Following up on my general Age of Ultron post, here’s my interpretations/reactions for Black Widow and Hulk’s plot lines–who I grouped together because they happen to be my favorite characters and because I have the most to say about them, not because they coincidentally ended up with a romantic subplot together. A less in-depth follow up post for all the other characters will follow.
Since I’m touching on some contentious issues, feel free to add other perspectives in the comments–there are so many considerations and angles to take here, I’m sure I must have overlooked something.
Everything here contains spoilers.
…and into the controversy we go.
I’m conflicted with Black Widow’s story line, though my personal interpretation is leaning a bit towards positive. I do understand the concerns, because the presentation leaves much open to interpretation, with insufficient time and characters available to really get into the concept. And Natasha’s personal plot points do primarily focus on romance and children–which can be valuable things to explore in any character, regardless of gender, but combined with our societal prejudices, having these make up the entirety of her character arch feels a bit…uncomfortable. I think it ultimately lands in a good place, intentions-wise, which is how I interpreted it, but it’s ambiguous.
So let’s jump right into the contentious sterility concept. I do buy that the people in charge of her program might plausibly do something like that. But the inclusion of such a plot point also necessarily brings up the stereotypical idea that women will put families ahead of their jobs in a way that is somehow different from how men might do the same thing (which makes it necessary to spell out the choices between family, career, or a mix of both as equally valid to avoid the assumption that one particular choice is being singled out as the “right” one or “natural” one).
That makes this plot point incredibly difficult to tackle in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone, especially given that there’s only one female character involved in it.
The way that idea is presented in the movie could be interpreted either way. Either Natasha is a motivated and successful spy specifically because she can’t have a family, and would rather have made a different life choice (which, by the way, she can totally still do). Or she does have some family ties and could have more if she chose to, but doing what she does is important to her–which is more of a mix of family and career, instead of eschewing one or the other completely.
I thought the movie settled on the latter by its end, but I do see how it might be easier, especially given societal defaults, to conclude the former instead. (And while the former wouldn’t necessarily be an invalid choice for a person to make, the issues with diversity of roles for women, even straight white ones, means this runs the danger of seeming as a statement for all women instead of just one.)
The point is, that I saw Natasha’s momentary crisis of wanting to run away with Banner as her grasping for as close as she could get to a quintessential family. It was a temporary thing brought on by the reminder of what had been done to her. (Because irrespective of whether a person would ever have kids, an invasive procedure like that, done without consent, is a violation). And when that moment of panic faded, she decided that she didn’t want that after all, that she wanted to be doing something instead of sitting on the sidelines, that she already had a place where she belonged.
And one thing that the introduction of Clint Barton’s family did, was show us that Natasha does have a family. She’s part of her best friend’s family. When she was watching that video of Clint’s kids, to whom she is a provisional aunt, to me that scene didn’t come off as a longing for children of her own. It felt like it was saying, ‘this is enough’. That the balance of work and family that she’d found for herself was the right one for her–and that her balance might not have been what we assumed it would be, from all her previous portrayals. But neither is her particular balance one that’s commonly shown. Usually it’s all or nothing.
Most of all, her ending scene felt like it was saying that both being a part of Clint’s family and working for SHIELD were integral parts of her life.
But again, I can see how with the lack of time to explore the story line, it could easily be interpreted differently.
As for her romance, while it might have been nice to have her be part of the team without being romantically involved with any of them, the rationale behind her choice of Bruce–as she says herself, all her friends are fighters and she’s interested in the one guy avoiding conflict because he know he would win–is pretty intriguing. (And on that note, how come every platonic friendship Natasha’s ever had with a guy gets interpreted as flirtation? The Winter Soldier was especially explicit in that it wasn’t pairing her with Rogers.)
Concerning her characterization in general, much like with everything else in the movie, there were some really cool ideas that suffered from having a limited time to explore them.
