Where Are All The Women: Age of Ultron

Was the backlash against Joss Whedon for Avengers: Age of Ultron warranted?

Short answer: yes. Long answer…

I knew vaguely that there was dissatisfaction in the fandom over some choices, but a lot of it I had chalked up to puritanism. There will always be backlash when it comes to adaptations because everyone has their favourite story arcs.

So when I went to see it, I found myself just as angry, for reasons almost completely unrelated to comics.

This post is not going to be spoiler-free, but I will try to keep it to a minimum. Here is why Age of Ultron deserves the hate it’s getting.

Natasha is a godsend in the Avengers franchise, much loved by the fandom by and large. She was sorely underdeveloped in Avengers Assemble, but many of the characters were. Natasha got the development she deserved in Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. We were ruined for all others as it turns out. The Russo brothers set a high bar that Joss Whedon didn’t even attempt to reach when he took the reins back.

Whedon’s feminism is a relic from the era of Spice Girls and girl power. It was liberating in the 90s, but feminism has evolved since then. We are no longer satisfied with female characters who know how to use a weapon being equated with development. We want emotionally complex characters, characters with depth, and characters not written in a problematic manner. Whedon’s feminism has not evolved, and thus we are left with his signature woman: cutie with a weapon. We had it with Buffy as well.

Natasha is relegated to love interest. Now Natasha having a love story is nothing bad. Steve, Thor and Tony have love interests and they still get to be the hero. The problem is that Natasha’s romance comes at the cost of heroism. It’s strange, but suddenly the Black Widow can’t break out of a Medieval-looking cell without someone coming to her rescue. Gone is the woman who can bring an empire to its knees with her mastery of manipulation. Instead we have a damsel.

Black Widow's Age of Ultron poster

Black Widow’s Age of Ultron poster

And while we’re talking about Tony and Thor, let’s discuss an interesting scene where the boys play a game of one-upping, talking about their absent girlfriends. Pepper and Jane are mentioned, but never shown. Maria Hill (who in the comics is a biracial Latinx) makes the quip of “Where are all the women?” and it’s greeted with laughter.

But this is a legitimate criticism. The main female cast in this movie is Natasha, Wanda Maximoff and Dr Helen Cho. Others like Maria and Peggy Carter make cameo appearances, but these three play a major role.

Dr Helen Cho, I will admit, is a marvel. A Korean actress playing quite a progressive character. I can’t remember the last time I saw an Asian woman who wasn’t a geisha fantasy for a white man. The white men actually appreciate her prowess, and her knowledge is what saves her. I am white though, so any criticism of her character from Korean or Asian feminists should be valued, and just because I have not seen any criticism does not mean it does not exist.

Wanda is slightly more difficult to discuss. I don’t feel qualified to talk about her, but I will try. Wanda’s history and heritage in the comics are tricky. Most remember her from the 2005 House of M arc, in which Wanda, driven insane by the loss of her child, tries to alter the fabric of reality. It was a poor depiction of a homicidal mentally unstable person, but has unfortunately impacted her character, as seen in the end-scene of Captain America 2.

Wanda is Romani and she is Jewish, just like her brother. They have never been white, only white-passing depending on the artist. One of the more popular theories as to why they were whitewashed is that Fox still owns X-Men, therefore they could not have that link to Magneto. However Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch have been Avengers since 1965—they are barely X-Men. And surprisingly, Magneto is not the only Jewish character in the world. So to have that positive piece of representation retconned is insulting enough. The actors chosen, while talented, were not Jewish or Roma. What makes it worse is that Whedon decided that the Maximoff twins should side with HYDRA.

The Vision & The Scarlet Witch #3 (1985)

The Vision & The Scarlet Witch #3 (1985)

Just to reiterate: the Jewish-Romani characters are siding with the Nazis.

And then we come to Natasha. Suddenly she’s cast as Bruce Banner’s love interest, despite no indication from the first movie that this was even coming. They ended the first movie with a Natasha still afraid of the Hulk. Now she is his handler, singing lullabies and casting bedroom eyes.

Odd romance aside, it’s disappointing to see her handled this way after Captain America 2. She seems suddenly helpless, unable to escape on her own and brooding over the fact that Bruce won’t be with her. Natasha is human, but she is goal-orientated. That is what makes her a good assassin and a better Avenger. She knows how to get things done, and that is difficult to do when you are trying to convince a man to run away with you.

