I decided to post this one early because I am honestly a little bit tired of discussing “Age of Ultron” without the option to link back to this article. So, yes, there will be spoilers in this article, but they will be clearly marked, so that you can skip the part if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Considering the box office numbers you most likely have, though.
What I knew about the Character:
Absolute nothing. I wasn’t even aware that Black Widow existed, which is quite telling. Unlike Wonder Woman who is just as high prolific as Batman and Superman, the female heroines of the Marvel Universe have never really been in the forefront. And that hasn’t changed. If you look at the poster for the Avenger movies, Black Widow is always placed in the very background, even though she is a very popular character.
What I think about the movies:
Since the Black Widow didn’t get an origin movie (yeah, thank you for that), she was built up during the series. So the movies which are relevant for her are “Ironman 2”, “The Avengers”, “Captain America: The Winter Solder” and soon “The Avengers: The Age of Ultron”.
I already discussed Ironman 2 in great detail when I honoured Pepper Potts. So I will concentrate on the other three movies.
The Avengers is in it’s core a very simple movie. Honestly, how often have we seen that story? A team meets, first doesn’t get along but eventually joins forces and defeats a way more powerful enemy. It’s the plot of more or less every team-up and sports movie out there. What makes “The Avengers” work are the characters though, the way they play off each other. Especially the interaction between Steve and Tony is a joy to watch, and I also like that they are not all immediately against each other. It makes so much sense that Bruce and Tony would hit off immediately. In it’s core “The Avengers” is a elaborate character piece, in which the different strength and weaknesses of the characters in relation to each other are established. Even the action scenes play into that. They all establish something about the power level and abilities of the characters.
It also helps that they face off against the most compelling villain in the MCU. What I like about Loki is that he is hard to read. He is the personified chaos, which makes him very unpredictable. I am still not sure if ruling the earth was really his end-goal, or not. And every single hero gets an opportunity to confront him. Still, when all is said and done, it is a really good movie, but I think it is not “deep” enough to call it an outstanding one.
“The Winter Soldier” though is. Superhero movie or not, the themes it addresses are very relevant for our current society, mainly the danger in sacrificing freedom for so called protection. The brilliance of the approach hinges on the figure or Alexander Pierce, one of the most interesting villains in the MCU. Because his thinking is mostly understandable. Is it right to kill a terrorist today to ensure that he doesn’t kill thousands in the future? Yeah, there is a small part of me who wants to say yes, even though I am firmly against the death penalty. But the matter is more complicated than that, and the movie shows exactly why. Who decides who and what is a threat? How can we prevent something which might never happen? Isn’t the price we have to pay for this kind of safety too high?
Ironically “The Winter Soldier” hit the theatres just as it came to light that the USA had been spying on Germany to a questionable degree. Something which seriously strained the relationship between two countries, which have been allies for decades. What was for me the most interesting part in this whole affair (which is far from over, especially now that cooperate espionage has become part of the mix), was the reaction of the parties involved. The USA government seemed to be honestly puzzled why the German government made such a big deal of something which shouldn’t really come as a big surprise.
To me “The Winter Soldier” felt like an unintentional “That’s why!”. Because sometimes you have to trust to get trust in return. Because there is a very fine line between protecting yourself and becoming the aggressor. Alexander Pierce started out as a man with good intentions, who took the path to hell. And the movie encourages the audience to rethink their own motivations when they stand back and allow something to happen for “the greater good”. It is in a lot of ways a continuation of “Iron Man 3”, which was all about examining our fears. “The Winter Soldier” is all about what kind of mistakes we make when we allow ourselves to get overwhelmed by them.
But it also discusses some themes which are more relevant on a personal, character level, and which are sneakily addressed in the title. Because “Winter Soldier” is not just Bucky’s codename. The term can also refer to a soldier who has trouble to adjust to civilian life. In addition the Winter Soldier Investigation was an event after the Vietnam war during which whistle-blowers accused fellow soldiers of war crimes. Which begs the question who the actual Winter Soldier is in this movie, Bucky or Steve, who does have trouble to adjust and who takes up the role of the whistle-blower in the end. Steve’s motivations are sound, they always are. He is not one of those constantly brooding characters, instead he keeps pushing forward, no matter what. But in this movie, he is pretty much displaced and desperately tries to connect with the new world he is living in. Not exactly conflicted, but unsure of the path he should take. It’s a very refreshing mix overall.
