Monday, July 15, 2024

Age of Ultron: Is Joss Whedon Literal Trash?

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When we were putting together this site last year one of the things we talked a lot about was how we weren’t only interesting in examining the works that fans were into, we also in examining the actual fandom. The way we react to stuff, the discourse and the culture we create by doing so, is, in our opinion, at least as interesting as the stuff itself.

Which brings us to Avengers: Age of Ultron, because sometimes that discourse overshadows everything about the work itself. And this seems to be especially true in this case, because almost the first thing that my co-conspirators said to me when I pitched this idea of documenting my attempt to catch up with the MCU was, “Oh good, you can tell us if Joss Whedon is literal trash or not.”

But, as much as I hope that my work has given me some credibility, I don’t think this is because I’m some kind of supreme arbiter of trash-ness. It’s because sometimes the discourse around a piece of media is more important than the piece of media itself. You can try to be above it, you can claim, to choose an example at random, that the fact that the character you just stupidly killed off is gay doesn’t matter one bit. And maybe it “shouldn’t” in a purely abstract way, but it does. It does because there is no such thing as a cultural vacuum. It does because all texts are ultimately an interaction between creator and consumer. The intent of the creator does matter, but then, so does the reaction of the consumer.

That was really just a long way of saying that the topic of this piece was chosen for me. There are a lot of things I can talk about here: I can talk about the plot and its Swiss cheese-like appearance. For example, the ridiculousness of a city that looks like it has at least a few hundred-thousand people in it being evacuated in, like, an hour by some lifeboats on a flying aircraft carrier. (It’s stupid.) Or how confusing I find it that the acquisition of said flying aircraft carrier happened off-screen. (Doesn’t the world think Nick Fury is dead? Isn’t SHIELD considered a terrorist organization? I think this is something we may have to see. And don’t try to blind me with the return of Derpy Curly-Haired Guy! That won’t work on me!)

Or maybe we can talk about how the movie was willing to trash Johannesburg, but not actually name it while doing so. Because New York and London get to be themselves, but Johannesburg can only be “Generic African City”, just like the majority of the action takes place in “Generic Eastern-European Country”. (Johannesburg is 500km from the coast, where the container ships were, so no, it can’t be “actually” Johannesburg, even if this city wasn’t in “Wakanda”.)

But no, if you talk about this movie, and want to actually be relevant to the culture created around it, there is one thing you must have an opinion on: is this film sexist? Or even more specifically, how problematic is that scene?

Which scene? Well, I will tell you, in case you were living under the same rock I was until earlier this week.

About midway into the movie, Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner are resting up with the whole team in the farmhouse where Clint Barton’s weirdass family lives. They’ve had all these flirty moments so far in the movie that have made it clear that they’re into each other. But while Bruce is hesitant to make anything out of it, NatRo thinks they should totally go for it. Bruce’s argument against this is that his condition means that he could never have a normal life. A normal life that is exemplified by their setting, the farmhouse with its “normal life” paraphernalia. He’s a monster, and monsters don’t get that.

But then, Natasha, has had her backstory in mind for the whole movie, so she decides to drop some of it:

“They [Leviathan] sterilize you. It’s efficient. One less thing to worry about, the one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier — even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”

So… NatRo is saying what?

Well, the implication that is rather inescapable is that she is making a very explicit connection between the fact that she cannot have children and her own belief that she is a “monster.” The implication is that this renders her incapable of feminine-coded traits like compassion, nurturing, and romantic attachment.

That is problematic. It is very problematic. And I have no intention of defending it. But. I will say that I think I know what the writer (Whedon) was going for, and it’s not, in itself, stupid.

So the “theme” of the film was supposed to be the question of whether being a hero also makes you a “monster,” incapable of having a normal life. The antagonist sees them as monsters because they are propping up a system that is fundamentally broken, rather than doing what was necessary to fix it.

Each of the Avengers deals with this theme in one way or the other. In fact, you can even be super generous and say that it provides some thematic continuity with the material on Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, where Tony Stark and Thor each consciously reject continued involvement in hero stuff in favour of their relationships. But that might be too generous. (Jane and Thor are fine. She’s just busy working on her Nobel Prize acceptance speech… they’re not having trouble.)

With the other characters it was rather more explicit. Steve Rogers laments that he lost the opportunity to have that kind of life with Peggy, the Twins’ entire motivation is the destruction of their family when they were children. Clint Barton, it seems, has bucked this trend, unless it’s true that his survival was a last minute change and all that “I’m two days to retirement” foreshadowing was meant for something other than a pretty lame meta-fictional joke. (This is more of a fandom assumption than anything stated. We know Whedon wanted something “darker” and we know there was a mad drafting process, but for obvious reasons I think it’s a good interpretation) Then it fits perfectly. He was kidding himself. Farmhouses in the middle of nowhere are not for people like them.

And then we have Natasha and Bruce, who think they could never have it because they are monsters.

Bruce is obviously more of a literal monster. He occasionally goes nuts and trashes a major world city. But I don’t think it was ever the intention to imply that the fact that Natasha couldn’t reproduce was what made her a monster. (Even though, I will say again, that’s kind of inescapably the implication.)

