This article discusses the plot of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” All of it.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” has been criticized for being too long, too short, overstuffed and inconsequential, but some of the most outraged criticisms have been prompted by a single line in which Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, reveals to Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner that she was forcibly sterilized during her training in the Soviet Union, concluding, “You’re not the only monster on the team.”
The apparent equation of infertility with monstrousness poured gasoline on the already smoldering anger about Black Widow’s treatment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the MCU’s tepid support for female heroes in general. Iron Man, Thor and Captain America get three movies apiece, but a Black Widow standalone never seems to make it onto Marvel’s schedule, and the first movie devoted to a female hero, “Captain Marvel,” isn’t scheduled to arrive until 2018. It certainly didn’t help when a Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner jokingly called Black Widow a “slut” and a “whore” in the middle of a press tour, or when Renner, after a half-assed nonpology, repeated the slur on Conan last night. No less than the Hulk himself publicly urged Marvel to make more Black Widow merchandise for his “daughters and nieces,” fortunately without losing his temper.
Much of that ire found its way to “Age of Ultron” writer-director Joss Whedon’s virtual doorstep, with several sites speculating that the “feminist backlash” was responsible for Whedon quitting Twitter. (Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams explains why that’s bunk, and it’s much more likely that Whedon was simply finishing up “Ultron’s” promotional push before making himself scarce, but don’t expect the rumors to dry up any time soon.) Blastr writer Tara Bennett accused Whedon of detonating “an old-fashioned fertility bomb,” while The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern accused the movie of reducing a “badass assassin” to a “baby-obsessed flirt.”
Some of these tendentious misreadings involve a basic failure to read the movie as a dramatic work rather than a political tract. It may be narrowly true that, as Stern writes, “None of the other Avengers really worry about raising a family” — although it’s Bruce’s raising the subject that prompts Natasha’s confession the first place — but it’s flatly wrong to claim that she “yearns for the domesticated life of Hawkeye’s secret pregnant wife.” Sure, she shows an interest in Clint Barton’s children, and later video chats with one of them, but that hardly translates to baby fever: Plenty of adults with no interest in having children of their own enjoy being uncles and aunts to other peoples’ kids, and then enjoy going home to the quiet and order of their child-free lives. What we see in “Age of Ultron” is a woman who’s put that possibility behind her in order to focus on her work, in much the same way her male colleagues have.
Natasha’s sterility is, it bears emphasizing, is not, or not entirely of her own doing. It was, as we see in a flashback triggered by the Scarlet Witch’s telepathic powers, part of a “graduation ceremony” from her spy training, a process which also involved the execution of a bound and hooded human being — an act that certainly qualifies as monstrous. The sequence suggests that, it not precisely brainwashed — although she has been in some comics versions of her origin story — Natasha was heavily pressured to accept her own sterilization, which then becomes a form of state-perpetrated violence against the female body. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post, “The tragedy of Natasha’s character isn’t that she’s been felled from her mission by her love for babies. It’s that her mentor (Julie Delpy) took something away from Natasha that didn’t have to be removed for her to be a hero.”
Far from being an incidental character trait, Natasha’s inability to bear children is inextricable from “Age of Ultron’s” central theme: evolution. Ultron, an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark as a means of ensuring “peace in our time,” takes a quick look at the whole of human existence and decides that, rather than humanity’s protector, he is mean to be its successor. (Stark, evidently less well versed in history than science, inadvertently co-opts a phrase from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose disinclination to war allowed Hilter years to build up Germany’s military capacity unchallenged. You know who else forcibly sterilized women?) The Avengers may have settled their differences in Whedon’s first Marvel blockbuster, but a ragtag bag of humans can’t outflank a perfectly harmonized army of robots, let alone Paul Bettany’s Vision, whose creation is the closest thing “Age of Ultron” has to a live birth.
Ultron, voiced with oily certitude by a magnificent James Spader, decides that he’ll give natural selection a push by staging his own extinction-level event, which the Avengers, naturally, have to prevent: Another day, another threat to the existence of humanity. But as Captain America points out, the battle isn’t just about defeating Ultron. “It’s about whether he’s right.” There’s a sense in which the Avengers themselves are an evolutionary dead end: As Tony Stark says, their ultimate goal is to create a world which no longer needs them. Their ultimate victory will mean they cease to exist. (The presence of the a pair of twins, one of whom lives and one of whom dies, is classically Darwinian.)
Apart from the demigod Thor, and as distinct from the non-MCU X-Men, the Avengers are all man-made heroes, the result of accidental or deliberate tampering with the natural process of evolution: Bruce Banner, whose experiments with gamma radiation gave him an angry green alter ego who is both more and less than human; Stark, whose Iron Man suit began as an extension of the device that kept his heart from stopping; Captain America, transformed by the “super soldier” serum. Hawkeye and Black Widow are fully human, but their training has built a psychological wall between them and everyone else. Clint Barton, as we discover in “Age of Ultron,” is able to maintain a semblance of a “normal” life — wife, two kids, another on the way — but only by keeping it so far off the grid that even S.H.I.E.L.D. never knew it existed. He is, as Whedon told BuzzFeed’s Adam B. Vary, the closest thing the Avengers have to an everyman. “You realize he has distance from these guys because everything that Ultron hates about them, everything that’s wrong with them, everything that they can be pulled apart for — their distance from humanity, their grandeur, their elitism — he doesn’t have any of that. He has a wife and kids.”
That life distinguishes Clint from Natasha, but also from the rest of their teammates: Tony Stark and Thor may be in stable relationships, but the women they love are off running companies and working on a Nobel prize. We don’t even know if Thor is capable of reproducing with a human, and Tony, well, he’s reformed his playboy ways, but not so much he can’t make an obscure rape joke while the rest of the boys are clowning around. (Won’t some Avenger please think of the children?) Bruce Banner doesn’t want to risk having kids who turn out like him, and as for Steve Rogers, Captain America’s civilian alter ego? The guy who might have wanted a family, he says, “died in the ice 75 years ago.”
Whedon, whose love of the Western “Firefly” fans know well, has made the Avengers the embodiment of the “good bad man,” the figure whom a fragile society needs to war off evil but ultimately has no place in it. (Think John Wayne in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” who writes himself out of a frontier town’s history in order to protect its future.) Having families wouldn’t exactly fit their world-saving lifestyles, but it also means that, as far as evolution is concerned, the human race will have to go on without them.