Is ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Sexist?

Many fans are in an uproar over the depiction of Black Widow in the latest Avengers movie, and it’s easy to see why. Marvel Studios’ most prominent female superhero has been sidelined yet again in Avengers: Age of Ultron, with as little screen time as ever, but more to the point she has fallen victim to probably the most ill-conceived scene in the history of the studio, so yes, many of her fans are, understandably, totally pissed off.

The scene in question takes place in the middle of the film, when Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are hiding out in Clint Barton’s farmhouse, finally given a moment to catch their breath, and decide to talk about their feelings. They have been flirting since the beginning of the movie, but Banner won’t let himself have a serious relationship, since he’s basically a ticking time bomb of gamma irradiated destruction, and because he assumes that his condition will prevent him from ever settling down and having children; i.e. “a normal life.”

Romanoff counters with her own tale of tragedy, a speech about her abusive training in Russia, which culminated with her “sterilization” to prevent her from having children and, by extension, any personal connection that could take priority over her job. It’s a relevant conversation for two heroes to have – whether their dangerous lifestyles and emotional and physical baggage will stand in the way their personal happiness – and it plays entirely wrong, making it appear as though Natasha Romanoff considers herself a “monster” because she can’t get pregnant.

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Within the context of Avengers: Age of Ultron, one can interpret that this scene was probably meant to play innocently enough. Set against the backdrop of Clint Barton’s happy family life – a family he has only been able to have by keeping them wholly separate from his life-threatening occupation – this frank discussion about whether two people with feelings for each other are too damaged to make their relationship work is valid. It’s the right place and the right time to have a conversation about their feelings, and no one could argue that they don’t have an awful lot to work through together. What’s more, Banner is the one who first brings up the idea that he may be less than human because he can’t have children. Romanov only counters with her own tale of woe to make the person she cares about understand that his baggage need not isolate him, and that it can safely be shared.

But within the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the scene becomes representative of greater institutional failures. There are eleven (official) films into the Marvel Studios franchise, and only three female heroes have arisen with prominent roles – Black Widow, Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Sif (Thor) – none of whom with a movie of their own. Of course, there are several other female characters, and some of them are even in positions of power, like Maria Hill (The Avengers) and Pepper Potts (Iron Man), but even they are almost always subordinate to men. One notable exception: Nova Prime, played by Glenn Close in Guardians of the Galaxy, who has little more than a glorified cameo.

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Factor in the marginalization of female Marvel Studios characters on their own merchandise (repeatedly), and it all adds up to a powder keg. For a studio whose output consists of multiple films per year, whose reach extends to every corner of the globe, and whose movies are among the most popular ever filmed, it’s enormously frustrating that giving half of the population of the planet their proper due has never been their priority, and it’s entirely reasonable for their fans to complain about that. Especially now that they have one particular moment to point to, as proof that this studio has the capacity to be completely tone deaf.

Is it fair to blame Joss Whedon, the writer and director of Avengers: Age of Ultron? Yes and no. It was his responsibility to write and film this scene so that it came across correctly, and it’s hard to argue that he succeeded, given how many audience members have responded to it. But as Joss Whedon himself recently reminded us, he’s not in charge at Marvel Studios, who run their films more like a television series than as the individual works of auteurs

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If a scene from or even a whole episode of a television series falls as flat as this particular moment from Avengers: Age of Ultron, the director of the individual episode is rarely blamed. In an instance like this, the feces generally runs uphill, and the blame typically falls upon those who were supposed to be micromanaging the production in the first place. And since the stage was set for this backlash by many of the other decisions made by Marvel Studios throughout every single one of their films, it would be inappropriate to make Joss Whedon the sole target of criticism.

And again, the criticism is undeniably reasonable. If this scene hadn’t broken the proverbial camel’s back then something else would have done the trick eventually. It’s unfortunate that an otherwise entertaining summer blockbuster has been marred by the ugliness that can be fairly interpreted within this moment, but at least it’s serving a higher function. At least the conversation is being had, and being articulated with sufficient passion that the higher ups at Marvel Studios should be obligated to take notice, and act accordingly.

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It’s worth noting that Marvel Studios has recently made steps in the right direction, beginning with their TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show features several strongly characterized women in prominent roles, but it has heretofore failed to reach the level of popularity that any of their films has enjoyed. Earlier this year, they also released the first season of the impressive new series Agent Carter, which starred Hayley Atwell as the title character, who was combating her own marginalization (and a Soviet conspiracy) in the sexist aftermath of World War II. Sadly, the show is unlikely to get a second season. Hopefully the upcoming Netflix series A.K.A. Jessica Jones will make an even bigger impact when it premieres later this year. 

Marvel also has announced their plans to release a movie based on the current comic book incarnation of Captain Marvel, a female superhero who is now more popular than ever. That film is currently scheduled for release in 2018. While it is an encouraging development, certainly, one does have to wonder why Captain Marvel had to be the 20th film released in this franchise, and why audiences will have had to wait ten years since the first film in that series, Iron Man, to get there. 

Is Avengers: Age of Ultron sexist? Perhaps not inherently, but even so, it has fallen prey to the sort of nearsightedness that allows ugly stereotypes to infect even the most well-intentioned of stories. If the uproar over this scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron can steer Marvel Studios – and any other studio, for that matter – into more positive directions, it will have served us well. But if that uproar serves no constructive purpose, it will have been a waste of our collective energies. The issue shouldn’t be that someone screwed up, the issue should be that someone needs to grow up. Becoming more aware of the implications of our words and actions, and being careful to use them towards positive ends, is the kind of maturity we should all be demanding from filmmakers, studios, and storytellers in every other medium.

The stories we tell have great power, and with great power comes great responsibility. You’d think Marvel Studios would know that already, but even Spider-Man needs a reminder now and then. So let us all make our own voices heard, and use those voices with the same responsibility we expect from others.


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.