[This article will contain spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron]
A lot has been said about the problematic treatment of women in superhero movies these days, with just about major blockbuster being pretty male dominated. A lot of times the only major female characters we get are the love interests for the heroes, and that’s really a shame. It’s 2015, yet young girls growing up with these movies often get the impression that their role is to kiss the man before he goes off to fight the battle. Marvel has been slowly turning that around, with Black Widow as part of the Avengers team and Age of Ultron giving us a new hero in Scarlet Witch. For the most part, Natasha is a great female character who Joss Whedon has really helped flesh out and make into a memorable part of the team.
But she doesn’t need a love interest, and her relationship with Hulk in Age of Ultron is a giant step backwards.
First of all, I’m just so sick of this idea that in any sort of ensemble story, all the characters have to pair up with each other. In sitcoms, with any group of friends, by the end of the show it’s practically a requirement that every character begins dating one of the other characters, like these are the only humans on Earth and it’s completely impossible to just keep your group of friends as your group of friends. There needs to be something more, always.
But this extends to genre films as well, and even with a group of superheroes, the only woman has to be sleeping with one of the men, apparently. Marvel wants to add in romance to these films, and Black Widow is really the only major female character available, so of course she has to pair up with someone. In the original Avengers, a relationship was teased a bit between her and Hawkeye. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the same thing was done between her and Steve Rogers, with the two sharing a kiss in one scene.
Now, Age of Ultron fully commits to a relationship between Black Widow and Hulk, making their romance a major part of both characters’ arcs. It’s a relationship never remotely set up before which we’re suddenly thrust into, and it seems like we’re supposed to be rooting for them as a couple simply because they’re two attractive people of the opposite sex and not because they’re right for each other in any way. Their relationship makes as much sense as a relationship between her and any other Avenger would.
When Marvel first introduced Black Widow in Iron Man 2, she wasn’t really fully utilized, just beating up some dudes and not having a whole lot of a character. But hey, she was badass, and it was certainly welcome to have a new female hero in these movies. In The Avengers, she was a truly interesting character: strong, complex, tortured by her past but struggling to move past it to fight for what’s right and hold her own even without any super powers.
Age of Ultron doesn’t completely ruin Black Widow, and she’s still pretty badass in the movie action wise. But her story is now reduced to her inner turmoil over her relationship with a man. A lot of her Ultron storyline really boils down to whether she wants to run off with this guy that she likes.
Yes, the idea is supposed to be that she’s struggling with whether she wants or is capable of handling a normal life, but I think tying that around her feelings for Hulk really diminishes the impact of that. We could still show Black Widow struggling with her place in the Avengers and in the world, feeling unable to deal with the guilt of her past and feeling like she needs to escape. But in Ultron, it more often comes across like a girl wanting to run away with a boy, and that’s pretty lame. For a character who doesn’t have a solo movie, we only have limited time with Black Widow, usually just seeing her in other people’s films. This was a great opportunity to develop Natasha further, and instead we get to see her flirt a lot and make out with Mark Ruffalo.
Now, I’m of course not someone who’s against romance in these films at all, nor do I necessarily think there would be no way to give Black Widow a love interest that’s acceptable. But if we’re going to risk reducing one of the series’ only strong female characters to a girl whose ability to carry out her tasks are complicated because of her relationship with a man, it really has to be earned. We need to be slowly eased into it, seeing their clear chemistry and having a relationship naturally form. Otherwise, we’re just turning her into an object to bounce back and forth between the male characters, and it implies that it’s a necessity for Natasha to have a male love interest.
Taking the example of sitcoms again, though it’s a completely different kind of story, take April and Andy on Parks and Recreation. This is a truly great relationship between characters, and we get to see their dynamic naturally form. There is absolutely no doubt that they are good for one another and are together not because the writers decided April needed a man, but because they have clear chemistry and make each other happy. It’s completely earned.
The relationship between Black Widow and Hulk is the definition of unearned, and in that way, Whedon really lets the character of Natasha down. We’re meant to accept the couple not because it makes sense for them to be together, but because it makes sense for the movie to pair an attractive male and an attractive female together. Ultron runs the serious risk of turning Natasha into an object of romance and not a strong, unique character in her own right. If in future movies, Black Widow’s relationship with Hulk is still a major part of her character, Marvel will have made a serious mistake.