As the sole lady Avenger, Black Widow—street name Natasha Romanoff—is a pretty serious badass. I’ve grown to adore Scarlett Johansson’s capable, steely-eyed take on this character. She’s sexy, but she’d rather outwit and electrocute you than fuck you. I like that in a comic book heroine.
This is why I find Black Widow’s story arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron so disappointing. She’s still armed to her eyeballs, unapologetically acerbic, and possesses enviable, deadly gymnastic power. However, most of her screen time is concerned with a manufactured Beauty and the Beast style romance between herself and the Hulk. Black Widow’s first full scene involves her using hand signals and soothing safe words to calm the Hulk back into Bruce Banner. Subsequent scenes include her pouring drinks with some heavy innuendo, landing under him during a firestorm with more innuendo, and exchanging meaningful stares with Banner across Avengers headquarters.
I’m sure this is a sweet development for some viewers. Hell, I don’t mind a little nod to two of the Avengers making the old sex cannoli. But, well, why a romance? Why now? Why couldn’t our one lady member of the Avengers continue to flirt, but not fall in love or just not have a love interest at all? She certainly has plenty of other aspects that could be explored. Instead we get, what Captain America calls, an opening up of Natasha. I can’t help but feel this is old territory. After all, what’s a woman comic book character without a heteronormative love story?
This worn out trope, however, is not the part of the film that truly incites my rage. I’m only capable of a sort of long, deflating internal sigh akin to the dying gasp of an ancient tortoise when it comes to this typical played out romantic song. No, it’s the content of the scene where Natasha convinces the Hulk to give into their attraction that really turns me into a rage-filled sandwich.
Earlier in the movie, during a chilling flashback brought on by the Scarlet Witch’s wacky brainwashing power, we glimpse Natasha’s KGB training. There’s ballet, an icy Julie Delpy, and much talk of a graduation ceremony. (I would totally watch a whole movie of that stuff. Just saying.) During Natasha and Bruce’s intimate conversation, he pushes her away saying that he’s too much of a monster to be with her. Then she reveals how she perceives herself to be broken—the KGB graduation ceremony is sterilization. I can’t think of any circumstance where a gamma radiation accident that creates a behemoth capable of destroying an entire city is on par with a young woman whose fertility is taken away by a spy organization as part of initiation. The former can be construed as a monster. The latter simply cannot have children. This is our Black Widow calling herself a monster in order to gain the love of Banner. Banner responds as if she’s told the truth, that she is exactly on his level, and therefore, a worthy mate. This is a reductive insight into Black Widow’s inner life and lacks the nuance that such a revelation should carry for this brave soldier.
It’s not hard to imagine that Natasha Romanoff has, in her imagined off-screen life, heard the pervading societal whispers that she was only worth what she might produce in her uterus and internalize that objectifying and transphobic belief. However, since Avengers: Age of Ultron is a fantasy movie written and directed by self-proclaimed feminist Joss Whedon, I had higher hopes for our lone woman avatar. I, as a non-Avenger superpowered woman, can mostly shrug off the passing comments about my expected forthcoming children and how I’m running out of time. But at some point it all piles up, and I can find myself, a box of thirty-five-year-old eggs, sitting on a gigantic hill of less-than feelings. It might make those times easier if I could see the fantasy of a gorgeous, strong, superhero lady not internalizing such virulent uterine bigotry.