And then we come to the infamous sterilisation scene.

Let me point out that this is a canonical piece of characterisation. That Natasha is sterile is not the main concern here. Many women are sterile or made sterile, and it is good to see those women represented as strong and wonderful.

The issue comes with the tone of conversation. Bruce and Natasha are discussing monstrosity. To Natasha, that she is sterile makes her a monster. It reads less like Natasha’s own demons make her think this, and more like this is an irrefutable fact. Natasha was made infertile in Russia, and now she cannot have children. This is comparable to Bruce’s Hulking out.

This point could have been handled well. It has been in the past. If you are interested in this origin and want to read it done right, Marjorie Liu’s The Name of the Rose graphic novel is phenomenal. It’s sensitive, it’s aware, and it plays a part in the narrative. It didn’t in Age of Ultron. It was simply to have Bruce and Natasha compare their monstrous pasts. It’s highly insensitive of Whedon, and can be very offensive to others.

So is the backlash warranted?

I’m saying yes. I’ve provided links to other posts below which further elaborate on points above. The writing was sexist, racist and ableist. From a creative perspective, the world he is trying to build doesn’t work because there is too much disconnect from the wider MCU. Characters do things which we don’t believe they would do because as an audience, we follow more than just Whedon’s interpretation. Things become shaky, characters lose dimensions, and it can be painful to watch.

It was a decent film. The effects were great, the villain was enjoyable… but the writing is weak and disjointed, and relies too heavily on harmful tropes. The backlash is deserved.

Other Articles:

  • Elizabeth Olsen’s ableist interview (x)
  • A fansite exploring the MCU and its relationship with PoC (x)
  • Sexism and Age of Ultron (x)

The Portrayal of Male Victims in Comics

Hello and welcome to Friday’s Feminist.

I recently did two guest posts over at Verbal Remedy; Women in Comics: Women in Refrigerator and Women in Comics: The Sexy Lamp Test. They explored the double standards and excessive sexual violence aimed towards women in superhero comics. This post will follow a similar exploration.

The depiction of male victims of sexual violence is a different realm to their female counterparts. They do not add to a systematic oppression based on gender, nor are they indicative of how the general character pool are treated. In most cases, the victim either receives some reward or benefit from the encounter, thus coding the encounter as necessary or somehow worth it, or else it is never brought up again. Both of these are problematic, especially for real life victims of sexual abuse or assault. It portrays assault as either a good thing, or it endorses a culture of silence around male victims. Some of the biggest names in superhero history have at some point been the victim of sexual violence in various forms, but you wouldn’t know that if you weren’t a reader or only read recent issues.

This post comes with content warnings for domestic violence, sexual abuse and sexual assault.

In Hulk #23, Bruce Banner is cornered in the showers at a YMCA by two men. Bruce says no, only to have one of them respond that that only means he won’t like it this time, but his attacker will regardless. Bruce is only able to keep them away from him when he tells them that he is The Incredible Hulk, and if they touch him he’d rip them apart. Bruce was almost gang raped. It’s never referenced again, though one could see how this might impact his life in a significant way.

There is no almost in Nightwing #93. Nightwing, the adult moniker of Dick Grayson, has teamed up with a young woman named Catalina Flores, code-named Tarantula. Catalina murders Blockbuster, and driven mad by Blockbuster’s attacks on his personal life, Nightwing lets her. It’s a traumatic event for Dick, and it takes an even darker turn when Dick lies in the street, injured and unable to move. Rather than help him, Catalina climbs on him and rapes him in the street. He clearly protests, but it doesn’t deter her.

This scene is not treated as rape by the creator. In an interview, the series writer Devin Grayson said of the issues: “For the record, I’ve never used the word “rape,” I just said it was non-consensual”. Grayson wants to draw a distinction between rape and non-consensual sex when there isn’t one to draw. Dick did not consent and could not do anything to stop her. After, she takes a drunk and shaken Dick to the registrar’s office to trick him into marriage. He does manage to stop this though when he is summoned away by Batman.

After this, there are no ramifications. Dick and Catalina continue working together, and two issues later he’s even tempted to kiss her. Dick doesn’t mention it again and Catalina doesn’t receive any punishment until she is eventually incarcerated for the murder of Blockbuster.

In The Invincible Iron Man #30, Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit gains sentience when it is struck by lightning. What follows is a nightmare. The suit believes it loves Tony, murders Whiplash, and abducts Tony and takes him away to an island to torture until he loves the suit back.

