1 August 2015 - 6:44 pm

Defining monsters

Natasha and Bruce (Picture not mine)

Natasha and Bruce
(Picture not mine)

[Contains spoilers for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron]

There are a few things in the criticism of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron that surprised me. A couple of them are related to the Natasha-Bruce dynamic, so I thought I’d write up some thoughts.

First up, let’s talk about the controversy around the ‘should we date’ conversation between Natasha Romanov and Bruce Banner in the Avengers 2 movie. I thought it was a nicely-pitched dialogue in a movie that didn’t have much room for character development or exploration. Other opinions vary widely.

When I come across heated debate that surprises me, I tend to get introspective, turning the opinions inside and around me over like rocks. Did I miss something? (I’ve only seen the movie once, so entirely possible.) Did I misinterpret or misunderstand what happened? These are the things I ask myself.

For those who haven’t seen any of the discussions about this yet and who are wondering what I’m babbling on about, here’s a quick rundown: in the scene, Natasha talks about how the Red Room made her into a killer, and how part of the process was a ‘graduation ceremony’ that sterilises the candidates, and how she’s a monster.

The criticism (that I have seen) about it revolves around the assumptions that the movie is saying that infertile women are monsters. I’m paraphrasing and extrapolating a lot here: please don’t shoot me.

I don’t think this assumption holds water. But before I get into how I read the scene and the intent of both the character in revealing this information and the writers who wrote it into the movie, I have to point out that part of size of this particular issue is that Natasha is the one of only two major female characters in the movie. Until this movie, she was the only female ‘superhero’ in the franchise (Pepper Potts and Peggy Carter are awesome but included as love interests; you have to go to the Agent Carter series to see Peggy being a true heroine).

Natasha has had a lens of representing women focussed on her, and I don’t think that’s fair. She’s one character, not every-woman, so it’s fallacious to lump generalised assumptions on her. For her to be a ‘realistic’ character, she has to have her own personality, history, failings, strengths, and goals. She can’t represent every woman everywhere – and I believe she shouldn’t. So using one small part of her character makeup to make statements about how it reflects on women in general is specious at best.

The movie’s makers are partly to blame for this generalised approach by having so few women in the cast. The only other one we really get to see in Avengers 2 is Wanda Maximov, and while she has a character arc in the movie, we really don’t get a lot of her. Certainly, not as much as Natasha. Maria Hill is present and functioning, but she has yet to have anything like a story or a character arc in anything I’ve seen (I’m behind on Agents of Shield, so I can’t comment on what season 2 might have wrought for her).

If they gave us more diversity in the MCU in general and the Avengers in particular, it would help dilute the strength of issues like this. I hope, at least. So get on it, Marvel people! Hurry up with Captain Marvel and add more to the list (I’d love to see a Spider-Woman turn up).

With that in mind, my first point has to be: you can’t generalise from one character to a whole gender and make a ‘statement’ out of it. Stop it.

Also, when it comes to making statements about genders from an issue like sterilisation, in this case I have to point out that there was no indication that the Red Room only sterilised girls. I’m fuzzy on the (comic) canon and the movie showed only fractured flashbacks, but do we have any evidence that the Red Room only trained female assassins? I think the comic version was girls-only, but the MCU changes stuff so I try not to make assumptions. If it was girls-only, was there a boys’ version somewhere? (It makes sense that there would be.) If both genders were being trained, how do we know that the girls were treated any differently to the boys? Natasha uses the term ‘sterilisation’, which gives us nothing to make gender-based assumptions on.

(Who knows, maybe we’ll get that Black Widow movie they’ve been teasing us with and find out for sure. But from the Avengers 2 movie alone? There’s just not enough there to make that assumption.)

Also, the assumption that sterilisation is worse for a woman than a man is sexist in itself and I don’t hold with that. Some men are deeply driven to be fathers. Some women hate the idea of having children. It’s all perfectly natural and valid.

So, let’s take the gender-based pouting off the table.

What about the assertions that the movie is presenting sterilisation as a way to make a monster? I’d like to break this down a little.

