All too often, when you have a token female in a story, that character's primary super power is simply that she's a girl.
When Kevin Feige and the other producers behind the scenes at Marvel, began to assemble their core cast of characters for the company's cinematic universe (MCU), their choices stayed within conventional lines of representation for superheroes and action stars, resulting in a group that is almost entirely white and male. Someone clearly knew that it would be a mistake, commercially and creatively, to limit the team to that narrow range of characters and actors. So in addition, and for the fan base, historically, Marvel Comics superhero teams have almost always included at least one female character. And so, from the array of choices for the "Avengers Initiative" Natasha Romanoff, "Black Widow", was introduced into the MCU as "the girl".
And as "the girl", Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow has been subject to a higher level of scrutiny than any other character in the cast. Her costume, how she's posed, what roles she gets to play, how much screen time, how much merchandise -- every aspect of the character is weighted with meaning and expectation out of proportion to her place in the MCU. Even though, thus far, Black Widow has only ever appeared in other character's movies and in supporting roles, as the only female, Natasha is not merely herself, a singular character, but she also carries the burden of being all of the women in the Avengers. Whatever hopes and aspirations anyone has for what a superhero who is also female should be, Black Widow has been the only figure to represent those qualities.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Natasha's character development is seemingly given a strong turn towards conventional gender roles. You see her acting as caretaker for the Hulk, calming and soothing him back into Bruce Banner. In addition, she is written into a "Beauty and the Beast" romance with Hulk/Banner, acting lovelorn and unfilled in her current life as an Avenger. You also learn that she was made sterile as part of the Soviet training program that shaped her into a spy and assassin. While the film does not dwell on this point -- and one can argue about how deep this wound is meant to go for her -- it's inescapable that this is a trauma that could only happen to Natasha.
Taken in isolation, any one of these developments could work to contribute nuance or depth to Black Widow's character, but when taken together, they highlight the lack of options for a writer or director who wants to explore questions of femininity or what it means to be female in the context of super-heroism. Also taken together, these developments seem to betray a lack of imagination; they read like a checklist of stereotypical "female problems" or "women's issues" and reduce Natasha to conventional sex and gender roles.
A useful contrast to Black Widow in Avenger: Age of Ultron is Jubilee in the current X-Men comic. When Jubilee was re-introduced as a regular character in the comics, writer Brian Wood gave her a newborn baby boy, Shogo. The first story arc in the relaunched title focused on the baby and on Jubilee's anxieties about being a mother.
Seen one way, this is another situation where a female character is reduced to a traditional gender role. The crucial difference between Jubilee in X-Men and Black Widow in the films of the MCU is that the core cast of X-Men are all also female. Whatever you read Jubilee doing in the comic, there are always other women who are doing something else in the story, and who represent other possibilities. All too often, when you have a token female in a story, that character's primary super power -- her defining trait -- is simply that she's a girl. Having multiple girls and women in a story forces, and enables, creators and readers to think about characters beyond stereotypical sex and gender roles.
In regards to Avengers: Age of Ultron, it can be noted that both Tony Stark and Thor engage in at least brief conversations about their respective romantic partners. It can also be noted that Hawkeye is revealed as a husband and father with a family and is written into a role as guardian to new characters Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. And, of course, there's the ongoing conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers over what it takes to be a hero and the recurring joke about Thor's hammer (a joke that Natasha, notably, declines to participate in). Leaving aside the different ways in which these moments are written and gendered, the salient point is that the nature of the cast allows a greater field of action for the team's male characters. Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, and Hawkeye, are never reduced to "male hero"' they are simply Avengers.
I find it useful to imagine the other narrative possibilities that could have been taken in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Natasha, after all, is not the only character in scenes where the Hulk needs to be calmed. Tony is also placed in that circumstance. Only instead of softly spoken code words and light touches, he uses a special suit designed to beat the Hulk into submission.
