A couple of years back, I had the pleasure of conducting a sit-down interview with filmmaker Joss Whedon for Newsweek magazine. The occasion was his post-Avengers passion project, Much Ado About Nothing—an impeccably staged and delightfully droll riff on the Shakespeare classic filmed with a cast of pals over 12 days at Whedon’s Santa Monica home.
The experience was, according to Whedon, a spiritual cleansing of sorts; a respite from the drudgery of assembling a gazillion-dollar superhero epic that reminded him why he fell in love with visual storytelling in the first place. And, like many film and television projects in the Whedon canon, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dollhouse to his unproduced Wonder Woman screenplay, it featured a ballsy, no-nonsense heroine at its center.
“I was raised by a hardcore feminist,” said Whedon, whose father also wrote for The Golden Girls, of his affinity for heroines. “I was also much smaller than my brothers and bullied a lot, so I identify with the feeling of helplessness.”
Our chat eventually touched on Hollywood’s reluctance to make a superhero film with a female hero in the lead. It was the only moment in the talk where the genial artist got fired up.
“Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, ‘You see? It can’t be done,’” Whedon said. “It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, ‘My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, of course they were.’ I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’”
Whedon also decided to take the leap and join the incendiary echo chamber that is Twitter to drum up publicity for his black-and-white experiment. On Monday, however, Whedon deleted his Twitter account. The reason isn’t entirely clear, though numerous media outlets have reported it’s due to the backlash he’s received over his rendering of Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which grossed $187 million during its opening weekend.
Now, Whedon is no MRM asshole—on the contrary, he’s an outspoken ally of feminism with the resume to back it up. But his portrayal of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, in Ultron does a great disservice to the most badass woman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In Ultron, following an overcrowded opening action sequence, we’re introduced to Romanoff behind the bar at Stark’s pad. The gang is celebrating its apparent victory over HYDRA and Romanoff, as the token female amid a plethora of towering bros, is tending bar. She makes Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) a snazzy drink, and the two exchange a few flirty lines and furtive glances. This triggers Captain America’s (Chris Evans) brodar, as he struts over and launches into an explainer on Romanoff’s history of “flirtation” with several of the Avengers—Hawkeye, Cap, and now Hulk.
Romanoff’s demeaning history isn’t entirely Whedon’s fault, and perhaps this was the filmmaker’s way of pointing out how wrong it is, but it came off like a group of chauvinistic mega-men taking potshots at the lone female in the group.
And that isn’t even the most troubling sequence.
Later on, Romanoff is describing her origin story to Banner. Like the comics, it involves her taking part in a ballerina/black ops project as a young child (think: Black Swan crossed with the fraternity of assassins in Wanted). She complains of being sterilized by her captors. She turns to Banner and somberly says, “You’re not the only monster on the team.”
Her infertility then becomes the main focus of Romanoff’s Ultron journey. While none of the other Avengers really worry about raising a family, Romanoff yearns for the domesticated life of Hawkeye’s secret pregnant wife, Susan, played by Linda Cardellini. They’ve even named their future son after her. At the end of the film, the happy couple texts Romanoff a picture of her wee namesake. Troubled, she looks off into the distance, before regaining her composure and delivering a rousing speech to the rest of the Avengers. Because she’s a woman, saving the world isn’t enough for her. She’ll always got that cursed void to fill. After all, it’s what makes her, as she says, a “monster.”
Let’s get back to the way the MCU has handled Romanoff—which has been disappointing, to say the least.
When she’s introduced in Iron Man 2, the first words yelled at her by Tony Stark are, “What’s your name, lady?” He then eyeballs her digital resume on his computer, including a modeling photo of her in a lace bra and panties, before marveling (sorry) at her ability to kick Happy’s ass. He turns to his secretary/lover Pepper Potts and proclaims, “I want one.” Thankfully, director Jon Favreau chose to leave an even more “flirtatious” scene between Romanoff and Stark on the cutting room floor.
In the first Avengers, similar to the comics, she gets close to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Then, she’s brought on in Captain America: Winter Soldier as a leather-clad vessel whose sole purpose is guiding his voyage of self-discovery by serving as a lame, quasi-romantic interest.
“It’s more of a work-wife, work-husband relationship,” co-director Joe Russo told Empire of Romanoff and Cap. “Of course there’s sexual tension between them, but I think she’s more interested in pulling him into the modern world and trying to help him try that identity he’s looking for.”
The MCU’s decision to have Romanoff function as a cog that services the storylines of not one but four Avengers—Iron Man, Hawkeye, Captain America, and Hulk—all while denying her a standalone feature despite the fact that Johansson is the only one among them that can open a non-franchise blockbuster all by her lonesome (see: Lucy), is a total head-scratcher, and led Renner and Evans to jokingly brand her a “slut” and a “complete whore,” respectively (they’ve since apologized, citing a long and exhausting press tour).
Johansson even mocked the way the MCU’s handled Black Widow in a recent SNL skit—a satirical trailer for a fictional standalone Romanoff romcom from the writers of 27 Dresses that depicts her trying to juggle a job in fashion (this, bizarrely enough, was an actual storyline in the comics), and a romantic relationship with… Ultron.
If that all weren’t enough, there’s the issue of Black Widow’s noticeable absence in Marvel merchandising—one so glaringly obvious that it led Ultron star Mark Ruffalo to diplomatically voice his disapproval on Twitter:
So why is Black Widow, like Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora before her, being shortchanged in the world of Marvel swag? According to a post written by a former Marvel employee on the feminist-leaning website The Mary Sue, it has to do with good ol’ fashioned sexism.
“This exclusion of women from Marvel movie merchandise is completely purposeful. I know; I was there,” the unnamed ex-employee wrote. “While working at Marvel post-acquisition, I saw a deck circulated by Disney’s Brand Marketing team. I’m prohibited from sharing the slides, but the takeaway is that, unlike the actual demos, the desired demographics had no females in it whatsoever. I asked my supervisor why that was. Ever the pragmatist, he said, ‘That’s not why Disney bought us. They already have the girls’ market on lockdown.’”
The ex-employee continued, “Disney bought Marvel and Lucasfilm because they wanted to access the male market. To achieve this goal, they allocate less to Marvel’s female demo, and even less to a unisex one. They won’t be interested in changing how they work until consumers understand what’s going on.”Perhaps, then, this isn’t so much Whedon’s fault, but a company-wide directive that’s been passed down from the powers that be at Marvel, including MCU architect Kevin Feige. Either way, Johansson’s Romanoff will be starring in several more MCU films, including the already-announced Captain America: Civil War and the two-part finale, Avengers: Infinity War.
Hopefully, she’ll have more to do in those movies than flirt and whine about being barren.
Or maybe they'll just have her fuck Thor.