In the first part of this series, I proposed that “Shit/Language!” is the most significant line in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It would be congruent with that statement to suggest that the most significant visual frame is the “lullaby” between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who represent that thematic opposition even better than Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).
To say this once again, Age of Ultron can be described as a film that negotiates the opposing values represented most synthetically by the words “shit/language”, seen as the excess of cultural material that informs the film on all levels against the stable code capable of ordering it, unifying it and giving it meaning. Largely, it anchors that opposition in its characters, and we’ve already discussed how Iron Man and Captain America introduce that polarity. But it is Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner, entangled in their troubled romance, who truly bring the problematic dualism to the fore.
The first time we see the two of them coming in contact is in the iconic lullaby scene. The two characters approach each other in the battlefield, slowly, tentatively. Romanoff takes her glove off, stops talking, reaches out. The Hulk approaches and responds in kind, touching hands with her.
While the line of dialogue “Shit/Language” first sets these two values in a dialectic, this frame inaugurates the quest to find synthesis between them, which is the film’s own quest and that of writer-director Joss Whedon. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff stand for “shit” and “language” more essentially than any other character except for the Vision (Paul Bettany). The Hulk in particular is very obvious: he represents “excess” in the same way that the Leviathan we discussed in the first article does; he’s the epitome of chaos and unbridled, unreasoning emotion; he’s a compound of special effects who comes weighed down with a huge textual mythology and a very literal “weight” of his own. Predictably, he is the only one among the Avengers who is largely incapable of speech and therefore excluded from the Language! of the others (there are exceptions in the mythology—“Hulk smash!”, or “puny god”—but none in this movie).
The character’s divorce from the shared network of the spoken word forces Natasha to transcend it and communicate by a series of touches that make for their own language. In the same way that Hulk better represents “shit” than Iron Man, so Black Widow better represents “Language!” than Captain America. Her reputation for cajolery, subterfuge, coaxing, and subtle persuasion endow her with a silver tongue that is even more authoritative than Cap’s silver shield. Steve Rogers would never be able to perform a “lullaby” because he cannot transcend his one-dimensional lines. Indeed, while the Captain’s relationship with language is defined by the way that he is always totally transparent, that of Black Widow is the opposite—she is never transparent, to the point that her own teammates only partially trust her. In brief, she functions like language, while the Captain only promotes it.
The traditional reading of the Romanoff/Rogers relationship sees her as the subordinate. An imaginative reading of Age of Ultron could comfortably reverse this interpretation, assigning Black Widow as a goddess of Language! and the Captain as her divine emissary, or hero, prophet, manciple, apostle, or avatar.
This is of course a fanciful reading, but not a groundless one. Just like the Hulk is associated with chaos and rage, so Romanoff in this film is invested with a link to the heavens and to imagery of light and transcendence. She is often framed by Whedon with light illuminating her from below like a figure of worship, be it at the bar with Banner or in the close-up when she’s about to mount her motorcycle. When the film reaches the pinnacle of crisis and the city is elevated above the clouds, she seems uniquely at home. “There’s worse ways to go,” she declares, aloof, looking out at the clouds. “Where else am I going to get a view like this?”
In fact, Romanoff’s most subtle link to the divine comes immediately after the film’s title sequence. The frame opens with a celestial vision of the sky, and the Avengers’ jet courses through it as a beautiful classical aria plays in the background. The frame cuts to the inside of the jet, and specifically onto Natasha, who is sitting on a chair behind the pilot’s. She rises from this metaphorical throne and walks to Banner; we then find out that the character was listening to that particular classical aria in an attempt to compound the soothing effect of Natasha’s lullaby.
The aria in question is Casta Diva, by Vincenzo Bellini, which literally means “chaste goddess”. It overlaps with the character’s “lullaby” and thus sets up a complex network of signification, linking together in that one scene Natasha, heaven and the divine, along with music as a mode of communication beyond language. Her later flash-back rather compounds this when it turns out she was trained in ballet, and it’s probably worth noting that her nightmare is an academy in which she is tied up and surrounded by mouthless girls, i.e. in which her powerlessness is connected to an abrogation of language.
Natasha is linked to transcendence, clouds, grace and idealised beauty. Her mirror is the Hulk, who denotes brutishness and monstrosity, and who is always visually associated to the earth as he crashes and cracks it, ends up buried under constructions, and is constantly covered in dust or mud.
The colour scheme in the clothes they wear further highlights their opposition and interdependence. When they flirt over the bar, and later when they meet in a bathrobe and a shirt in Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) house, she is wearing white while he dons black. This transparent act of mirroring is mediated at the bar by their common drink, a blood-red coloured cocktail – the only colour they share. The act of drinking together bridges the opposition, like touching hands did for them earlier.
