The First Unicorn — Why Everyone is Misinterpreting Age of Ultron

Yesterday, Avengers: Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon shut down his Twitter account with no official statement as to why causing massive speculation ranging from fan outrage, to harassment, and even the possibility of an agreement with Marvel.

It took only a day for the man himself to make an official statement, but that’s like a decade in internet years and in the meantime the leading politically weaponized reasoning was that Joss was under attack by feminists who were outraged at the portrayal of Black Widow in Ultron. Of course this is all total nonsense — the real reason being more akin to ridding himself of the needless distraction of social media, one I can completely relate to.

But even though all the accusations for Whedon’s departure have fallen away, it did manage to expose a significant amount of outrage that was directed at him for Ultron. I noticed some extremely popular complaints which I took great issue with because they seemed to hinge on very simple misinterpretations of the movie and its themes.

But before I get into this, there’s two very important things I need to make clear. At no point am I suggesting your criticism of Age of Ultron is incorrect if it doesn’t coincide with mine, but as you’ll see I will be delving into not just what a story element means, but also why it means it. And secondly… I’m going to spoil the shit out of everything.

The Widow Factor

I heard two major complaints about the handling of Black Widow that some people reacted like it was some kind of feminist betrayal. I’m going to address them both.

Black Widow gets damseled when she’s captured by Ultron, needing to be rescued by Bruce Banner.

No, she doesn’t. Though I can see how it may appear that way.

There’s a lot of niggling stupid plot reasons for why this is necessary. Widow getting captured allows the team to find where Ultron is holed up. It allows Widow and Hawkeye to show off their espionage skills in a team of people that normally just punch things. It’s basically the bridge that connects us to the 3rd act. Is this a good enough reason to have her be imprisoned and need to be rescued, probably not. But this is Avengers, and there’s a LOT of moving parts to making this story come together in a way that makes sense and give all the characters their moments.

So let’s imagine the alternate version that gets us there, where it’s Hawkeye that gets captured instead of Widow so they can still do the spy stuff. This would mean that Widow was flying the jet and providing op support through the whole chase sequence. Which means she doesn’t get to drive the motorcycle, grab Cap’s shield, board a flying truck and eject Vision safely off board. Nope. instead of that, she’d get to fly a jet and watch Hawkeye do all this. See what I mean about moving parts?

But there’s a much, much better reason why Widow gets captured and why she needs to be rescued — character. The B story for every character is addressing the concept of a normal life. Tony wants to pre-emptively end the fight so they can sit on a beach. Cap is still looking for a place to call home. Barton is concerned with renovating his country home for his family. For Bruce and Natasha, it’s the question of if they can have a relationship together and if that relationship could result in normal life together. Natasha spends a good deal of time pursuing Bruce. She constantly instigates with him while Bruce is too gun-shy knowing the monster that lurks inside (the other theme of the film). This is the normal, she advances on him, he puts up walls. The only way this relationship pays off in any way that means anything for the characters is to balance the equation, and that means to make Bruce go to Natasha.

This is the real reason she gets imprisoned and needs to be rescued by Bruce. The story and the characters require Bruce to go to Natasha to prove his willingness to commit to a relationship with her, and in that moment before the fight, the concept of “them” means something. Without that, everything that came before and the denouement of having Hulk disconnect the feed and fly off into the unknown to be alone is without any real emotional value.

I also take exception with the notion that Widow was damseled. Yes she was captured, but she’s freed before the big fight and really she didn’t miss out on anything except the reveal of Vision. For everywhere it counts, she’s kicking ass and throwing punches in equal measure with all the boys. Damseling requires a woman to be captured and needing to be rescued, and this next part is important, so the male protagonist and villain can fight over her to see who wins the prize. If you want to see a grotesque version of this, look at Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters where ass kicking protagonist Gemma Arterton is reduced to hostage for almost the entirety of the 3rd act. Age of Ultron is not that. This is a classic case of people misapplying a trope where it’s not applicable just because it appears to be similar.

I can’t believe Joss Whedon just told me women who can’t/don’t have children are monsters.

He didn’t. You’re completely misreading this scene and I’ll stand by that.

The other recurring theme in Ultron is our heroes wrestling with the fact that they may do more harm than good. It’s the superhero existential crisis. Cap retorts, “You’re right. What kind of monster would let a German scientist experiment on them to help win a war?” Tony has to deal with the fact that he created a murderbot in his attempt to save the world. I’m sure this didn’t go unnoticed, but you hear the word “monster” a lot in Ultron, and monster is what gets in the way of that normal life theme we talked about above. This is our push pull, our internal crisis for our characters.

The offending scene in question has Bruce bringing up the idea of kids first and how he can’t do that. He’s not comfortable bringing little humans into the world knowing what he is. The worst case scenario isn’t even that he Hulks out in front of them and hurts his family, but also the possibility of passing something on genetically. But Natasha is pursuing Bruce, remember? She makes it easy for him by taking kids off the table. It’s not even a possibility, because she can’t bear children. This launches her into talking about the Widow program where she was trained from a child to be an assassin. This is the SOLE reason she considers herself a monster, because her entire life has been about being an effective killer. Up until the point she joined SHIELD, she would be considered a villain. In the first film, Loki even throws in her face how much murdering she’s done, and all of this because she was taken away, made vulnerable and programmed to be an instrument of death. That’s it. Simple as that. Bruce is a monster because he turns into a giant green rage monster. Natasha is a monster because she was an assassin.

