*This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron*
Leave it to Scarlett Johansson and Saturday Night Live to drop the mic when it comes to not only Marvel's failure (so far -- ahem) to develop a Black Widow standalone, but subtly throw shade at one of the more problematic aspects of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
SNL's brilliant faux trailer for Black Widow: Age of Me is exactly the dumb cinematic treatment all women (and, hopefully, men) don't want for the smart, skilled spy. If you missed the sketch, check out the video below.
It's a hyperbolic take ... but sadly, there are some super-tone-deaf moments regarding Black Widow and her "character development" in the latest Avengers sequel that don't exactly leave anyone feeling confident that the MCU knows what to do with a female-led stand-alone.
Two Blastr contributing editors, Krystal Clark and Tara Bennett, both walked out of their respective Ultron screenings confused and then irritated with some beats in the film, especially regarding Natasha. Both are huge fans of the franchise overall, and after the mature and assured character development of Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, both had high hopes for her continued progression. But that didn't happen in Ultron.
Granted, the film seemed confused, in general, with tying together dangling plotlines for her male counterparts (like Tony's motivations in Iron Man 3 going out the window in Ultron, Banner having more control over his Hulk and now not so much, Thor basically being reduced to inter-galactic messenger boy for Loki's scepter and a very confused bather, etc. ...), but Ultron served up some supremely left-field revelations for Natasha that were particularly grating.
Here's their back and forth regarding how Marvel and, surprisingly, Whedon walked back several steps on Natasha's progress:
Krystal: First, will the real Black Widow please stand up? That's what I kept asking myself throughout this movie. Admittedly, the character wasn't the most fleshed-out to begin with thanks to a lackluster introduction in Iron Man 2. But in the words of Ultron, she would eventually evolve. Black Widow thrived in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier because she was in her element. She was a trained assassin using her deadly skill-set for the greater good. I was really excited to see where the character would go next. In Age of Ultron, aliens, robots and terrorist organizations take a back seat to her biggest foe: love. Wait, what?!
Tara: It's old news now that everyone (but Marvel) thinks a Black Widow movie, especially after five MCU appearances, is needed and would be a hit. If Scarlett can make an uneven action film like Lucy a win, there's no question a standalone Natasha film is, at this point, a no-brainer. But if all we're going to get for her is the kind of character development we saw in The Winter Soldier, I guess I can live with that. But now we have Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Joss Whedon's "fix" to awkwardly right the wrongs of no stand-alone film for her character, as well as Banner and Hawkeye, makes me suddenly have no appetite for the revelations that could by lying in wait in her own film. Yes, love is what makes the world go around and is a tremendous motivator, but just because you can have a romance within the team, does that mean you should? I read a bit of chemistry between Clint and Natasha in Avengers, and read a lot of brother/sister vibing between her and Steve in The Winter Soldier, which I guess they could have spun into something more. But there were no foreshadowing sparks between her and Bruce Banner in any prior MCU film, and none in Age of Ultron. Their attraction was laid on the audience's lap like an embarrassed elephant. Though worked hard by Scarlett, like any good actress does for her character, it certainly never landed organically. And that is the crux of the failure of the revelations that come in the film. You have to believe she loves Bruce so, when she essentially offers him that they cut and run from their super people lives, it makes the tiniest bit of sense. Instead, it feels like a retcon of everything we know about Natasha's motivations and agency.
Krystal: The keyword here is definitely "groundwork." Age of Ultron desperately tries to cover-up the fact that it hasn't laid any. So, other characters are used to push this unlikely couple onto viewers. Steve Rogers tells Bruce, "She's not the most open person in the world, but with you she seems very relaxed." He also implies that all the natural chemistry he and Natasha had in The Winter Solider was fake, whereas with Bruce it's real. Really? Natasha had stronger chemistry with both Clint and Steve, but neither was explored in a romantic sense (for different reasons). I, personally, wasn't interested in seeing her in a love story at all, but if they had to go there, it needed to feel earned. Instead, we have this superhero version of Beauty and the Beast that neuters a once fierce heroine. If they wanted to give Natasha more screen time, why not expand on her tumultuous past? Why not go deeper into her origin as an assassin? Age of Ultron already has so much going on. The last thing it needed was a storyline shoe-horned in that could have easily been left on the cutting room floor.
