 2 that she really harbored no deep feelings for Tony despite the flirting. But now she’s the Hulk’s handler, and she’s got eyes for Bruce? Whedon’s Black Widow is inconsistent with the previous three movies’ worth of characterization; she is written as unprofessionally doing a job while she has feelings for her asset, despite Cap’s blessing that they weren’t breaking any by-laws. Would she have developed the feelings for him at all if he hadn’t been her asset to handle? Her Tiffany arrow necklace in Winter Soldier hints otherwise … and clearly Joss wasn’t interested in comparing notes with the other MCU filmmakers. Continuity? Only for the big superhero stuff.
Then there’s the infantilization and motherhood metaphors of the “lullaby” thing she does to calm the Hulk. Who sings the lullaby, and who is it sung to? That soft, sultry “hey, big guy” that opens her Hulk-conditioning code phrase? It’s fair to say that Natasha pitched her voice that way to sound gentle or even playful, but it also sounds a lot like a come on. “Sun’s getting real low,” she continues, triggering the Hulk’s conditioning to let him know that it’s time for sleepytime as opposed to sexytimes. That “mother calming her child” parallel, paired with Widow wanting sex (or at least shower makeouts) with the Hulk’s more friendly personality, makes it squicky to me on a whole new level that she’s interested in his alter ego and considers herself a monster for being sterile. She’ll be happy to make out with the man and calm the giant destructive baby when she has to? Ew.
It looks to me like Natasha has conflated “being a monster,” like the Hulk, with “having had something monstrous done to her” — her childhood assassin conditioning and the graduation ceremony sterilization. It’s a common self-hate response many, many survivors of abuse face. She blames herself in hindsight for not having done something to stop her own victimization. There’s no way she would’ve been allowed to live if she had refused the sterilization. If she had died for saying no, she wouldn’t be the Avenger she is now. A monster, despite her calling herself one, wouldn’t want to make up for all the red in her ledger. That Whedon and the editors of his script let this scene play worded and blocked as it was, is one of the film’s biggest failings to me — because it’s a slap in the face to abuse victims who already face victim blaming, and a terrible message to send to young girl viewers on multiple levels. Yes, it’s supposed to be entertainment. But I guarantee you a lot of the film’s entertainment value for female viewers was diminished by this gauche attempt at giving Natasha womanpain to match Bruce’s manpain, especially since she used it in a plea for Bruce not to leave her.
Then there’s the fact that she’s aggressively pursuing an obviously uncomfortable and ill-disposed Bruce. It’s generally considered self-destructive to pursue someone unattainable, even though it does a respectable impersonation of her acting on her own agency. Psychologically speaking, women who pursue men who are unavailable or unattainable do it to prove themselves “worthy.” (It may also be true for men, but there’s a different sort of social pressure for pursuing a partner than women face). That fits with her trying to make up for the red in her ledger. Add that to the implication that as a super spy, she has mostly seduced men for missions, it’s fairly safe to presume Natasha has not had many (any?) satisfying intimate personal relationships, romantically speaking. This does not make her weak. It makes her very strong for continuing to seek out what she wants, for trying. Natasha knows how to be patient, to persevere, to work hard, and to give herself completely to something she cares about. No one would call these weak or monstrous qualities.
Natasha as much as says Bruce shouldn’t consider himself the only monster on the team. But when you get down to it, Natasha is the least monstrous member of the Avengers. She’s trying to make up for having been made into a monster to suit someone else’s agenda, but is still struggling internally with who she is as a result of what was done to her. She just hasn’t been able to step far enough back from her guilt and regret to see it for what it is.