The scene is ridiculous, but the pattern is a familiar one. The suit hurts Tony. Apologises. And then makes it Tony’s fault. It is all done out of love and only because he doesn’t understand his feelings for Tony. And yes, it is a romantic love he feels, as the suit states there is no difference between his love for Tony and Tony’s love for his then-love interest, Rumiko Fujikawa. The suit is no longer his captor, and instead becomes an allegory for an abusive relationship. He locks Tony away and threatens to kill anyone important in Tony’s life. When Tony tries to escape and suffers a heart attack in the process, the suit rips out its own heart to give to Tony to save his life. Despite the torture, Tony tries to save his suit and the suit rejects him, saying “you’ve done enough”. The cycle of abuse ends only when Tony is burdened with the guilt of essentially killing his suit.

See the end of the post for resources

See the end of the post for resources

Perhaps the most famous example is Batman, in Grant Morrison’s 2006 series Batman and Son. In it, one of Batman’s many love interests, Talia al Ghul, drugs Batman and rapes him. This results in the conception of Damian Wayne, the son of Bruce and Talia. Damian is sent to live with Bruce when Ra’s al Ghul is attacked in his home. Bruce takes Damian under wing, and teaches him compassion and the way of the batfamily. Damian is the ultimate reward for Bruce’s hardships; he is given a son and new sidekick from it.

It is worth noting that from 2011, the events of this saga were changed to make it a consensual union, and the 2014 animated movie Son of the Batman follows this retcon.

Finally, we come to a character with two stories to tell—one handled poorly, and one handled surprisingly well.

Back when Tobey Maguire was playing Peter Parker in 2002, it was decided that they should update Spider-Man’s web-slinging power. Gone were the web-shooters invented by Peter; now he could organically produce webbing as a side-effect of the bite. This was all well and good, but Peter in the comics was still using machinery. To fix this, Marvel introduced a storyline called Changes. During this, Spider-Man is restrained by The Queen and assaulted with her kiss. That kiss mutates him from the inside, causing him to become pregnant. He becomes a giant spider, only for the mutation to become unstable and for him die. He somehow manages to birth himself though, with all his old memories and his new webslinging powers. His assault and violation are once again deemed worth it because he benefits from new powers and he doesn’t deal with the trauma.

Sadly, Spider-Man has been in a sexual abuse storyline that was handled well. In Spider-Man and Power Pack #1 (1984), Spider-Man is talking to a young boy who is being abused by his babysitter. It leads to Spider-Man telling his own story about his own experience with Skip, an older boy that he trusted who abused him. It is not even a lie he told to make the child feel better. As he swings through New York in the end, Peter is able to come to terms with what happened. He admits to feeling shame and to thinking it was his fault, which are very common emotions to have after abuse.

From Spider-Man and Power Pack #1 (1984)

From Spider-Man and Power Pack #1 (1984)

This is not the only time it has been mentioned. It was referenced again in 1987 in Spider-Man: National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse #1. It’s a part of a monologue where he talks about the sexual, emotional and verbal abuse he suffered through because of Skip. He urges people to get help if they need it, because there is no weakness in that. He understands the pain.

Both of these were special issues, meant to help children going through the same problems, but they were handled well. There is no reason that it couldn’t be referenced in the new continuity. If characters like Oracle are expected to relive their traumas and have it as a constant part of their character history, then Peter Parker could have it too. He would be no less heroic; he would be even more of a hero, especially to young people from similar situations. His gender does not preclude him from coping with trauma.

That men suffer from sexual abuse is something which the media does not always handle with sensitivity. Superheroes would be perfect avenues to explore this in: they are renowned as being strong, even if it isn’t their core power. It would be an easy way to combat the stereotype of weakness in male victims, and give hope towards a better future for readers with similar stories. Instead, superheroes are either rewarded, or these episodes are not referenced again. It’s like they never happened; sometimes they are retconned so they never did. If you are a man and have been affected by this post, there are some UK resources available for you below. If you think you need help, please seek it. You deserve to feel safe too.

Men’s Advice Line – 0808 801 0327

Survivors UK Web Chat – https://www.survivorsuk.org/ways-we-can-help/web-chat/
Monday – Friday – 10:30 – 21:00 | Saturday – Sunday – 10:00 – 18:00