I put in a lot of effort to avoid senseless internet arguing and nit-picking and trolling and back-biting and rage-inducing-ly uninformed, reactionary commentary, but sometimes there is simply no escape. So I’m leaning into this one, mostly because there is one aspect to the now done-to-death argument that I haven’t seen brought up in other forums.
SPOILERS FOLLOW. Go to the theater, watch Avengers, and then come back if you’re not privy to the details.
For those blessedly unfamiliar with the vitriol recently directed at Joss Whedon, I beg your forgiveness for bringing you up to speed. In a nutshell, a lot of people got mad and yelled at possibly the last person in mainstream media that deserves a good shout-down (I’m talking about Joss Whedon, keep up guys) for daring to bestow thoughts of romance, womb, and young on Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff, saying that it watered her down and made her weak.
A lot of the press so far as been dedicated to debating the many varying degrees of silliness and circular reasoning up for grabs in that line of thought, so if you want to read about those, hie thee to Google and find a few–I’m talking about something else: Theme. Something which few seem to consider, despite the fact that the argument is over is A STORY. WHICH HAS THEMES. VERY EVIDENT THEMES.
The question of reproduction is one that has been hotly debated for decades, well before high profile cases like Roe v. Wade hit the scene. Pro-life, pro-choice, contraception, family planning, and even the ability to decide when, where, with whom, and how readily one (particularly women and LGBT community members) has sex dominates political, ethical, and religious discussions all over the US, in every forum, so it is not surprising that this is what would be focused on when Avengers came out. It seems to be all people can see.
But the evident theme of the movie itself is the larger, more abstract concept of legacy, and folds in reproduction as well as the lengths some people will go to to secure a legacy when facing down their own mortality. Ultron’s violent reaction to a taste of Stark’s own very human fear and confusion, coupled with his desperation to end humanity’s eternal conflict as well as neutralize outside threats, is what brings about the larger plot, after all.
Said larger plot focuses a great deal on Tony Stark’s dread and looming guilt resulting from a pretty standard savior complex: after his attempt to subvert future trials fails so spectacularly that it brings those exact future trials about in spades, he grows despondent and says himself that Ultron and the growing murderbot-infestation are his “legacy,” “the end of the path I started us all on.” Despite his regret, he defends his methods and creations in the same way a parent defends an errant child at a PTA meeting (or like a writer when their favorite character comes under fire…not that I know anything about that) even after it becomes apparent that Ultron plans to enact the next global extinction event. He even goes so far as to continue with his original plan in an effort to fix the Ultron problem, and fights his own teammates when they oppose him (with perfectly prudent reasons). His methods—like children and even the spiraling iterations of technological advancement–become the cause of and solution to any number of problems. One generation fails, and the next one takes another shot at it. Call it progress, advancement, evolution, or futility, it remains one of the most organic themes one could expect in a plot. What keeps the plot from becoming hopeless is that eventually his efforts do pay off with the birth/creation of the Vision, who tips the scales in the team’s favor.
All that to say that Natasha Romanoff’s brief conversation with Bruce Banner about who can and can’t have babies is possibly the smallest piece of the plot dedicated to the theme of reproduction as a means of legacy, yet it’s all people can talk about because it involves a character’s very natural discomfort and wistfulness upon discussing what amounts to sexual violence–forced sterilization–which in its most reduced form is a denial of choice as well as physical injury, much in the same vein as rape, forced pregnancy, or even genital mutilation, which are ever at the forefront of women’s body and reproductive rights issues. From a technical standpoint, however, the conversation is there to add some backstory flavor to a flash-in-the-pan romantic subplot that in turn lends some support to the themes of the larger arc, and no more.
Hawkeye/Clint Barton emerges out of the woodwork to support the theme as well, and shows his true colors as an enthusiastic homesteading farmer with a wife, kids, and the predictable honey-do list. It’s a side we haven’t seen, and very much at odds with the desperado-solitary eagle-lone wolf vibe that many hero characters like Stark and Cpt. America offer. When Barton later prepares to sacrifice himself to save a child during the final battle, it’s because he empathizes with the boy’s mother so intensely that no other course of action is acceptable.
Ultron, likewise, replicates “like Catholic rabbits,” dramatically destroying himself with each new iteration, and monologues at length about humans bearing “children, designed to supplant them. To help them… end. ” Again, legacy is depicted as a balm to mortality, which is really what storytelling has always been about: leaving something behind, because you can’t take anything with you. In the conversation between the Vision and Ultron’s final battered and failing vessel, Ultron is forced to view the perfect humanoid body he had intended for his ultimate “upgrade” in the hands of someone else, and berates the Vision for his naïveté and idealism, sounding very much like a crotchety old man jealously disapproving of a youngster’s apparent waste of energy and potential.
The whole plot is crawling with the question of how to cope with mortality: do we give up and become so despondent at the impossibility of a perfect world that we just decide to get it over with and blow it all up (Ultron)? Do we rush toward an uncertain technological future to attempt a remedy to suffering and death (Stark)? Do we accept what has happened and hope for other means of fulfillment/worthiness (Romanoff)? Do we wander off into the proverbial desert to contemplate our various existential crises (Banner)? Do we accept that it’s never going to be perfect and simply protect what we have (Vision)? Or do we go Barton’s route: keep our heads down, have a few wee babes, and till the earth?
It is disappointing that so many feel the need to personally attack Whedon (or patronize him with comments about his “misguided feminism” coming from a good place) when the conversation and ultimately the whole depiction of Black Widow’s grief manages to be compassionate, realistic, and sympathetic while still subverting the usual “female saved by romance-and-babies” trope that so many viewers have justifiably become tired of seeing: as others have pointed out, she goes on with her life, draws satisfaction from her work, and focuses on other things still within her control, as we all must do after loss or trauma. There are no after-credits scenes of her binging, obsessively Pinning baby pictures, weeping over the birth control that she only takes to regulate her periods, or any other stereotypical expectations of how women in particular deal with grief. Still, the certainty with which so many internet warriors comment to this effect makes me wonder if they maybe know something about some deleted scenes I don’t, or perhaps they watched a different movie altogether and this whole debate is all just a big mistake.
The argument that Joss Whedon is singlehandedly oppressing women by portraying one character who regrets her inability to bear children has not a single leg to stand on. It also directly insults women who have lived through similar traumas by deeming it weak to have even subtle emotions about those experiences after the fact. (I mean, doesn’t that kind of sound like…misogyny, perhaps?)