Joss Whedon promised us “four prominent female roles” in Avengers: Age of Ultron, so where were they? Spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.
In an interview in July of last year, Avengers: Age of Ultron writer and direction Joss Whedon said, in response to an interviewer’s question about the increased number of women in the Avengers cast, that audiences could expect “four prominent female roles in the center of the movie, and a more balanced presence throughout the movie.” I’m not sure what film Whedon was talking about, because it sure wasn’t the Avengers sequel.
The lack of diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not a new discovery. In a recent article, Hypable writer Ariana outlined the problem with Marvel’s Avengers line-up, namely that it looks embarrassingly old-school in 2015. After all, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man we have now seen nine movies starring male protagonists, and two ensemble films where women were vastly outnumbered by (white) men. After asking and asking, we will finally get a film starring a woman in Captain Marvel – and we only have to wait through eight more male-centric films (including a Spider-Man film that no one wants), and until 2018, to watch it.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the increased focus on women in Marvel’s television shows, including a very balanced presence in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. despite the show centering on a male character, and their recent Agent Carter spinoff, which was their boldest feminist statement to date. Then again, while I’m also highly anticipating Netflix’s A.K.A. Jessica Jones, I haven’t forgotten that A.K.A. is one female show, compared to the three male-centric shows and a male-heavy ensemble mini-series that we’ll be getting from the Marvel-Netflix partnership.
All of that considered, it isn’t surprising that fans like myself who are dissatisfied with the current slate of solo films look to the ensemble films for a greater female presence. After all, it’s the only place we might get to see women who aren’t love interests for the male Avengers. If we have to deal with an Avengers line-up that is overwhelmingly male, we hope that at least the screen time allotted to the female characters in ensemble films does some work toward countering this imbalance.
So who are these four women Whedon promised? And where were they? Let’s investigate.
The only two women who can be objectively stated to have had “prominent” roles in Avengers: Age of Ultron are fan favorite Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and newcomer Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen).
As for the final two places? The only other women left — essentially just those with named speaking roles — are S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Agent Carter’s Peggy Carter (Hayley Attwell), Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), and Clint Barton’s newly introduced wife Laura (Linda Cardellini). “Woman with more than one line and a name” is not a very high bar to be setting, and it certainly doesn’t equate to “prominent.” Dr. Cho was a plot device necessary to build Ultron’s would-be body and further his development; Peggy Carter appeared only as a figment of Steve Rogers’ imagination to further his development; Laura Barton was there to make us doubt if her husband would survive the final battle, and — all together now — further his development. You might be sensing a pattern here. Only Maria Hill was awesome in her own right, and it’s a shame that she only appeared in about 15 minutes of the film and had very little impact on the overall story.
Sorry Joss, but one or two scenes does not a prominent character make. Robots played a bigger role in Avengers: Age of Ultron than female humans did. In fact, I don’t think any of those four roles could be considered prominent. Perhaps prominent in comparison with the nothing that we have come to expect, but certainly not compared with the role of any of the male Avengers, or even the cameos by Nick Fury, Sam Wilson/Falcon, or James Rhodes/War Machine.
Okay, so our promised four female roles have been reduced to two. But those two characters were depicted as complex, interesting, and fully developed, weren’t they? Wrong again.
The problematic portrayal of Black Widow
Let’s start with the biggest victim of Age of Ultron: Black Widow. Fans continue to clamor for a solo film for the female Avenger, but to no avail. We have been forced to be content with her supporting roles in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, and a thankfully more substantial part in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And yet, despite the few opportunities she has been given, Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal has quickly made Black Widow many people’s favorite Avenger (mine included). She is smart, incredibly capable, confident in her sexuality, and able to hold her own with the rest of the team, including genetically enhanced humans and an alien god. Hell, have we forgotten that she was the only one to work out how to close the portal in the first Avengers, or how she outwitted the God of Mischief himself?