She was a monster because that was what she was intended to become. Leviathan’s “training” program is obviously very concerned with removing anything that might tie their operatives to other people, and with destroying any of those “feminine” impulses towards compassion and nurturing. (While also teaching them to play up the performance of those traits.) Removing a young woman’s reproductive capacity is an expression of this dehumanization, a destroying of one of the ways that would even allow them to form those ties. In many ways, it’s just like Agent Carter’s Dottie, murdering the friend she had shared stolen food with that very morning.

Natasha isn’t actually incapable of those things, of course; her friendships with Steve and Clint rather prove that, not to mention the obvious romantic interest she has in Bruce, and her closeness with Clint’s kids. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take her wistful fantasy about running away to start a new life seriously. She’s internalized this “monster” narrative far too much to think she ever could. Which was no doubt the intention of the people who made her that way. It was meant to be more of a Hemingway style; “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I think that’s what Whedon was going for. And I don’t think that would have made a horrible story. The reason I have no intention of defending this scene, is that the execution was just… not anything worth defending. The scene itself was not well written, and not well scripted. It was awkward, and the dialogue was cringe-worthy. And the plotline within which it exists is not much better.

I’m not going to comment on the “shipping” angle to this controversy, because frankly, it doesn’t interest me at all, but this romance between Natasha and Bruce is hardly the great love story of our time. That’s alright, I suppose. A romance doesn’t have to be earth shattering to be important to the characters, but it comes with it’s own set of implications. From a Watsonian perspective, I have little trouble with it. Natasha and Bruce are into each other just because they are, they both have agency and honest communication. Fine. Have fun kids. But from a Doylist perspective, this relationship comes with some implications of its own.

For example, why does it have to exist at all? The romance does feel a little shoehorned, and the pairing is a little random. If you wanted Natasha to lament that she’s lost a possible choice she could have made in life, why couldn’t you have used her already established (and, let’s face it, more compelling) platonic relationships with Steve or Bruce. Both of them would be extremely sympathetic. And it would do something for their own characterization too.

Natasha is already in severe danger of being a Smurfette, did we have to add that charming tendency to obligatorily pair off the Smurfette as well?

And this is without mentioning that wonderful decision to literally put her on “Soothe the Savage Beast” duty. That’s just… I can’t even.

Then there are also the implications of this given the larger problems with this character in the franchise.

You’ve heard me complain about this before; it’s insane that this character does not have a standalone movie. Both the narrative and the fanbase clearly justify it, but nope. No Black Widow movie. No Black Widow merchandise either.

Have I ever expressed the opinion that I find her back story to be by far the most interesting?

But the greatest crime against this character in the franchise has been it’s complete lack of stability. I have seen her in four movies now, and she has been four different characters in each. More than any other character, she has been shoved into the needs of the plot (and the needs of the male character who got his own movie…) rather than having the plot be build around her character.

It’s not exactly a flattering picture that the only major female character in the MCU has been treated this way. Tony Stark’s characterization has been super consistent, so it’s not like they’re incapable of it, even across multiple writers. The inconsistency isn’t entirely Whedon’s fault, of course, by definition it could only be a quarter his fault, but the fact that he gave the one real romance in the movie to the one substantial female character, and did it in a way that takes nothing from any of her previous incarnations… it’s not flattering.

So is this movie sexist?

Well, the last 2 000 words sure makes it seem like I think so. But really, I’m not sure if that’s what I really think. I do think that the character of Natasha Romanoff has been treated in a sexist way in the franchise as a whole, and that this movie did zero to fix that.

But I won’t go as far as to call Joss Whedon sexist, or try to confiscate his Feminist Club membership card, or whatever it is that people seem to want to do. The idea that anyone has the ability, or right, to declare who is and isn’t a feminist is hairy in the first place.

I mean, the man fucked up, and I don’t have any interest in defending his choice to include that horrible scene in his movie, especially considering the fact that his behaviour in the aftermath didn’t strike me as the behaviour of a man who was eager to learn from his misstep. (Okay, it was a face plant.)

But if we’re talking about this dialogue, and what it teaches us about fandom, I have to admit that I’m made a little uncomfortable by this tendency to denounce those who do faceplant. And maybe Mr. Whedon isn’t the best posterchild for this, but I question if tar and feathers is the best choice, even in his case.

I mean, feminism is hard. Being a progressive in general is hard. Every one of us has screwed up at some point. Of course, me once being heard to utter “but, don’t all lives matter?” is not quite in the same league, face-plant-wise as a $250 million dollar movie that implies that women who can’t have children are somehow “monstrous.”

Joss Whedon deserved to be called out for this, and, given his feminist credentials, we deserved to expect to be heard, but the backlash against him was exceptionally personal, it seems to me, and this faceplant was used to justify going back twenty years and tearing apart everything he’s ever done. Even the stuff that, for all its problems, spawned many a baby feminist.

I realize I may have just raised eyebrows. There are media creators that I have given up on when it comes to the representation, but that took a lot. A lot more than this, as awful as it is. But for this to be a growing lesson, we need to allow that room. And we can allow that room, while expecting better at the same time.

Images courtesy of Marvel Studios

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