Avengers: Age of Ultron hit American theatres yesterday, and it’s been interesting to see the reactions. Personally, I’m of the opinion that it’s better than Avengers, and around the same level as Guardians of the Galaxy (which I rank second to Captain America: The Winter Soldier) among the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. That said, I’d like to take some time to reflect on the film as a whole, while focusing on a few scenes in particular to flesh out some thoughts on an aspect that in some ways works but still doesn’t quite leave a good taste in my mouth.
Tony Stark: Iron Misogynist
We all remember Loki’s famous “mewling quim” line from Avengers. It was a nasty, sexist jab meant to show us how bad Loki was and how hard it is to rattle Black Widow. Age of Ultron ups the ante on the misogynistic lines, giving us something even more brutishly sexist. And this time it comes from Tony Stark, one of our heroes - indeed, the lead hero of the MCU so far.
During the scene where everybody is having a good time trying to lift Mjolnir (should have tried an elevator, right guys?), Tony declares what he would do if he lifted the power and got to be a god: he’d reinstitute prima nocta. What’s prima nocta? Prima nocta is the apocryphal right of a lord to consummate the marriage of his subjects. The idea was that a noble owned the virginity of any woman serf below him and he had the right to her virginity.
Well, it is Tony Stark. The guy is not exactly a shining beacon of feminism, and he’s a pretty chauvinistic guy all around. The difference here is that it seems harder to read this line as intended to show why we shouldn’t like Tony than it is to read the “mewling quim” line that way about Loki. Setting aside the fact that the reference is relatively obscure and much of the audience will simply not understand, Tony’s position as protagonist makes it inherently hard to root against him.
Now, this is complicated by the fact that Tony is also essentially the villain of the story. Yes, yes, I know Ultron’s the villain, but Ultron in this movie is Tony Stark’s fear and desire for peace turned up to genocidal levels. Tony makes Ultron, and Ultron’s personality is Tony Stark. It’s magnificent work on James Spader’s part to capture what works about Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Tony Stark the hero and bend it into a really fun and interesting villain. If the line is meant to help us view Tony more harshly, maybe there’s a good case for it.
But if we’re still supposed to support Tony as he moves from this movie to Captain America: Civil War, that’s a different issue. Age of Ultron shows us that while Tony learned the lesson that he can’t just Iron Man his way through problems in Iron Man 3, the his take on that problem is all kinds of problematic. You don’t just mad science an AI with alien artifacts and expect things to go right and the world to be safe. And Tony decides to do it again to fix the first problem - yes, it results in Vision and Vision’s great, but Tony had no way of knowing that would work.
He’s gone from brute forcing his way through problems to inventing his way through them, and in both approaches the thing that causes error is Tony’s hubris. In the ideological battle that will happen in Civil War we shouldn’t support a character who refuses to humble himself in any meaningful way. But it’s likely that Civil War will attempt to make Stark’s point of view sympathetic.
Hulk x Widow
I have little interest in critiquing whether or not the romance subplot between Romanov and Banner worked. It did for me, for reasons that will become apparent later, but right now I’m interested in the two characters who had to be set aside for this romance to get underway: Hawkeye and Betty Ross.
Hawkeye is easy, at least. Age of Ultron introduces us to his family: a wife and two kids, a third on the way. Clint’s family helps humanize the character, who had little in the way of characterization prior to this film. He’s fighting for the beautiful things in our world, for the future, for the everyday family. Compare him to Tony who fights out of a hubristic sense of penance, Thor who fights for his honor as an Asgardian, Widow who fights to erase the red from her ledger, Banner who fights but only reluctantly and at great risk to all. Clint’s most closely aligned with Captain America here, and even Cap fights in part because he can’t really do anything else.
With Hawkeye happily married, that eliminates any potential relationship with Widow. What about Betty?
The last time we saw Betty Ross was during The Incredible Hulk, back in 2008 when Banner was still played by Ed Norton. Yes, the film is part of the MCU. No, Bruce is not a cheater for getting together with Natasha in Age of Ultron. There’s a good reason too.