Tara: I know some people are defending the romance by saying Natasha isn't secondary to Banner, and in fact that she is a more MCU-dominant character. Plus, she's trying to make him deal with his issues. OK, but couldn't she help him face his issues while not romantically entangled with him, or have to renounce her role as an Avenger to aid that goal? I'm totally cool with her being the sage advisor to her cohorts. "You got deep issues, go talk to Widow. Lady lays down the wisdom." But, frankly, it's trite to go down the romance path. Some might counter that, as upset as Bruce is post-South African free-for-all with the Hulkbuster, only love can pull him out of his depression. You have to have a deep sense of trust and love to open yourself up enough to let anyone help you when you're that big of a mess. And at that point in the film, Natasha's still trying to get Bruce to even give them a try so that argument is moot.
And I'm gonna go there and take a lot of issue with the fact that, in order to make a point for Banner about what being a monster is, they chose to get the one d**n developed female superhero we get in the MCU's ovaries involved. It's terrible how Natasha was tinkered with, and a huge decision was taken out of her hands, but wouldn't it be a lot bolder and more progressive to bypass an antiquated gender bomb like fertility (which, come on, do we even want to touch on that in a superhero tentpole movie?), and just feature a strong, decisive woman like Natasha choosing a super-spy/Avenger life? Because women are so often the girlfriend, wife, mother in every movie out there, you can't throw in something like a woman not being able to conceive and not have some process it as another thing that Natasha can't do, instead of focusing on everything she can do. And how do two possible lovers who are still talking about maybe being someone to each other fast-forward to a baby conversation/ already? Who does that? Isn't that a bombshell of a discussion better served in a later movie, when they're actually together?
Krystal: I just didn't understand the need to go there. The sterilization reveal added insult to injury. I found myself rolling my eyes at every scene Natasha shared with Bruce, but that one, in particular, came across as, for lack of a better word, gross. There's nothing wrong with her wanting to have a life outside of The Avengers, because we've seen that with other characters; Clint was able to have a family without losing any of his edge. It actually made him more endearing to some viewers. Unfortunately, with Natasha, there's no balance. She goes from one extreme to the next. Not only does the film put her in an unnecessary romance, but they actually make her a damsel in distress. There's a point where she's knocked out, captured by Ultron, and used as a talk-to just because no one else is around.
As of late, Marvel has been catching heat for not including Black Widow in certain promo materials and merchandise. After seeing Age of Ultron it's obvious to me this is all part of a bigger problem. I've been a huge supporter of Marvel and their cinematic universe, but the recent treatment of Black Widow can't be ignored. I'm sure Whedon didn't mean for her story to come across as insulting or pedestrian, but that's how it felt. The character, the actress, and the audience all deserve better. After they produced the amazing Agent Carter, I wasn't the least bit worried about the studio making the female-led Captain Marvel ... but, oh, how things have changed.
Tara: I am genuinely puzzled with Whedon's writing, considering he's often the guy who does get women right. Maybe he was a victim of Marvel's exacting demands servicing too many things in this all-important MCU entry, or Bruce and Natasha's larger scenes were just so pared back as to come across incredibly non-organic. Or maybe Whedon was just too wiped out from all of his other narrative battles to see how damaging it is to have the lone female Avenger throw away her agency. Natasha is a freakishly skilled member of an elite, male-centric team. Her half-baked romance never feels like the choice someone as passionate and principled as the woman who blew open the Hydra door at the end of The Winter Soldier would make. Isn't it enough to let young women have a Black Widow who embraces who she is now, and isn't afraid to sacrifice her life to support the causes she deems worthy, even if that means staying enigmatic and not wanting anything more than the pretty kick-ass life she leads?
What did you think of Black Widow's story in Age of Ultron? Where would you like to see the Black Widow character go next in the MCU?