Joss Whedon, long seen as a feminist for creating complex female characters in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly,” has described Black Widow as “the most fascinating” Avenger. But with last week’s release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the Marvel film’s screenwriter and director has come under fire in some feminist circles for his vision of Black Widow as a vulnerable agent entangled in a budding romance with the Hulk.
Portrayed on the big screen by Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow, a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff, is a spy who abandons U.S.S.R. secret ops to fight for the good guys, joining S.H.I.E.L.D. and later the Avengers Initiative. One version of her comic-book origin story reveals that Natasha was raised by the so-called Black Widow Ops program, brainwashed from childhood and trained in combat and espionage.
It’s this back story that makes its way to the silver screen in Whedon’s “Avengers” sequel in an emotional exchange between Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner (a.k.a. Hulk), with both characters lamenting their inability to have children — Banner because of his gamma-ray-induced Hulkdom and Widow because she was sterilized as part of a “graduation ceremony.”
This is also the storyline that drew waves of criticism that some blamed for causing Whedon to quit Twitter this week, even though Whedon himself has not spoken about his reasons. Others, like the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, have come to Whedon’s defense, saying his exploration of “what it means to be both a woman and an action hero ... is a worthy entry into the oeuvre that made Whedon a feminist icon in the first place.”
Johansson herself told this paper that she appreciates Whedon’s efforts: “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.”
Just before “Ultron’s” release, Whedon talked in depth about Black Widow. “She’s defined by (pain) in a way that she generally doesn’t show, and when she gets to, it’s very affecting,” the director said. “I think we went deeper with her than with anybody else.”
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In “Avengers,” we saw a close relationship between Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye and Natasha Romanoff.
I find strong bonds between men and women that aren’t sexual not only cool and useful, but very romantic in a broad sense. There’s a lot of hate from the Clintasha crowd. It was never my intention that they were an item. I thought what was awesome was two people who would lay down their lives for each other who are not trying to sleep with each other. People keep saying that doesn’t exist, that men and women can’t be friends unless blah, blah, blah, and I’m just like, “Oh shut up.”
When did the idea of a romance between Natasha and Bruce Banner begin percolating in your mind?
I honestly don’t remember. We talked a little about the chemistry they had, just together in their scenes, and then I think it started with the lullaby. Like, “If you have the Hulk on the team, you know what would be cool is if Natasha’s the one who could talk him down.” Oddly enough, the lullaby itself is one of the last scenes that we finished because of the effects. And when we finished it, we were like, “This is way more romantic and way more physical than it was when it was post-viz, or a mark on a suit on a platform. It suddenly became that the romance was way more front and center in it than I expected.
What about the words she says?
“Hey there, big guy. The sun’s gettin’ real low.” I actually added that later in the game, I think something basically to get his attention and to have a phrase that he knows, this is about to start. I wanted to do as little with talking as possible, because it’s all going on there (points to his eyes), which is amazing, because two of those are not real — they were created by ILM, and yet they are so full of life. And I hate to say it, but he’s dead sexy as the Hulk.
Black Widow’s transformation from her introduction in “Iron Man 2” to the end of this film is remarkable. How did you go about that process?
The “Iron Man” version of her I like very well. “Oh, she’s a spy. Oh, she works for S.H.I.E.L.D. Oh, she kicks ass.” I’m always interested in that person. But what’s fun for me is in the “Avengers” movies, I get to spend time with people who don’t have their own franchises. And I’m always looking for pain, because pain usually contains truth and humor.
A lot of it comes from the comics. There’s something I read that’s stayed with me like a lodestar, and I feel bad because I don’t remember who wrote it, but it was a newer comic about Black Widow, and it made the distinction, “You’re not a superhero, you’re a spy.” And I always come back to that, time and again. Duplicity and moral ambiguity and all of the things that a spy needs to excel at are not heroic traits — she has been trained to be something that is considered less than a person, whereas a hero is generally considered more. And this whole movie is about saying, “Well, how different are they? And what is good about this whole idea of heroes? And what not so much?” And the word “monsters” is thrown about a great deal, and that’s not for nothin’.
About Widow’s sterilization back story. What sort of thoughts went through your head when you decided to include that? It’s almost like castrating a soldier.
I do think it’s something that disconnects her from life, from the life cycle .... Not everybody wants to have children. It’s very easy to say something that sounds old-fashioned and sexist. But the fact of the matter is that the ability to create life is extraordinary. And I think the idea that she doesn’t have that makes sense for someone to whom life for a long time didn’t mean very much, and to have that sort of come back and hit her emotionally in a way that she’s probably never admitted to herself, let alone to anyone else.
Did you worry that you were taking away something inherently female about the one woman Avenger (up until Scarlet Witch) on the team?
No, I never thought about that, because I don’t think it makes her a man. She still resembles Scarlett Johansson .... It’s very unlikely that there’s going to be a huge action sequence that revolves around her giving birth in one of these movies. To me, I look at it and I wonder how my daughter sees that, and how she registers it. I don’t know that she does, necessarily. She’s 10. I think to a very young crowd, they’re just going to go, “Well, she’s sad about her past,” and not really get it. But it’s kind of a grown-up notion, and it’s kind of a weird joy that these movies are about grownups, and very few people still make those. I know that they’re like, “Oh, comic book movies are ruining everything,” but to me, I’m like, I’ve got some very interesting people, and the thing about comic book movies is that they give you these grand metaphors to build your characters from and to find them within.