not in our stars, but in ourselves
Before I begin in earnest, I will admit to some blind spots, and offer a few caveats. You can therefore decide whether to take me seriously or dismiss me altogether – or just stop reading – when you bear in mind the following:
– I didn’t see the first Avengers movie. Well, I saw the ending, because it was on TV and my boyfriend had it on, but I didn’t see the whole thing. Of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, I’ve seen the first Iron Man (none of the sequels – how many are there? three?), two Thor flicks, Guardians of the Galaxy, and…uh…I saw a few episodes of Agent Carter. And no, I haven’t read any of the comic books.
– The only Joss Whedon thing I’ve seen is Cabin in the Woods. I never watched Buffy, or Angel, or Firefly, or any of the rest of his TV shows. I’ve seen Toy Story, which he co-wrote, but the only thing I’d seen up until last night that was entirely his baby was Cabin in the Woods.
– Bearing these things in mind, I will tell you that I got a kick out of the Thor movies and Guardians, don’t remember how I felt about Iron Man, somewhat enjoyed Agent Carter, but generally don’t feel all that invested in the MCU. As for the one Whedon baby I’d seen: I wasn’t crazy about it. I got it, and I realize he thought he was being awfully clever, and I understand that many people agreed with his own self-assessment, but I was just sort of bored. I’ve read Men, Women and Chainsaws. It’s far more interesting and far less pleased with itself. You all should check it out.
If you’re still with me, I will offer one last caveat: spoilers ahead.
Shall we? Okay.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron features our team of superheroes kicking bad guys’ butts, as usual. There’s Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the billionaire inventor and mastermind. There’s Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the brilliant scientist who turns into an enormous, furious green monster-man when he’s angry. There’s the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the Russian-trained killing machine who is, fortunately for the Avengers, on their side. There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Norse God who uses his Mjolnir to hammer the bad guys. There’s Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the good guy from World War II who believes in all sorts of old-fashioned virtues that seem to be extinct in the present world. And there’s Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), the arrow-shooting smartass who – unbeknownst to all the rest of his pals – has a wife and a couple of kids and another on the way. While they’re on a mission in Sovakia, an Eastern European country, they recapture Loki’s scepter. (Loki, Thor’s brother, is sadly absent from the action. Too bad. Could have been fun.) Attempting to guard the scepter were Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), twin superheroes in their own right, with a deeply held grudge against Stark Industries – and, by extension, the Avengers. Tony realizes that there’s some sort of artificial hyper-intelligence located withing the scepter’s gem, and he convinces Bruce that they should try to implement it as a robot to fight on their side. The artificial intelligence, which he calls Ultron (James Spader’s voice at its most gravelly), becomes self-aware. It isn’t content to be the Avengers’ slave; in fact, it argues that the Avengers want only to preserve the status quo – not to allow it to change or improve. A worldwide battle for supremacy ensues, with the Avengers fighting among themselves while they attempt to defeat Ultron.
There’s plenty of good, dumb fun in Age of Ultron. I want to be sure I make that clear. As summer blockbusters go, it hits all the notes you’d expect. Even though it’s quite densely plotted, and presumes that audience members are familiar with the story up to now, it’s not hard to follow; I have only a sketchy understanding of the various backstories, and I was able to keep up reasonably well. For those who are more familiar with the rest of the movies, and with the comic books, I imagine this is a slam dunk. (My boyfriend thought so.) The MCU is usually much funnier and (lately) more colorful than DC movies (i.e., the Batman franchises, Superman, etc.) – and that’s all you really want in a summer blockbuster, right? Right, sure.
Now, here’s where I’m going to lose some of you. I will preface the following rant by saying that I wouldn’t really care about any of this if we weren’t talking about Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon, in case you didn’t know, has made quite a name for himself as a writer and director of “strong female characters” – in fact, he gave a speech nine or so years ago about the various reasons he continues to do so. He talks a big game where “equality” is concerned; and, as with many critics’ and audience members’ acceptance of Cabin in the Woods at its self-presumedly clever face value, they often seem to accept his self-assertion that he’s a champion of strong female characters and equality and all that rot.
I do not. Not for one goddamn second.
