By Gayle Sequeira:
The much anticipated, immensely successful ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ released on 24th April to rave reviews, earning a whopping $187.6 million in box office collections in the opening weekend.
In the midst of such acclaim however, a social media backlash from dissenting members of the Marvel fandom critiquing Whedon’s treatment of Natasha Romanoff as merely a love interest, rather than an important member of the Avengers in her own right, was slowly becoming more and more prominent. This, coupled with Jeremy Renner’s and Chris Evans’ remarks during the recent Avengers press tour branding Romanoff as a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore’, causing the event to erupt into a PR firestorm, and the news of Black Widow being left off official Avengers merchandise, raises important questions about representation of female superheroes in movies and popular culture.
The over-sexualization of Natasha Romanoff became apparent in the very first movie her character made an appearance in – ‘Iron Man 2‘. Applying for a post as Tony Stark’s personal assistant, Tony takes this as an opportunity to look up pictures of her in lingerie rather than check up on her credentials. Condescended by Stark’s chauffer Happy who doesn’t believe that she could be proficient at boxing, the tables turn as Natasha out-manoeuvres him, and is ultimately instrumental in saving the day at the end of the film. Her skills at martial arts and covert espionage once again take center stage in 2014’s ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘, but are sadly lacking in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron‘ where majority of her character revolves around an unlikely romance.
In the comics canon, Natasha has had relationships with Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Bucky Barnes and Matt Murdock (Daredevil). The first Avengers movie seemed to lean heavily towards the first of these relationships, portraying Clint and Natasha as kindred spirits, spies who had waded into a war much bigger than anything they had encountered before, reliant on each other for support. Despite Hawkeye being absent in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘, his invaluable presence in Natasha’s life was made prominent by the arrow necklace worn by her as a homage to him.
The fact that the movies went from an established ‘Clintasha’ pairing to a forced and awkward ‘Brucenat’ romance, from Natasha’s declaration that “love is for children” to her wanting to ride off into the sunset with Bruce Banner, left fans reeling. Moments such as Natasha prioritizing taking a shower with Bruce in the midst of a global crisis, and Bruce falling face-first onto Natasha at the party crashed by Ultron, rounded out the cringe worthiness of the film.
Despite her rich and complex back-story, references to Natasha’s horrific training in the Red Room were much too brief and her reaction to her forced sterilization was interpreted by many as an indictment of women unable to bear children. Natasha calls herself a ‘monster’ because she has been rendered infertile, angering members of the fandom unable to bear children themselves.
Criticism about Natasha being ‘out of character’ are made even sadder when one realizes that the man in charge of writing the movie, Joss Whedon is a self-proclaimed feminist. The second Avengers movie feels like a complete erasure of Black Widow’s badassery from the first, a regression from her being brave enough to fly an alien vehicle despite being unfamiliar with the technology, being responsible for the reversal of Clint’s brainwashed state via ‘cognitive re-calibration’, and ultimately being the one to shut down the portal, to her being used as a plot device for romance and being heartbroken at the end when Bruce leaves in order to protect her, even though it’s been made clear on multiple occasions that she can hold her own and doesn’t need to be coddled. Natasha’s one epic moment of bravery is when she retrieves the cradle from Ultron and his lackeys, flying through the air spectacularly as she’s poised to land on the Avengers’ Quinjet. However, that too backfires and Natasha finds herself captured, locked in a cage, and needing the male Avengers to rescue her – a pattern viewers are all too familiar with. It is reminiscent of ‘Thor 2‘ where brilliant astrophysicist Jane Foster was reduced to a pining love interest, needing Thor’s help to survive the Aether infecting her body.
Coming back to a lack of Black Widow representation in official merchandise, vlogger Alex Day points out that despite having the third-largest amount of screen time in the movie, Black Widow has the least amount of Avengers-branded merchandise. Fans have taken to Tumblr to speak about how even companies like Johnson and Johnson’s and Kinder contribute to this under-representation. Both Johnson & Johnson’s line of band-aids and Kinder’s Kinder Surprise eggs feature all the male avengers, but noticeably leave out Black Widow and Scarlet Witch. This dissent isn’t just limited to the fandom- Mark Ruffalo himself tweeted asking for more Black Widow merchandise for his daughters and nieces.
With no plans for a Black Widow solo movie anytime soon, her next appearance in the Marvel Comic Universe will be in next year’s ‘Civil War’. With the Russo brothers on board, fans are hopeful for a complete overhaul of Black Widow, a return to the character fans have loved and idolized for years.