On top of all this, the movie has some of my favourite action scenes in the whole franchise. I can never decide if I like the fight in the elevator or the one on the bridge better. But one thing for sure: gymnastics has never looked so cool. Plus, it is a nice change that for once a male character has to do all those flips instead of a female one. In short, I would be hard pressed to find anything to improve about this one. It is a nearly perfect movie.
“Age of Ultron” (and if you haven’t seen it yet you should skip over this part and start reading again after the picture) is also more than “just” a comic book movie, but a layered discussion about creation and evolution. I have noticed four major influences on it: Pinocchio, Frankenstein, the Bible and, a little bit oddly, Zombie movies. All of those sources are directly referenced. Pinocchio by using a song from the Disney movie, Frankenstein in the lighting-powered creation of Vision, the Bible by quoting it and Zombie movies in the way the robots are staged. The way Ultron first stumbles into the party, how his “bodies” break out of the earth, the way Scarlett Witch is ripping his heart out, imagine human bodies in their place and it looks like scenes straight from a horror movie.
All those sources have something to do with creation and evolution. Pinocchio is the story about a puppet who wants to be a “real boy”, but also keeps disappointing his creator. Frankenstein is on the one hand the story about a scientist who wants to create the perfect human but is repulsed by the result and on the other hand the story of the “monster” who does try to find its place in the world but gets rejected again and again and becomes more and more dangerous as a result. The Bible (to be precise, the book Genesis) is the story about the creation of the world. And Zombie movies are usually about humans turning into something they fear.
Fear is a theme which was already addressed in “Iron Man 3” and “The Winter Soldier”. Here it gets picked up again – starting with Tony’s motivation for creating Ultron being exactly the same which lead Alexander Pierce on his dark path. He is basically trying to prevent something which he thinks will happen in the future, and when Steve calls him out on it and says that every time someone tries to do that, innocent people die, his anger is for a large part based on what happened in “The Winter Soldier”. “Age of Ultron” is often criticised for not setting up “Civil War”. But I think the reason for it is that it instead concludes the main theme of Phase 2.
Fear is again the underlying theme of the movie. Ultron says that everyone creates the things he fears. Vision says that fear can inspire humans to do great things. The hate of the twins is based on hours they spend in fear beside a bomb. The Avengers are forced to confront their own fears – somewhat. Apparently Natasha and Steve don’t really have fears, they have only regrets. It is one of the weaknesses of the movie that not all the visions really play into the fears of the various Avengers. But it also plays into the creation of Ultron and Vision. Ultron is based on a program designed to defend the world. Vision is based on Jarvis, who is created to protect Tony and helps him to protect others through information. In a lot of way Ultron personifies Tony’s stance while Vision is a symbol for Steve’s idea what the Avengers should be like. His line about not wanting to kill Ultron but knowing that he has too mirrors Steve’s line about not wanting to kill anyone, but not liking bullies either from “The first Avenger”.
For the first time in Phase 2 a movie provides a clear statement what the right way is to tackle all those fears instead of just drawing attention to the wrong way. It is not about being defensive about them, but by protecting humans by working together. Which is a very Whedon answer and reminds me immediately of the end of the “I have a theory” song from Buffy’s musical episode “Once more with feeling”. It’s also a very Disney answer. But I don’t blame the movie for that, quite the opposite. While it sounds a little bit cliché and naïve, sometimes the simply truths are the best.
The other big themes in the movie are creation and evolution. With the notable exception of Thor every Avenger is either a creator or a creation – or both. And the relationship between those two gets explored in various ways during the movies. With Hawkeye, it is the most “natural” form of creation. He is a father, he created new life. Steve and the Twins all choose to be a creation because they felt it was necessary to fight for their cause. And even though they come from different sides of the spectrum, their basic motivations were, as Steve aptly points out, the same and they are all in peace with what they are. It is different with Natasha. What she is was forced on her, and not only took the Red Room choices from her in the past, what they did also took choices from her she might have made in the future. In the end, though, Natasha is also at peace with herself. Like Steve she has regrets, but she also accepted what she is.
It is a level of acceptance Bruce lacks. He basically created the Hulk himself, and he hates his own creation (which is in the end a part of himself) as much as the Hulk hates him. And then there is Tony who already managed to recreate himself and various robots. It is not really surprising that he is ready to take the next step while Bruce is more reluctant. What is interesting though is his motivation. What Tony basically wants is a system which will replace himself (and by extension the other Avengers). In short, Tony wants exactly what Ultron claims humans fear. He wants to supplant himself with something even better. Ultron’s desire to constantly upgrade himself mirrors the habit of his creator to do exactly that for three movies. He updates his life, he updates his power source, he updates his suits and finally tries to update himself by creating Ultron. Who in turn wants to update humanity (first through evolution and later through extinction) and himself.