The redness of their drink represents romance, of course, but also danger. It shows the way that their characters complicate the relationship between “shit” and “language” and the tension involved in connecting these two poles. Captain America and Iron Man may have introduced and explained the themes, but it’s the Widow/Hulk relationship that elaborates them. As both characters embrace aesthetic traits of the other, they contaminate their perfect integrity. The drinking is an act that is symbolically incongruous for both characters: the “chaste goddess” should not be drinking something as vital and carnal as blood, while the wild, primordial monster should not be holding a symbol of high-class artifice, grace and frailty like the cocktail glass.
But it’s important to note that the Hulk and Black Widow’s efforts to find synthesis in the final lullaby end up failing. Just when it seems that they are about to come together for the scene that will reunite them, they are interrupted by the film’s best and most anarchic character, Ultron himself (James Spader). The result is that they are separated, with Natasha left to a pose of isolated grace in the New Avengers facility and the Hulk flying off into the distance. The film fails to attain the objective that it sets itself out, even when helped by a “goddess” capable of transcending language.
It’s probably also worth mentioning now that this role does not exhaust Black Widow. Like the other Avengers, her character is a complex textual object that does not end where this film does, and whose role is not limited to this particular one as a “feminine goddess”. It has become almost impossible to discuss Natasha Romanoff without being sucked into the discussion of Marvel’s gender politics and whether she represents a step forward or backwards for equal gender representation. That some aspects of her character should be genuinely problematic belies the fact that the level of the criticism surrounding Natasha Romanoff has been (and perhaps still is) more embarrassing than anything in the actual movie. One could take this as evidence for an argument already articulated within the feminist spheres—that parts of the internet have misappropriated and vulgarised feminist criticism to the point of undermining the positive effects of the net’s widespread distribution.
But in the case of this particular film, the hysteria surrounding the is-it-feminist role of Black Widow was less the marker of a specific ideology than the inevitable product of a film that hit so many cultural nerves, sweeping up a political and ideological backlash too. In other words, it’s simply more of the “shit” that Joss Whedon had to deal with. As the director himself probably knew from the outset, you can’t get a film like this without a lot of shit criticism, because it is precisely said shit that makes up the film in the first place. The asperities that drove Whedon off Twitter after the movie’s release may cloud the character that he penned, but they ironically illuminate his movie—I say ironically because Black Widow transcends the controversy she herself generates.
The Twitter trolls, and perhaps to some extent, even the more moderate critics, are closer in spirit to the Hulk, and not just because of their anger. But Black Widow is at the other end of that spectrum. She remains above all of these passing disputes, unsullied by the sound and the fury of the world below.
Now in the same way that Natasha Romanoff and Captain America’s emphasis is not just on proper language, so the Hulk and Iron Man’s link to “shit” is not just about profanity. To the extent that they correspond to the textual conflict that Whedon was grappling with, they also give us room for interpretation.
Here’s one way of making sense of the film: overwhelmed by the tremendous textual “excess” that came with Avengers: Age of Ultron, compelled to deal with “too much shit” or in Whedon’s own words: “…but then the weight of the thing, the weight of the last thing, of this not just being the next thing that happens…”
The director increasingly strove to find a Language! strong enough to sustain it. The subconscious effort, we may speculate, must have been to keep the film from ending as one of two disasters: a Michael Bay-type load of “shit” in which a mass of cultural signifiers and narrative elements are heaped onto each other with little sense or coherence, or a (senior) George Lucas-type of film, obsessed with its integrity at the expense of its sincerity—case in point, his second Star Wars trilogy and all the retrospective amendments he made to the material of the first.
Instead of avoiding these two extremes, the film ends up dramatising the fear of ending up in either of them. The result is a peculiar, uncertain, autobiographical text that grapples with its own post-modern identity. The scenes are constantly juggling examples of shit and language, and this is both the input and the outcome of Whedon’s particular writing style. Captain America’s tendency to interrupt people mid-speech, as discussed in our first article, also happens to be a classic of Whedon’s script-writing. It exemplifies a staple of the director’s humour, which is very often based on something being said/done and then immediately contradicted. A good example is provided by the character of Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), who undermines her role as rigorous geneticist when she switches over to a girlish fan: “Unlike you [Stark], I don’t have a lot of time for parties … Will Thor be there?”
The difference between Cho as an idealistic scientist and a metatextual fangirl, and likewise the film’s schizophrenic visual jumps from the delirious pastiche of “visions” induced by the Scarlet Witch to the realistic POV angles in the Hulk’s fight against Iron Man, along with all the examples in the Whedonite dialogue, are all re-enactments of the film’s opening line and most memorable joke: Shit/Language!
In the film’s original vision, finding synthesis should have been left, aptly, to the Vision (Paul Bettany) and his twin brother Ultron. But just as the film headed in that direction, it was drastically and very deliberately sabotaged by the Avengers’ greatest antagonist, Joss Whedon himself, incarnate in this film as Ultron. The titular robot is the director’s favourite plaything and his most autobiographical character ever. His mission is to destroy the Avengers in every possible sense and it is the director’s mission. In the next article, we’ll consider whether he succeeds.