The only argument I will buy that film is saying women who can’t/don’t have children are monsters are scenarios where they also murder hundreds of people. I’d argue that once you’ve done that, having all the kids in the world doesn’t wash away the monstrous acts you committed.

So why all this nit-picky outrage about this one character in a superhero film? It’s because in a superhero team of outrageous characters, Black Widow is actually the odd one out for being the only woman of the group.

While it’s awesome, necessary and should not be considered ground breaking to have a woman be part of this series in equal measure to the boys, sadly it is, and this makes her an ambassador. Suddenly everyone who has a vested interest in increased representation of strong women in popular culture feels on some level a need to protect and fight for Widow, and to constantly demand better. This in itself isn’t bad, and I’ve shouted from the rooftops myself that representation matters, but it has to be taken in context with at bit more of a view on the big picture.

Age of Ultron is a $250 million dollar franchise film with 5 lead characters, and close to a dozen supporting characters. It’s also tasked with setting up Captain America 3, Thor 3, Black Panther and Avengers 3. You just have to accept that at that level the priority is not to make the ultimate feminist representation of superheroes. And despite all that, it does pretty fucking good accomplishing it anyway.

The Black Widow I saw kicked ass in every fight, was the one character able to contain the Hulk, and was a morally and empathetically complex woman struggling with her past, her desires and what she feels she needs to do. Really, what more could you ask for? This is a character I’d be proud to share with my daughter as a representation of empowerment.

Feminism at it’s core is about equality, and while I understand Black Widow feels like this precious commodity in short supply that needs to be protected like a species on the verge of extinction, you also kind of need to let the character be portrayed as honestly and flawed as the rest of the male characters. Pull her down off the pedestal and just let her be awesome, because that’s the Black Widow that I’m watching.

My hope is that now that Scarlet Witch is part of the team and Captain Marvel will have arrived before Avengers 3, lumping the fate of all women in the Marvel universe on Black Widow will start to fall away.

Curse of Toxic Fandom

Make no mistake, Whedon was quick to point out that feminist backlash didn’t make him leave Twitter, but he was much less prone to let toxic fandom off the hook so easily.

While the internet has definitely allowed the Marvel Cinematic Universe to flourish and possibly even exist, the very same assets that allow fans and casuals alike to obsess over details, discuss possible plot developments, quibble about rumours and celebrate their love for the series ALSO allows them to obsess over details, quibble about rumours and fight for their love of the series.

We see this happening a lot in anything genre — movies, TV shows, comics and video games. Any series that garners a large enough fan base will also amount a community of people who feel a certain amount of entitlement to that property.

We’re seeing this happen time and time again — the fan outrage directed at Mass Effect 3 about the ending was completely without scale and disproportionate, prompting large scale refunds, violent threats and even a filed FTC complaint. I Tweeted at length about the various problems with the reaction to Mass Effect 3's ending.

Recently an element of the fanbase for the show Once Upon A Time directed physical threats at the show’s cast and crew for not creating the romantic pairing they desperately wanted on the show. That’s right, people were sent death threats because two characters on a TV show didn’t become love interests.

When it comes to Avengers, things get even more sticky, because not only are you tapping into the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it’s fandom, but you’re also treading on decades of comic fandom too. This becomes a zero sum game for creators working in this medium — a tightrope they discover too late was never attached to the other end of the platform.

I’m not unempathetic either. I’m that same person who sat in their room with a stack of New Mutants issues and lovingly immersed herself in these worlds to feel a sense of connectedness and empowerment that was sorely lacking from my everyday life. On a very basic level, these ravenous, death threat sending fans are only doing it because they care. The problem is every one of them has a different version of the perfect world they want to see created just for them.

That and there’s no context where making violent threats is ever acceptable. Not ever. We good on that one? Okay, moving on.

This deep seated connection, while it feels meaningful, can sometimes create a false sense of ownership in the property, like the fan has a stake in how it turns out. Sure they have an emotional stake of wanting to see it fulfilled in a way they appreciate, but that relationship is completely within themselves. When that relationship is not fulfilled, the disappointment can be directed at the creators for not knowing what was already in the fan’s heads and building to those specifications.

The harsh reality is that you, as an audience member, are not owed anything beyond being told a story for the price of your ticket. You’re not even guaranteed to be told a story you want to see or will like, but just that there will be movie. People will talk and do things. It will be roughly 90 minutes or more, and popcorn is available in the lobby. That’s it. Now, again, I’m not saying your criticism is invalid or irrelevant. Every piece of artwork should be looked at critically, examined and discussed. Nothing should be immune to this. But it has to have perspective. During the first Avengers movie everyone was so distracted by wondering if it would even work, and when it did everyone rejoiced and loved it. But with Age of Ultron, it’s like a certain portion of the audience has their hand hovering over a button of hate ready to slam down the moment anything comes close to going outside the lines of what they want.

The danger comes when fans feel that they are owed something in particular that was never promised to them. Mass Effect fans will constantly say they were promised an ending that would matter. I would ask them to define “matter.” Bringing your own subjective expectations of what a property HAS to provide for you to feel fulfilled is really just an exercise in how to feel disappointed 100% of the time.

At a certain point you have to let go and allow yourself to be told the stories that creators want to tell you and then discuss and debate them on their own merits. Approaching properties you love with a predisposed reactionary “you better not fuck this up” attitude will only result in you being disappointed with what you get. And while social media has put us in touch with the creators of these works like never before (and vice versa), they are busy people with shit to do and they will sever that line of connection if it’s abused.