Ultron wants to cut the strings, thinks that he is better than his creator (actually creators, but for some reason Tony gets sole responsibility, while Bruce’s role barely gets discussed). And yet he is still driven by the wish to become more similar to humans, even though the human form is not necessarily the superior one. Like Frankenstein’s monster he turns against his creator. And at the end of the day, he is the creation who wants to be a creator (a god) himself. He wants to shape the world following his own ideas. He is not one of those soulless AI which is acting based on logic alone and decides that humans are parasites. He can lie, he can feel anger (a lot of anger) and disappointment.
What makes Ultron’s story really interesting, though, is the manner in which he is defeated. Not by shutting him down, but by creating another AI which is even more powerful than him. Unlike very other story of this kind which sends a message that creating AI’s is a bad idea, this one has the aptly named Vision to counterbalance Ultron. There are so many layers to this and especially their last conversation, I could spend ages with the analysis.
Sadly, though, the movie never slows down enough to linger on the different themes and some of the aspects which are set up don’t really feel concluded. Part of the problem is that the movie needed more time to handle all the characters and themes. But I think that in this case trying to give all the avengers an own arc backfired. We are now at a point at the franchise as which those arcs should be mostly left for the stand-alone movies, while The Avengers should be about the team. I really didn’t need to see Thor going off on a quest or Natasha aggressively flirting with Bruce. Most of this stuff could and should have been cut in favour of adding more interaction with Ultron (especially Bruce and Tony should have confronted their creation at least once head to head) and with the twins. What “The Avengers” managed so well, allowing each Avenger to confront the villain, is here replaced with big battles.
What “Age of Ultron” does perfectly, though, is tying the end back to the beginning. Not the first battle, but Ultron’s first appearance. “How could you be worthy,” he says and adds that “You are all killers.” Which, yes, is true, every Avenger has killed at one point. But the end of the movie shows the other side of the medal. Not the Avengers as fighters, but as builder for the future. The lost life of Quicksilver is symbolically replace by Clint’s child. Tony talks about settling down with Pepper (and in a way got what he wanted, with Vision and Rhodey taking up his place in the line-up). Thor decides to look after his home world, because he sees danger coming. Meanwhile Steve and Natasha build another kind of legacy, the next generation of Avengers. And I admit, it kind of hurts to no longer see the original team again. But, as Vision aptly pointed out, a thing is not beautiful because it lasts. That is true for The Avengers, too, making the statement very meta. The MCU is moving forwards and eventually we will loose some of the characters we love so much. Not necessarily because they die, but they will fade away, making room for new characters who will supplant them. Ant Man, Dr. Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel are already waiting in the woodwork.
You might notice at this point that I really enjoy the different layers this movie has. But there is one thing which really soured the experience of watching it, and that was the romance. I will discuss later why it doesn’t really work for Natasha, but it doesn’t do Bruce any favours either. It feels like a tired rehash of the relationship he had with Betty Ross in “The Incredible Hulk” and is simply badly written. It hits really every single tired trope, from the best friend who encourages the relationship, to the random woman who sees in seconds that there is something going on between the two. The audience is constantly told that there is something between those two, but there isn’t really a lot of it shown. No furtive glances or shared smiles, Bruce doesn’t even act particularly worried while Natasha is missing.
I also don’t think that the romance adds to the overall theme of the movie. One would think that Bruce not only went on a rampage as the Hulk but is also partly responsible for creating Ultron in the first place is a more important issue for him than the (already addressed) question if he can have a relationship. I also think the final betrayal would have been way more powerful if it had been happen in the context of an Avenger overriding his decision to stay out of the battle instead of connecting it solely to a romance.
Don’t get me wrong, age of Ultron is still a really good movie. But it has some flaws which prevents it from competing with “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Winter Soldier” for the top spot. I am still trying to figure out where exactly on my personal favourite MCU-Movie list it belongs (definitely in the top half, though). It is hard to compare even with “The Avengers”, because Age of Ultron went full-scale on everything. The action, the characters (honestly, the cast list is crazy, even the guy from Winter Soldier who refused to start Project Insight turns up at one point), and the themes. In fact, if not for the romance , I most likely would have given it place three on my favourite list, even thought there is one other complain I have about the movie: It is too short! That might sound odd considering that the movie is already more than two hours long, but I honestly didn’t notice the time at all when I watched it. But I was thoroughly exhausted when it was over. The plot is coherent and full of interesting ideas, but the movie is so packed that there isn’t room to breathe or to linger at a thought. If you do, you miss something important.
