[SPOILERS for Avengers: Age of Ultron below]
So, I went to see the new Avengers movie. I overall liked it. Some things I loved; some things I wish had been different. What I want to address now is how Natasha Romanoff was portrayed in Age of Ultron. Do I wish she had had more screen time? Yes. Am I still waiting for a Black Widow movie? You bet.
I have seen several people comment on how she was reduced to a damsel in distress pining over Bruce Banner. I see where these analyses come from and I don’t disagree with how some of Natasha’s role in the movie can be problematic (1), especially in how they might have been written in the first place.
Yet, I found there was much more to Natasha in this than a damsel in distress pining over Bruce Banner.
I first scratched my head when I found about the Natasha/Bruce angle. It felt weird, though reflecting on the first Avengers, I could see the reasoning behind this development, especially with how Age of Ultron hints at the time that has passed since the other movie. The way Natasha and Hulk work together for him to return to his human shape is a big testimony to it early in the movie, regardless of a romantic angle. It was clear that they must have spent a lot of time working on this. It didn’t happen overnight. So it wasn’t that different – for example – to how things had developed between Han Solo and Leia Organa at the beginning of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.
To me, the most annoying thing about this romantic angle was how everyone seemed to see it and had to comment on it. This wasn’t a good idea and diminishes the subplot more than anything else. Such jokes and remarks should have been kept for a subsequent movie. (2)
Natasha’s role remained important in important sections of the movie, including all battles. And when she had been kidnapped, the rest of the group didn’t really are well in her absence, showing how division within the group, regardless of causes, provokes issues. They also didn’t seem to doubt her capabilities in standing her ground, despite heading not only to free her but also to take Ultron down. As Clint Barton expected, she also finds a way to contact them with what she can find. Of course, the fact that she was brought back basically where everything started is a bit obvious, but this doesn’t take anything away from how Natasha found a way to contact the other.
Speaking of Clint Barton, he had the damsel in distress and what can be conceived as a feminine arc in the movie. He was the one who almost died in the first fight and had to be evacuated. He is teased about his invisible girlfriend and is eventually revealed to be married with kids (which I really liked). I love his sibling relationship with Natasha and was glad that they didn’t go the romantic route for these two. Clint is invested in his family life even when he has to juggle with his Avenger’s duties. He almost gets killed a second time when reaching out to save a young boy, reacting in a very parental (or some may argue maternal) way. This behavior is also exhibited with Scarlet Witch towards the end of the movie, but not with her brother. In the end, Barton has to be rescued twice: once by his team and Doctor Helen Cho, and later by Quicksilver, who dies in the process.
So, it may be argued that if Natasha receives a damsel in distress’s treatment at times, she isn’t the only one. And even the whole damsel in distress aspect doesn’t summarize her involvement in the narrative. She remains involved, even when she might have considered fading away, along with Bruce, who is the one doing it at the end of the movie. Every time the possibility of going away is brought up, Natasha ends sticking around and continuing to serve among the Avengers, no matter what might happen. Even when the fate of the trapped city inhabitants seems sealed, she is the one saying that she doesn’t consider trying to escape. She is ready to die for what she believes in, for the life she has chosen as an Avenger, thus retaining agency. The same way, she takes lead with Steve Rogers at the end, to train the new group of Avengers, confirming that no matter what she may deal with, this is her choice to serve for the greater good.
(1) Don’t get me started on my reaction when I found out that one of Tony Stark’s lines had been replaced to include a rape joke with “prima noctae”. Tony Stark can be immature and a jerk, but he has nevertheless come a very long way since he was introduced in this era of Marvel movies, which is also shown by how proudly he speaks of Pepper during the party. Including this joke was not only gratuitous and hurtful towards the audience; but it was also a disservice to the character’s development.
(2) There were several other occurrences of sexist and gratuitous moments meant to be fun when they weren’t, like Bruce/Hulk face planting into Natasha’s chest. This brings nothing to the story and adds unneeded sexism, when there are other ways to have funny moments, as the movie is able to show at other moments.