Call me a feminist killjoy; I do not care. Throughout all two and a half hours of Age of Ultron, I cannot tell you how often I rolled my eyes at the things the female characters were forced to do and say and feel by their “Mr. Equality” writer. They are all defined exclusively by their relationships to men and/or children. Natasha, who should be a total badass, gets all choked up at the thought that she was sterilized as part of her Black Widow training. Now, I’m not trying to say that’s not a fucked up thing to do to a young woman. It definitely is. If the script had focused on that, I wouldn’t have minded so much. But the focus – in a teary talk with Bruce, with whom she has an unnecessary romantic subplot – isn’t on the trauma of forced surgery. It’s on how terribly sad it is that she can never be a mother. In fact, she says it renders her a “monster” – because she’ll never be distracted by the pitter-patter of little feet when she’s on some sort of assassination mission. Look, if you want kids, bully for you. If you want kids and you can’t have them, that’s sad, and I’m sorry for you. If, however, you are one of a select few female characters in a big superhero movie, and you spend most of your non-asskicking time lamenting how tragic it is that you can’t be a wife and mother, and you’re the written invention of several men – well, pardon me if I call bullshit. Surely someone as strong-minded and -willed as Natasha Romanoff would have, if she really felt strongly about it, excused herself from being a superhero to adopt a litter of kids and focus on that instead. It’s ridiculous to think that she’s just in this game because she can’t do what all women are supposed to want to do.
Contrast her to the other female characters: Wanda Maximoff, or the Scarlet Witch, is deeply attached to her brother. Her handsome, 12-minutes-older brother. I can hear the twincest fanfics popping up online already. She is passionately devoted to him, and only to him. Is this how it is in the comic books? It’s creepy. It’s not necessarily a feminist alarm bell – but it’s creepy. What is an alarm bell for this little killjoy is Hawkeye’s wife (Linda Cardellini) – abruptly introduced and about as thoroughly fleshed out as a Jackie Treehorn doodle. She’s a baby factory. That’s it. She’s Hawkeye’s little woman, the uncomplaining stay-at-home mom who bears his absences with saintly patience. I realize that military wives are an extraordinary breed of woman, but this is ridiculous. Why introduce her at all if she’s going to be the developed positive image of Natasha’s sad little negative? The movie is two and a half hours long, and it could frankly do without the subplot. Ultimately, she doesn’t matter to anyone or anything; not even Hawkeye seems to think much about her when he’s off fighting. (He keeps a photo of her and the kids next to his heart under his vest. I guess there’s that much. That photo must stink, though. These guys fight hard, and presumably, they sweat a lot. Gross.)
And no, none of the men struggle like this. Steve misses his Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell), but we don’t delve into that too deeply here, nor does he seem to think about it all that often. Bruce is attracted to Natasha, I guess, but when she’s potentially in harm’s way – he’s just right there with Tony, building robots and looking at computer stuff. It never seems to be all that pressing for any of the men, their relationships to women; but for the women, it’s all they have. If they have a “fulfilling” (that is to say, full of children) home life, they’re just nobodies on the ranch like Mrs. Hawkeye. If they don’t have that postwar dream of the nuclear family, they throw themselves into their work because they just don’t have anything else. I like Pacific Rim much more than I like Age of Ultron, but it was the same problem there, and it’s the same problem in too many summer blockbusters: even if the female character is slightly more than just tits-and-ass, she’s still denied the complexity and agency of her male counterparts. Mako Mori in Pacific Rim fights kaijus because they killed her family when she was a little girl. It’s a childish wish for revenge. The men fighting the kaijus, however, all decided to get involved in the fight when they were fully grown up and capable of deciding things for themselves. And here, in Age of Ultron, the male superheroes are all doing this because they feel it’s the noble and right thing to do. The female superheroes (all two of them) are doing it because the men in their lives are dead or they can’t have babies or something. I have a problem with that, and I especially have a problem with that when it comes from someone who’s styled himself as a champion of feminism. You ain’t slick, Joss, and I see you.
This all sounds pretty harsh, so I want to reiterate: Age of Ultron is fun. It’s not badly done or tedious or any of those other possible pitfalls for superhero flicks to fall into. However, it has a serious woman problem, and I just hope that’s addressed in the future 20 or so installments in the MCU. Maybe Sofia Coppola is available to write and direct? Someone should ask her.