*This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Read at your own discretion.*
Recently the internet has taken up arms against director Joss Whedon for his most recent film, Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. There are a handful of things that some fans didn’t enjoy about the movie, so in typical anonymous fashion they began barraging Whedon’s Twitter account with harassing comments and even death threats, leading to the director leaving Twitter via account deletion. This course of action is all too familiar to anyone who spends their time on Twitter (or the internet, in general) and sadly it seems like this type of behavior is here to stay.
Soon after the movie’s domestic premier, Whedon’s account was filled with mentions such as “WE ALL HATE YOU”, “why do you ruin everything we love” as well as a plethora of explicit, anger filled rage Tweets directed at him personally. Shortly after all the Tweets started pouring in Whedon deleted his Twitter account entirely. Keep in mind that Whedon recently stated that the deletion had nothing to do with the harassment he received, rather that Twitter was too much of a distraction for him. Though some aren’t buying into his reason, I think it’s completely legitimate to delete a Twitter account simply because it’s a bothersome distraction. I’ve considered doing the same from time to time and I’m not anywhere near as famous as someone like Joss Whedon who gets mentioned constantly. When questioned about whether or not the account deletion was due to the radical feminists who are perpetrating the harassment, he stated “I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That’s something I’m used to.”
Account deletion aside, the reasoning behind the bullying Whedon received is worthy of discussion. In order to properly address the root of the harassment received by Whedon, I took it upon myself to look into the issues at hand in this particular case as many of it came from self-proclaimed “feminists”. Myself being a feminist, I felt it was my responsibility to understand what the issues are and respond to them. After a little digging I have found a few solid complaints about Age of Ultron and Whedon’s direction of the hit film; complaints which I’d like to detail and sort out as there is a vast amount of misinterpretation and misunderstanding surrounding most of these issues.
The main complaint is centered around Avenger’s leading lady Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), who is played by Scarlett Johansson, and her confessing to her inability to bear children due to sterilization in her youth. Many people took this confession as a blatantly sexist choice made by Whedon that diminishes Black Widow as a character. The most prominent claim in regards to this issue is that she implied she was a monster due to her inability to conceive a child, which is offensive and further implies that a woman is only whole if she is able to have children. This is a general misinterpretation though as she never directly or indirectly claimed in the film that she was a monster for that reason, she said that she was a monster for having done bad things in her past. Context is very important as well, it’s important to note that Natasha confessed this after Bruce Banner (The Hulk) claimed that he doubts he could ever have children himself, to which she responds that she can’t either. She says that Banner isn’t the only monster on the team, then details the events that took place in her youth as a member of the Black Widow program which led to her becoming a trained assassin. The “graduation” for this program being sterilization, as they told her it would make her a more efficient killer. It wasn’t something she randomly mentioned, it was used to further sympathize with and relate to Banner.
I feel that a lot of the anger surrounding this particular issue is based in misunderstanding of the scene as a whole. This scene is all part of a larger conversation between these two characters which reveals a romantic relationship forming between them. They relate to one another as they both claim to be monsters for different reasons, him for being The Hulk and her for her former days as a ruthless assassin. It was a moment that gave Natasha more depth than she has ever had in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), making her appear human. While some are having issues with this relationship, I find that it is very touching. Some find it to be something that was instituted to weaken Natasha but romance weakens both people involved, it wasn’t a gendered or sexist addition at all. The people making complaints claim that the sterilization was a sexist move that “ruined” the character for them but being sterile is something that many women endure, it doesn’t make you weak or less feminine. To claim that Natasha’s confession is based in sexism is, to me, claiming that you find sterile women to be lesser than non-sterile women. If someone chooses to further claim that she said being sterile made her a monster then I suggest they watch the movie, or at least that scene, again to gain a better understanding.
Another complaint made against the depiction of Black Widow in Age of Ultron is the fact that she is captured by Ultron and thus in need of saving from one of the men on the Avengers team. It’s true, she is captured and Banner does release her from her confinement, but she led the team there and revealed Ultron’s previously unknown location on her own. While it does seem very “damsel in distress”, I found it to be more of her being in the wrong place at the wrong time and making the most of it, which ended with the Avengers being able to “save the day”. While I wasn’t too terribly thrilled with her being captured and saved, I think it was crucial to the movie and honestly something that no other Avenger could have done. I’m not claiming that there is no reason to be upset with this, rather that it had purpose and wasn’t just something done to make a damsel out of Black Widow or to make her appear weak. To me, it showed how intelligent and resourceful her character is and I see that without her the others may have been too late to save the world.
As those are the two main complaints made by people on the internet about Black Widow’s character, let’s move on to the other two issues I have seen discussed. One of these issues revolves around Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Some claim that their depiction in this movie was a “whitewashing” of their characters. Keep in mind that I have seen very few people bring this particular issue up, but it is something I have noticed so I felt it needed a bit of clarification. It’s important to note that while the Maximoff twins are Romani (otherwise known as “Gypsies”) in the comic book universe, their origin story was changed for the movies as Marvel Studios doesn’t have the rights to have them featured as mutants (X-Men/mutant characters belong to Fox currently). For the Marvel Cinematic Universe the Maximoff twins are genetically enhanced citizens of Sokovia, a fictional Eastern European country. Now, Romani people are located all over Europe and the America’s so they aren’t typically one specific skin color or race, though the group is said to have originated in Northern India. In the comics, Wanda and Pietro aren’t usually depicted as being dark in skin tone – they look Caucasian in most of their appearances. Eastern Europe and Sokovian people, such as Wanda and Pietro, are generally Caucasian in appearance as well. So the actors cast for the roles of the twins, who are both Caucasian, fit the characters in appearance.