What I think about Black Widow:
First off all, I didn’t like the way she was introduced in Iron Man 2. It was very clever and very aggravating at the same time. Clever in that I never even considered the possibility that the character was a S.H.I.E.L.D Agent. Oh, I was pretty sure that there was more to her than it seemed, but I didn’t expect her to safe the day in the end (and she totally did – Ironman did the fighting, but she was the one who changed the computer code). Aggravating in that she was introduced as sex object par-excellence, complete with pin-up pictures. Really Marvel? There was no other way to make her Tony Stark’s new assistant?
I also hated the way her interaction with Pepper was handled. They had two options: Either making her Pepper’s pick all along, which might have made Pepper look foolish but would have spared the audience unnecessary catfights, or making Pepper act suspicious the whole movie, which would be a credit to her instincts. Instead they managed to first let Pepper act like a jealous and insecure girlfriend and then made her look foolish on top of it. Would it have really killed them to allow some proper interaction between Pepper and Natasha? There was some light in all of this, since Natasha was portrayed as very competent agent overall, but was stuff like her changing the clothes in the car really necessary? Not that I object to her wearing sensible clothing for fighting, but it would be possible to bring the “she changed in the car” point across without creating a scene which looks like it belongs into a soft porno. Believe me, no woman who is in a hurry to change slides her hands slowly over her leg.
The movie in which Natasha really came into her own was “The Avengers”. We first see her being interrogated, seemingly in deep trouble. A scene which is then quickly turned around when it is revealed that she is actually the one doing the interrogation, having full control over the situation. And I can’t really emphasis enough how much I appreciate the way her interrogation skills are portrayed. Instead of seducing her mark, she uses their weak point against them, and often she wins by pretending to be more helpless than she really is. It is the tactic she uses against Loki, too, who in his arrogance reveals more than he wanted to (no, I don’t believe that her figuring him out was part of his plan). And he is the god of tricksters. In short, in her field she can face off with the best.
What she can’t do is defeating the Hulk. She is a good fighter, but she is not super-powered. She mostly works from the shadows. And yet she would rather wave possible helpers away than putting them at risk, despite being trapped herself.
But what really makes the character work is that her team mates trust in her abilities. Coulson has no doubt that she can deal with some Russian mobsters (or anything else which is thrown at her). Captain America first allows Hawkeye to participate in the final battle solely based on her judgement of his state of mind, and then catapults her through the air on her request. And in the end, she is the one who closes the portal. While everyone else is fighting the Chitauri, she goes to the core of the problem and solves it.
In The Winter Soldier she is practically the second protagonist. And I can’t emphasis enough how much I appreciate to get an action movie with a male and a female lead which does not end in a romance. The camaraderie which develops between her and Steve is beautiful to watch. Throwing those two together was a stroke of genius.
Steve is a man with ideals. Someone who fought his whole life for what he believes to be right. He is also first and foremost a soldier. Black Widow on the other hand mostly wants to make up for her past mistakes. She is not fighting for her ideals, she is trying to figure out what is right and wrong. As such, she bought into Nick Fury’s ideology that the end justifies the means. And she is first and foremost a spy. When Steve is planning a battle, she is looking for ways to avoid said battle. Together they are a nearly unbeatable team.
The brilliance of The Winter Soldier is how the movie reassigns familiar roles to different gender than usual. In most action movies, Natasha’s role would be played by a man, who would be the trusty friend and back-up for the hero. The role of the emotional support on the other hand, usually played by a woman, is in this case taken by Falcon. And the character Steve keeps pining after is Bucky. All this makes a really refreshing mix, to a big part because the romance angle is excluded from the get go. Every time it looks like something in this direction might happen, it is denied. It is not about romance. It is about friendship.