During the bathrobe scene, it was interesting to have Bruce and Natasha approaching that conversation from the perspective of their own personal issues, being so wrapped up in their experiences after having their minds messed with that they were missing where the other person was coming from. It was even a bit of a first for Natasha, whose job is to get in people’s heads to the point where, even her friends wonder if she’s saying what she thinks or what they want to hear. But the scene, much like the rest of the movie, didn’t have the time to properly transition to what it wanted to say, without making it feel abrupt.
The rest of the movie makes it clear that even when it comes to running away, Bruce and Natasha are on different pages. He’s serious. For him this is a long-standing idea, something he’s been doing for a long time before this Avengers experiment. When his work with the Avengers fails, he’s ready to go back to how he was getting along before.
Natasha is the opposite. She’s been dealing with her problems by being in SHIELD, by doing something. She had a moment of crisis that came from remembering the past, from getting a vivid reminder of who she was and what’s been done to her. And she briefly wanted to run away and live a different life. Then her boss showed up, she shook it off, and she got back to doing what needed to be done. Getting over the urge to run away fairly quickly.
Then for the rest of the movie, she looks immensely comfortable where she is, and with her role.
Poor, poor Bruce. This entire movie broke down his relationship with the Avengers. On the spectrum of being a scientist, he was pushed by Tony into doing something he didn’t want to do, twice. As the Hulk, mind magic forced him into a rampage through a city where he terrorized civilians. And when he’s made the decision that he wanted to be Banner and not the Hulk, Natasha pushed him (literally) into being the Hulk again, against his will.
Whereas the previous movie had him learn that the Avengers was a way for him to do something, this movie had these people–his team–undermining his autonomy and his decisions at every turn.
I do miss that world-weary assurance he had in the first movie, when he was a lot less likely to let himself be pushed around like this. Of course, that was when he was isolated.
Now, he had just barely come to terms with the idea that the Hulk could be an asset instead of a horror, just began seeing the Avengers as something he was part of. And then Scarlet Witch showed him how fragile his hold on himself could be. Of course he left. That was his default idea from day one, to stay out of trouble and off the radar. A rampage like that would be enough to reiterate his original concerns, that being part of the Avengers was too dangerous.
As for his relationship with Natasha, well, there is one thing that the story leaves out. Which is, that while we’re told why he’s compelling to her, we aren’t given a reason why she’s compelling to him. It wasn’t immediately obvious for me that he would be romantically interested in her, and it took me some thinking to come up with a few theories.
Maybe it’s that she’s seen him at his worst, and despite being initially afraid of him, despite being personally endangered by what he was, still stuck by him. I don’t know how much of the lullaby idea was her doing (though it seems like her kind of creative thinking), but she did take the time and care to be personally part of its implementation, to help Bruce control the aspect of himself that he’s most afraid of. So it could be that she took the time to constructively work on a problem everyone else is too afraid to approach.
But it’s odd that we’re specifically told her reasons, and not his.
The way their relationship is left in the movie, however, is something that I thought was really well done. After Natasha pushes Bruce into being the Hulk when he doesn’t want to be, I’m not surprised that he realizes she would always be bringing him back in to the Avengers. That that’s her world, and that running away together isn’t feasible because she ultimately wants to stay.
So yeah, being in a team did not do Bruce good this go around. His two closest relationships are with people who both have a strong sense of self and know what they want. And those wants don’t necessarily coincide with his, leaving him kinda in the cold.
Not to say that the rest of the team did that much better. When Ultron attacked, the team jumped down Tony’s throat, but didn’t so much as say ‘I expect this from him but not you’ or ‘you knew, why didn’t you tell anyone?’ to Banner. Which just goes to show how much they think of his input and his decisions. Or worse, maybe he’s still the monster to be contained to them, not a person whose decisions they can question or who they can expect things from. No matter why they assumed Bruce had no responsibility for his actions, he was weirdly and disconcertingly overlooked. It’d make me feel neglected, if I was him.
We know from the first movie that Bruce can be assertive about his needs, so I imagine the gentler approach he took here came from him deciding that being part of the team meant a certain degree of cooperation was called for. If so, it wasn’t exactly reciprocated. So perhaps him leaving was at least partially him putting his foot down on that nonsense.
Either way, this was some awesome yet completely overlooked character work.