First of all, let’s assume that that is the statement (I’m not saying that it is; bear with me here). Consider the source: what Natasha tells us is that the sterilisation is done because the Red Room believes it makes them more effective agents. The Red Room believes this: the people who are shown training children in ballet and marksmanship, and, in one tiny flashback, telling a little girl she must kill someone. These are the same people who trained Natasha, turned her into a killer and made her do awful things to get ‘red in her ledger’. They’re the bad guys of Natasha’s story.

So, a group we’re supposed to view as ‘evil’ (or at least ‘bad’) believe that sterilising kids is a good thing to do. Personally, I don’t tend to put a lot of stock in a judgement that the bad guy spouts, and it’s very seldom the point that the movie is making or promoting.

Moving a little further along this particular thought pattern, let’s recall that the Red Room lost Natasha to the other side (where she’s now working towards redemption). So, despite the many varied ways they tried to screw up a child’s moral compass, Natasha is proof that they failed. That means that their training failed, including the sterilisation (which was a means, not an end), and that the Red Room’s assumptions about sterilisation were wrong.

Consider, also, the nuances of how Natasha speaks about her ‘graduation’. She says that she has come to peace with it, but it’s pretty clear that it’s still something she struggles with (she’s almost in tears at this point). It was done to reduce the potential distractions for the agents and, while on a practical level this might be true, it clearly wasn’t that successful.

The fact that she struggles with it shows that she didn’t lose that particular part of who she is (beyond the physical capability to bear children). Whether or not you believe it makes her less feminine, the sterilisation cut off a life choice for her but not her maternal urges. The way she is around Hawkeye’s children and how they react to her are shown pretty clearly to us.

I think I’d be more disturbed by the whole thing if she was okay with it.

Next, it’s worth looking at why she mentioned it at all. Bruce is telling her that he can’t be in a relationship because he can’t give her what he thinks she wants and needs: children. Her response is to tell him ‘it’s okay, I can’t have them either’. Her point is that they’re more alike than he can see. They both want essentially the same thing and have similar limitations.

Natasha is more willing to take the relationship further, however. She’s trying to convince Bruce to run away with her, abandoning the Avengers and everything that’s currently going down (pesky robots). She wants to make a life with him, without the team and the science and the missions. She is, basically, suggesting that they do exactly what sterilisation was supposed to stop her from wanting to do (being distracted by emotions in the middle of a mission). This is another sign that the Red Room’s tactics failed.

What about the monster part, I hear you ask? Didn’t she equate sterilisation to being made into a monster? No, not directly. She tells Bruce about the Red Room’s graduation ceremony and how it was designed to make her a better killer, a more efficient agent. The end is what makes her a monster, the fact that she was a killer, not necessarily that particular means.

Killing makes her a monster, not the sterilisation. It’s a pretty fuzzy speech and could have been better structured, but from the phrasing and delivery, I didn’t take away the meaning that sterilisation = disgusting monster. Natasha is far more complicated and conflicted than that, and it’s pretty clear that her main problem with herself is the violence that she has committed.

As far as her inability to have children goes, she isn’t brought low by it (as some critics would bemoan). Yes, it’s tough for her to talk about, but it hasn’t broken her. She’s pursuing a family anyway, involved with Clint’s children, and chasing a romance without fretting about it. She’s still kick ass and one of the most powerful Avengers (in terms of end results, at least). For me, it’s something that humanises her; it doesn’t reduce her, and I can appreciate that the movie didn’t shy away from a tricky topic.

Here’s the TL:DR version:

  • Let’s not read too much into the opinions of bad guys
  • Sterilisation failed to have the intended effect
  • Natasha doesn’t let it get in the way of being who she wants to be – or who she wants to be with
  • She hates herself for killing people.

Personally, I think it’s great to have a prominent character like Natasha dealing with an issue like this. In my eyes, it makes her more human, not less. (I have a fondness for extraordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, as well as vice versa.)

Coming up soon: Trusting Monsters (aka why did Bruce leave?)

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One comment

  1. Trusting monsters : : Adventures in Text says:

    […] babbled at length about Natasha, sterilisation, and monster-hood. Now I’d like to turn my attention to the other side of that almost-relationship: Bruce Banner […]

    August 18th, 2015 at 11:20 am