Steve is pretty much alone and disconnected in this new world. And Natasha is set on pulling him back into society. The friendship which develops between them is a thing to behold and…
…I was very upset that it wasn’t built up upon in Age of Ultron. That’s okay though. The movies were shoot for a large part parallel to each other and just because they barely share a scene, it’s not like the friendship is suddenly gone. What really upset me was the whole romance between her and Bruce Banner. I mean, really? The guy is 15 years older than her and while there is a feeble explanation that he is the only man she knows who avoids violence, I don’t think that the characters truly click with each other on that level. It doesn’t help that Bruce is initially practically fleeing from her flirting and is apparently not particularly worried when she gets captured (which was pretty pointless). There are moments which do work…mainly her betrayal at the very end, which is totally in character for her (she is always the one ready to take on the “dirty jobs” for the greater good).
I don’t mind the bit about her getting sterilized in itself. I thought I would, but it made sense. To me it stands symbolically for the extend in which The Red Room took choices from her, and how nothing they did can truly ever be reversed, which is a large part of Natasha’s character. Her scars are mostly not visible, but they run very deep under the surface, and it speaks to her strength that she is nevertheless pushing forward. But putting the whole matter in the context of a romance had some really unfortunate implications, because it suggests that she is somehow damaged goods because of it. As if romance is always about eventually getting children. Plus, I would have loved it if she had talked with a female character about it. It’s not like there wasn’t one available at the farm.
Honestly, I felt that most of the awkward flirting between her and Bruce was wasting screen-time which could and should have used on more important aspects, especially since their arc felt disconnected from the overall story-arc. The desire to run off together – I have no idea where this one is even coming from. And I honestly think that you could have pulled what worked in this arc way just as well based on a bound of friendship.
And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind Natasha getting a love interest or being in love. But in this case it didn’t feel like the romance even was about her. It was about Bruce, about giving him an opportunity to voice his worries and setting up him leaving the team. He was the focus of the arc, not Natasha. And that’s what irks me about the whole set-up.
Then there is the underlying sexism of it being the one female character of the team who can calm down the Hulk (which is, btw, another rehash from The Incredible Hulk). Not that I would necessarily mind it if it fit, but of all the team members Natasha is actually the one who makes the least sense for the role. The Hulk nearly killed her in “The Avengers”. When we left off back then, she was the one team member who had a truly strained relationship with him. Plus, if the Hulk has a “bad day”, she has no protection whatsoever. Thor, Tony in his suit or Cap can survive a hit, but she can’t. It feels like the only reason she got this role is because females are supposedly more sensitive.
The part in which she is kidnapped is questionable, too. It doesn’t really add anything to the story but instead creates a ton of problems down the line. I never really minded that Bruce couldn’t know that Coulson died during “The Avengers” because he was the one character who didn’t know Coulson at all, and his arc was different either way. But in this case Black Widow misses the whole creation of Vision and is yet not surprised at all that there is some red guy flying around. I guess Bruce might have briefed her, but it is never shown on screen and also prevents the audience from experiencing Natasha’s reaction to Vision.
In the end I still liked character in Age of Ultron partly because of the performance of Scarlett Johansson and partly because Black Widow is still absolutely badass. She is, as usual, the team member who has to make the difficult decisions, and, as cliché as it sounds, she is just a heroine and treated equally by the team. That is especially evident in the scene in which Hawkeye is forced to leave her behind. It is something which has to be done, and no one suggests that she is particularly more rescue-worthy, just because she is female. Though, for the record, I wouldn’t have minded if the heroes had to swoop up and carry male characters once in a while instead of only female ones.
I also would have loved a little bit more female/female interaction. The movie passes the Bechdel-test (arguable) by one conversation which happens mostly in the background. Natasha never has a conversation with Maria Hill, Dr. Cho or Scarlett Witch, which is quite a shame. In fact, she has barely any conversations with anyone aside from Bruce.
All in all Natasha is a great character and along with Steve my favourite Avenger. And I really, really want her to get her own movie at one point. Not an origin movie, but a good, old-fashioned spy-thriller, perhaps with Hawkeye as her sidekick. I can’t stop hoping that the first movie of Phase four will be a Black Widow movie.
Quote: “It’s really not that complicated. I’ve got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.”
The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron are easily the most important movies of the MCU. They are the ones which can’t be missed for the complete picture. But they also happen to be the ones which do the best when it comes to the portrayal of female characters. Age of Ultron was a little bit of a disappointment in this regard, because it felt like a step back, but those are the movies which give me hope for the future.
And this concludes my thoughts about Marvel and DC for this year. If you want a little bit more, I published a related article in my second blog, Movies and Lyrics. In two weeks, I’ll start with a series about the Harry Potter characters. Stay tuned.