To say that this was a whitewash casting is an opinion that is one based on misinformation or a lack of understanding of these locations and the subsequent ethnic appearance of their citizens. If this was, for example, casting a white actor to play Black Panther then it would be whitewashing. The main point is that even if they were Romani in the movie, Romani people are from a variety of places which leads to them having a variety of skin colors as a group. Seeing as the characters were not typically dark-skinned in the comics, we are led to assume that they simply aren’t dark-skinned people. As a side note, I didn’t see this issue brought up at all when Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (American and British, respectively) were cast in these roles, nor when Scarlett Johansson (American) was cast as a Russian character. It seems very out of the blue and, in a way, something that I think a tiny group of people just want to tack on to the list of things people are mad at Joss Whedon for.
The last complaint that I have seen against this movie, one which was also used to criticize Joss Whedon, was an inappropriate joke made by Tony Stark. In the movie, the Avengers and a few side characters are at a party, drinking and trying to lift Thor’s hammer. Nearly everyone gives it a shot but ultimately no one but Thor is worthy of wielding Mjolnir. In the scene, Tony Stark jokes that if he lifts the hammer he will be “reconstituting Prima Nocta”, which is an ancient law that allowed noblemen to take the virginity of peasant women, making this a rape joke. To me this was an unnecessary thing for anyone to say, even as a joke and even for someone like Tony Stark who is often rather misogynistic. I feel that it was in bad taste and honestly went over so many people’s heads (as that term is rarely discussed due to it possibly being a myth all together) that it wasn’t even funny. I went to a midnight showing of the movie in a theater packed full of adult fans and not a single person laughed at Stark’s comment. People who didn’t understand it didn’t find it funny and people who did found it offensive. All in all, it would have been so much better if he had said something different that was actually funny rather than offending some and confusing others. This is the only complaint out of all that I have mentioned which I do have a personal issue with.
After looking through all the main points made against Joss Whedon, I still cannot understand why it got so out of control. Obviously harassment and bullying of any kind is never acceptable regardless of the reasons, but the things people were saying were so very harsh considering how minor/nonexistent these issues are. It pains me to see how this backlash by a small group of people has hurt feminists as a whole, some people blame all feminists for what happened to Whedon rather than the small group of radicals responsible. This is not the feminist way, we should be better than this, better than taking to Twitter to threaten and bully someone we don’t agree with. I also feel bad for Whedon as he himself is a feminist and has done a lot of great work that involves strong, substantial female characters.
Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/The Hulk) and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) have spoken about this incident and I found their responses to be very thoughtful, both addressing the criticism against Whedon as well as the relationship between Banner and Romanoff in the movie. During a reddit AMA, Mark Ruffalo stated:
I think it’s sad. Because I know how Joss feels about women, and I know that he’s made it a point to create strong female characters. I think part of the problem is that people are frustrated that they want to see more women, doing more things, in superhero movies, and because we don’t have as many women as we should yet, they’re very, very sensitive to every single storyline that comes up right now. But I think what’s beautiful about what Joss did with Black Widow – I don’t think he makes her any weaker, he just brings this idea of love to a superhero, and I think that’s beautiful.
If anything, Black Widow is much stronger than Banner. She protects him. She does her job, and basically they begin to have a relationship as friends, and I think it’s a misplaced anger. I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to.
So I know Joss really well. I know what his values are. And I think it’s sad, because in a lot of ways, there haven’t been as many champions in this universe as Joss is and will continue to be. And I know it hurts him. I know it’s heavy on him. And the guy’s one of the sweetest, best guys, and I know him – as far as any man can be a champion for women, he is that.
So it’s been a little disheartening.
But I also see how much people love that aspect of it. There’s an equal amount of people who find the love interest between Banner and Black Widow to be a big standout. And it’s very satisfying to people. So it’s a movie. People are going to have their opinions. And that’s actually a great thing. The fact that this is a debate that’s coming out of this movie is probably a positive thing.
I just don’t think that people should get personal with Joss, because he really is – of anyone – an advocate for women. He’s a deeply committed feminist.
When asked about the depiction of the female characters in Age of Ultron, Johansson stated:
For so long, female superheroes have been mistreated, and I think women’s roles in general are often oversimplified and generic and saccharine […] I’ve finally been able to be a part of creating this character that is really multifaceted, and it’s fallen into what is generally a kind of male-dominated genre. To finally be sharing that with somebody else [Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch], and certainly with Lizzie, is a wonderful thing and a step in the right direction.
[…]Regardless of gender, characters work when they have substance and when they are grounded in something that is visceral and true. I loved that she is sort of this reluctant superhero, that she is kind of a mutant in some ways, that she didn’t really choose this path for herself … and these are things that Joss just really absorbed. When I read ‘Avengers 2,’ I was really moved by the fact that he stuck with that.
Both actors bring up great points. I think it is important to notice that people are more sensitive than ever when something arguable happens to a character such as Black Widow since there are so few super heroines in film and historically female heroes have faced the most discrimination. It’s also key to note that what has unfolded between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner adds depth to the characters, making them both feel realistic and whole.
I hope that in the future people will find better ways of expressing their dislikes than to vehemently harass an individual for something he cannot change at this point due to their misunderstanding. Lashing out at someone under the umbrella of anonymity that the Internet provides never leads to proper discussions or solutions, no matter the issue. I myself really enjoyed watching Avengers: Age of Ultron and can’t wait to see more done in the future with my new favorite character Scarlet Witch.