One can argue about the particulars of the "Hulkbuster" scene, but that doesn't change the fact that it would have been substantially more interesting to see Tony Stark talking softly to the Hulk to bring back Bruce Banner than it is to see Natasha performing that role (not to mention that the wanton destruction of an African city in this scene is one of the film's most thoughtless moments). Another interesting possibility would have been to assign Hawkeye, the other Avenger without powers, as caretaker for the Hulk, while retaining the Natasha-Bruce romance. That choice would have added a distinctly queer twist to the franchise.
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch
Even if Marvels' producers aren't willing to go so far as to invert or twist expected gender roles, with the introduction of Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, they have taken a small step towards lifting Black Widow's burden, and a couple of scenes I observed in Avengers: Age of Ultron demonstrate the value and power of diversifying the make-up of the Avengers.
First, I want to note that the virtually full theater I was in was essentially evenly divided between male and female audience members, and this was not a demographic that could be reduced to dutiful wives, mothers, sisters, and girlfriends tagging along for a rom com to be named later. I saw mother-daughter pairs without male family members, and groups, family or otherwise, that were majority female. If any woman in that auditorium felt resentful or bored, they were't demonstrative about their feelings.
With that point as context, the first thing I saw on exiting the screening was a group of adolescent girls already re-enacting key scenes with Wanda. Meanwhile, across the hall was a group of three older women, two guys, and a younger woman. Once again, Scarlet Witch was the subject of attention, with the older women wondering about the character's powers. In response, the younger woman filled in Wanda's history from the comics. The two men, notably, stood and listened in silence.
This is what I take from these scenes.
Yes, girls and women have demonstrated, repeatedly, a willingness to see movies, or read books and comics, with male protagonists and where female characters are limited to supporting roles, but that does not mean that girls and women don't want stories where female characters are more prominent and part of the action.
This point seems aptly demonstrated by the extent to which some girls and women will latch on to female characters even where there's limited material to hold onto. Being an expert on Scarlet Witch from the comics takes work. Her publication history is fragmentary and the character has never been the lead for an ongoing title. She has also frequently been defined by romantic entanglements, notably with the Vision. Whether the young woman I overheard knew what she knew from extensive reading or research in preparation for watching Avengers: Age of Ultron, she still offers a demonstration of something that has always been true: girls will geek out on superheroes and genre fiction just as readily as boys.
What the introduction of Scarlet Witch means in terms of female characters for the MCU is difficult to tell. Generally, Marvel's producers appear to be conservative in the extreme when it comes to incorporating women into their films. Both Scarlet Witch and Black Widow appear to be in their plans through at least Captain American: Civil War (2016). There is a Captain Marvel movie on the schedule, but that is both three years away and also little more than an announcement at this point. When it came time to cast Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the approach taken was essentially the same as for The Avengers (2012): four male/masculine characters and one female.
What's interesting is how the comics side of the company provides a counter-point to this slow incorporation of female characters. At the moment, the publisher's biggest stars and titles are female-led and, in may cases, are being edited, written, and drawn by women, as well. I suppose the stakes are lower when it comes to print, but it's encouraging to think that at some point there will be a convergence of film and comics that does not simply involve re-aligning the print universe to better serve the movies.
If there's one thing I would hope that Marvel could take from the success of a title like the current Ms. Marvel it would be this: make a good book (or film) and people will buy and read (or watch), regardless of how the hero is sexed or gendered. Indeed, the success of Kamala Khan shows that a well-written, well-designed, and well-conceived character will strike a chord regardless of how specific or novel her identity may seem when set against a historical backdrop where white male is the default.
Similarly, on the small screen, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a large and diverse cast with a variety of regular female characters. The series has, of course, featured stories about women as daughters, mothers, wives and lovers, but no character has been reduced or limited to those roles and no character has been made to be all of those things on the show.
Agent Carter showed the power of having a woman lead, rather than support, a mostly male cast. Of all of the MCU productions, Agent Carter has been the most effective at addressing gendered social relations while allowing its female protagonist to be the big damn hero. Clearly, Marvel has creative people in-house who know how to write and direct female characters. That Joss Whedon should be one of those people has undoubtedly amplified frustrations with Avengers: Age of Ultron and heightened expectations for Black Widow.
Which brings me back to the beginning: regardless of how it happens, Marvel needs more female characters in the MCU so that we can all give Natasha a break.