To see this fantastic character reduced a mere love interest in Avengers: Age of Ultron does her an incredible disservice. Rather than giving Black Widow her own character trajectory — just like every male character in this film was given, including the android created in the last 30 minutes to save the day — her entire plot revolved around a man: Bruce Banner.
I am not a shipper; I have no horse in this race. If Natasha acted this way with any other Avengers, I would be just as furious. It isn’t that it is Bruce with whom she has a relationship, it’s that all she does in the entire film is pine. In Age of Ultron, Natasha essentially became the stand-in for any two-dimensional female in a standard superhero romance. “Girl becomes infatuated, obsessed even, with a boy who is nice but dangerous, and the boy decides they can’t be together because he has to protect her.” That relationship sure sounds familiar, because we have seen it dozens of times. Bruce even got the stereotypical rescue scene, after Natasha was kidnapped by Ultron for no reason than to facilitate Bruce saving her. Because the Black Widow we have seen up until this movie would wait around in a cage for someone — man or not — to come and save her. Right.
There is so little to connect Bruce and Natasha that Whedon had to contrive a “but we’re both monsters” arc to give them something in common. Yes, because not being able to have children is the same as turning into a literal monster, as she refers to herself. And the problem was much more than one throwaway line; the juxtaposition between Natasha and Laura, who couldn’t have been a more obvious ideal image of fertility, motherhood and womanhood, was no accident. Laura was happy because she has children and a family; Natasha was unhappy because she didn’t, and couldn’t.
Maybe Natasha’s maternal instincts had kicked in following the events of Captain America: The Winter Solider. But without being given any indication of that change taking place, there is no way for the audience to know. Instead we have one of the only female characters being forced into a maternal/romantic role to highlight Bruce Banner’s angst, and Clint Barton’s happiness. It was uncomfortable, it was contrived, and it certainly wasn’t Black Widow.
Scarlet Witch is not enough
Then we had Scarlet Witch, who was the only redeeming aspect of the film. However, let’s not forget that she had to be coached into finally acting by Hawkeye, a male Avenger, when Black Widow could have just as easily filled that role. In fact, did Natasha and Wanda have any scenes together at all? No, because Natasha was busy pining for a nice guy with anger management issues.
And as good as she was, Scarlet Witch still fell victim to the lack of screen time available to her due to the amount of male characters. Although Olsen stole every scene she was in, her character was no more prominent in the film than her brother Quicksilver, yet another male character to add to the long, long list.
One good character doesn’t cancel out the rest. It doesn’t make up for a previously capable character suddenly being reduced to a plot device, or the under utilizing of other women who could (and should) have been used as a welcome balance to the dominating male presence.
It certainly doesn’t make up for a completely outrageous rape joke, which I guess we were supposed to shake off as banter, or simply boys being boys. Yes, when Tony Stark tried to lift Mjölnir he joked that he would reintroduce Prima Nocta (you can watch the clip below), because, didn’t you know? Jokes about raping women on their wedding night are hilarious. (Note: You might believe you have some special insight that allows you to see why this joke was necessary, or even okay. You do not, because it was not.)
When you watch a superhero movie you have to suspend your disbelief. Yet in a fictional world where aliens are gods, and robots can lift cities into the air, it is constantly the depiction of women that seems to trip filmmakers up. Apparently it is easier to depict a murderous robot as complex than it is a woman.
I went into Avengers: Age of Ultron with an open mind. It’s a superhero movie, and as much as I love superhero movies (enough to host an entire podcast dedicated to discussing them), you have to accept the premise from the beginning. I had accepted Age of Ultron‘s premise wholeheartedly. Ultron wants to destroy the world with an army of robots for no real reason? Okay. Thor disappears for 30 minutes to take a bath and have a convenient vision of how to save the day? Okay, sure.
But the continued reducing of women to either plot devices or love interests, the inclusion of bizarre rape jokes, and being told to be grateful for seeing more than one woman on a poster that is otherwise covered with men? I cannot say that it is fine. And I will not say that it is okay.