[NB: The following two paragraphs have been updated from real time to real-ish time, to reflect Marvel’s own presentation of the timeline]
The Marvel Cinematic Universe takes place in real-ish time (see Marvel’s timeline for phase 1). Incredible Hulk took place prior to Avengers. Avengers took place in 2012 (Winter Soldier, 2 years later, took place in 2014). Age of Ultron took place in 2015. Bruce Banner disappears at the end of Incredible Hulk and doesn’t resurface again until Avengers, and he’s since been hanging out with Tony Stark being mad science bros.
Let me read between the lines for you: Bruce Banner has not seen Betty Ross in more than three years. Bruce Banner is not cheating on Betty because after a period of years, there isn’t a relationship left to cheat out of.
Knock the chemistry between the characters, the lack of buildup to the romance, the handling of the romance, whatever. But saying Bruce is cheating on Betty is just silly.
There’s a scene in the romance between Bruce and Natasha which also might remind you that while Joss Whedon is better than many white male directors, he’s not nearly as good as he could be with regards to writing female characters of depth. No, I’m not talking about Natasha being damseled so Bruce can save her, though that is an issue. I’m talking about the way Natasha tries to draw parallels between herself and Bruce so he will be willing to run away with her.
Bruce tries to tell her that she doesn’t want to be with him because he’s a monster, and besides they could never start a family (a callback to Incredible Hulk - Bruce can’t even have sex without accidentally going Code Green).
The sticky bit is Natasha’s response. She explains that she’s a monster too. Back in her Widow training, they sterilized her. The rationale was to make it easier to kill, to remove the possibility that anything could become more important than the mission. We see flashbacks to the training, a young Natasha being forced to execute someone as part of the final exam. For those who watched Agent Carter, we also know that there’s a hefty dose of brainwashing and trigger words used in the Widow program.
In full context, it makes some sense. She’s trying to draw parallels. Bruce feels that all he can do is take life and put people in danger, he’s still afraid of that side of him and what it means, and he’s concerned with his inability to create new life. Natasha tries to relate: she’s also incapable of creating new life and was engineered into a weapon, her only purpose to take life, and she’s spent a long time trying to overcome that (even as she has to often take life in order to save other lives). For both, the best they feel they can do is take life in order to preserve other life, which seems quite unsatisfying to them.
The sticky bit here is not so much the attempt to create parallels, but the execution. Having Natasha say “I’m a monster, too. I was sterilized. [Following this are other reasons]” leaves the impression that it is being sterilized which makes her a monster first and foremost. Now, Natasha may feel that being sterilized does make her a monster, considering it was against her will and that can mess with your head, but having all of her parallels come out together just makes it seem like the writers unintentionally called all infertile women monsters. The scene would probably have worked better if the infertility were addressed separate from the monstrosity, especially if it were addressed first then the issue of monstrosity were brought up.
It’s not like Natasha doesn’t demonstrate a certain degree of monstrosity in the film, either. She’s the designated Hulk calmer, giving him his lullaby. The lullaby begins with trigger words (“Hey, big guy, the sun’s gettin’ real low”) and follows with a ritualized sequence of gestures that Hulk has been conditioned to react to. She restores Banner, but through means learned from her own time being brainwashed. And later, when Bruce does want to run off with her, she shoves him down a hole so he’ll Hulk out. It’s almost tragic, the way they can never get on the same page, and seeing Hulk fly away at the end is more than a bit sad. As Cap said, he’s the only one Natasha has ever bared her soul to, and even then she still deceives him. Bruce, and poignantly Hulk, is hurt by this.
Before I conclude, no, I don’t think Age of Ultron is a highly misogynistic film. But I’m a guy. That’s not really my call to make. I do think, however, that there are moments that are uncomfortably misogynistic, even if explicable with context or by coming from certain characters. In these cases the context or characterization aren’t quite enough to make it work, and that’s one of the big problems - if you can’t make it work, it might be better to cut it entirely. Having misogynistic characters isn’t a sin in and of itself, but wanting us to laugh along with their misogynistic jokes or see them as A-OK guys is pretty bad. And drawing parallels of monstrosity isn’t inherently bad either. But organizing the parallels in the worst way possible, that kind of is.
On the plus side, it looks like that by Infinity War the core team of Avengers will be Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Cap, Falcon, Vision, and War Machine. Which gives us much better representation than we’ve been getting. 1/3 of the team’s black, 1/3 is women, and 1/6 is a bio-robot. Still waiting on Black Panther and Captain Marvel, though.