Avengers: Age of Ultron may have set up the Infinity War, but it has also ignited a war of words amongst fandom: the shipping wars, an endless debate surrounding the love lives of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes™. Since there is such little screen time dedicated to romantic relationships in films featuring the Avengers (both solo and as a group), fans must make do with brief character interactions, ample insinuation, and our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Until now! There was nothing ambiguous about what Natasha Romanoff wanted in Age of Ultron: no bones about it, she wanted Bruce Banner.
(There be spoilers below — continue at your own risk!)
Romance! Apparently that is enough for some fans to claim Black Widow has been “ruined” for them. Black Widow long ago checked off the boxes of “strong female character,” but relationships are dicey territory for maintaining that badass female cred — maybe sexual encounters, but feelings? Gross.
For anyone claiming that Black Widow has been relegated to “romantic lead” in Age of Ultron, we may not have watched the same movie. Hulk was clearly the object of affection, Natasha aggressively pursuing him as her romantic interest. As Cap says, he’s seen her flirting up close, and this is different. Female characters being the default romantic interest, serving as the inspiration and / or reward for their male partners, that is formulaic and has indeed been done before in the MCU (sorry, Jane Foster). But what Natasha does in Age of Ultron is the exact opposite: it’s character development. Four films of flirting, being the “cool girl” of the Avengers, Natasha finally does something motivated by her own desires; not those of S.H.I.E.L.D., her guilt, or wanting to save the lives of others. In a very simple, direct way, Natasha gives Bruce the business, while also laying bare her own troubled past. Feelings AND vulnerability? I think Natasha’s strong female character status has officially been revoked. What we are left with is a far more nuanced character, whose portrayal has dominated conversations about the film.
In defense of their disdain for this turn of events, many fans have claimed it felt as if this relationship “came out of nowhere.” Sort of like Clint’s wife, children, and secret farm. By “coming out of nowhere” what critics really mean is “not from my head canon.” Natasha pursuing the Hulk is unexpected in the sense that it is not inspired by the source material, but there are more than enough interactions between them to imply that these two adult characters have had enough time to get to know each other between surviving an alien invasion and taking down Hydra. Countless viewers are betting on a future Vision / Scarlet Witch relationship based on a handful of glances, because decades of their canonical relationship tell us that their on-screen interactions means something. But it’s no more or less than what we’ve seen between Bruce and Natasha in the films, and breadcrumbs need not be laid out for audiences to get up to speed.
Our fond feelings for these characters, inspired by their rich and long histories within the comics, can work for and against us; expectations are hard to leave out of the viewing. For fans of Clintasha asking, “Why, Joss?” the answer simply came down to chemistry. No, Bruce and Natasha were not planned from the beginning. Whedon and company took notice of Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo’s on-screen chemistry in The Avengers and decided to run with it. And thank goodness; Wanda and her twin brother Pietro have more chemistry than Natasha and any of the other Avengers (note: Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson played spouses in Godzilla, making the twincest hard to ignore).
Fans of all ships would be much happier if less was left to the imagination in the MCU. Unambiguous on-screen portrayals of healthy, sexual relationships between heroes would go a long way toward balancing the oft-criticized “destruction porn” of the superhero genre. Of the few women that are romantically involved with Marvel heroes, their portrayals have been so chaste as to make the lengths of their commitment laughable. “Nameless sexual partner discarded by hero in first act,” a trope utilized in both Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, are about as close to super-boning as we’ve seen in the MCU, and that’s pretty sad. Natasha threatening to join Bruce Banner in the shower might seem inconsequential, but it is a giant, subversive leap in the right direction. In other words, get it girl.
What is more problematic than fans squabbling about their favorite ship pairing? There are so few options from which to choose. Black Widow cannot be all things to all fans. If you want to see a wide variety of male superheroes, look no further than the entirety of the MCU. Even amongst the homogeneous, white group of The Avengers, there are different types of heroes: soldiers, monsters, and gods alike. You want to see what a super-woman looks like? Black Widow will have to do. When Natasha slyly asks Captain America in The Winter Soldier, “Who do you want me to be?” she might as well be asking the audience. The less duplicitous Black Widow seen in Age of Ultron can’t fulfill everyone’s desires, but about five more female Avengers would help.