If you hang around certain parts of the internet (and considering you’re deep enough to be reading this blog, you probably do), you’ve almost certainly heard of a little film that came out last week called AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.
Directed by fanboy favorite Joss Whedon, the film details the larger-than-life travails of superhero team the Avengers against the evil robot Ultron, who plans to destroy humanity. What a simple plot! How can this engender controversy? Well dear reader…
One member of this team is Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, a former Russian spy and assassin. We also have Dr. Bruce Banner, a radiation expert who pelted himself with gamma rays and became an uncontrollable, rampaging green monster known as the Hulk.
In AGE OF ULTRON, it is revealed that whenever the team goes on missions, it is Widow’s duty it, on top of killing bad guys, soothe this rampaging rage monster with a carefully programmed series of trigger words.
Later in the film, it is also revealed that Widow is actually attracted to Banner, who soon shows signs of reciprocation, but is hesitant to commit because of the monster inside him. As a counterargument to Banner’s claims that there is no future with him, Widow states that there is no future with her either, as her spy training included forced sterilization.
Even later still, Widow is captured and imprisoned by Ultron and rescued by Banner. The imprisonment doesn’t last long and she is an active participant in the final battle, but it does happen.
The treatment of Black Widow – a character without her own film series – by writer/director Whedon in AOU was met with vocal disapproval from some parts of fandom. They believed developing her character by way of womb-based trauma was a reductive way to treat the only female Avenger. Additionally, having the one female Avenger be captured like a princess in a tower (no matter how briefly) seemed like an odd choice, to say the least.
Defenders of Whedon pointed to in-universe justifications for these story decisions, as well as there being no inherent sexism in the character of Black Widow being bummed out that she will never be able to have kids.
And that pretty much sums up Ultrongate!
My biggest personal gripe with the whole thing is that AOU reverted the Hulk back to a mute, unthinking monster after two movies evolving him to the point of a more in-control Banner and one movie where the most crowd-pleasing fun-time moments were all Hulk-related. Now he’s all “my power, my curse” again, for seemingly no reason?
While the Widow stuff didn’t bother me while watching the movie, I appreciated the critical views that popped up after. In fact, they caused me to further re-evaluate my appreciation of Whedon’s work, a process started after attending a panel discussion of the depiction of sex work in Whedon shows at 2014’s Nine Worlds Geekfest.
I haven’t seen Dollhouse, but aside from that, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all of Whedon’s major output. I identified as quite the Buffy fan as a teenager and, in fact, own all seasons on DVD! So please, if you are reading this, know that this comes from a place of respect and appreciation.
Allow me to make a comic book movie analogy here! Have you ever tried rewatching Bryan Singer’s X-MEN* and X2?
Hailed at the time as the savior of comic book cinema after Joel Schumacher had tried so hard to destroy it for all time only three years previous with 1997’s BATMAN & ROBIN, Singer’s tale of mutants fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them was a breath of fresh air back in 2000. X-MEN and X2 took these larger-than-life characters seriously, and grounded them emotionally to an extent that audiences were invested in the success of its protagonists. Whatever else their flaws, I don’t think you can argue that watching those first two X-movies is a completely different experience to watching the campy pantomime of BATMAN & ROBIN.
But in 2015, a time where Iron Man, Thor, Captain America** and the Hulk have shared the screen in two movies, where an adventure comedy with a talking raccoon and his walking tree sidekick was the top grosser of its year, there are other aspects of those initial X-outings that stand out a bit. The fact that Singer chose dark, muted color palettes. Jokes like “What were you expecting, yellow spandex?”. The most celebrated action scene of the two movies being Wolverine vs. a bunch of nameless human soldiers.
I don’t actually dislike either X-MEN or X2. They are handsomely made with some great lead performances by Jackman, Stewart and McKellen. It’s just that a decade and change on, they feel like transitory movies. Welcome gulps of water in the barren wastelands of superhero cinema that were the post-Burton BATMAN 90s.
So, too, I have come to feel, is Joss Whedon’s status as pop-culture’s pre-eminent feminist voice. For years and years, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was basically “the girl power guy” in circles nerdy enough to have vaguely defined archetypes to go with directors and writers nobody knew personally.
In a world with rampant self-publishing, where fanfic is more accepted than ever, where Tumblr and Twitter and whatever social media you fancy make it easier than ever to have your voice heard and your stories told, it is not necessary to just swallow whatever the guy designated “the feminist one” is shoveling down your throat.
Since I am (completely coincidentally!) rewatching Angel at the moment, I am confident in saying Whedon’s work is still funny and entertaining to me. And let’s not forget the fact that he brought a show with an ass-kicking female lead to network TV in the 90s, with many female characters equally competent as the Slayer herself (be it as a fighter or otherwise). Heck, he even brought a gay relationship to network TV! I’ll even go on to say I tip my cap to the strategy of having them kiss on-screen for the first time in the episode where a major character dies, so that it the sensational hook the episode was advertised with was “[x] dies!” and not “these chicks kiss!” And let’s not forget that his sci-fi universe had legalised and highly respected sex workers in its fictional future world! Let us not forget that it had a happy, cheery female character that enjoyed casual sex!
Let us not forget that Buffy had a sordid affair with a person she didn’t like “just to feel” and to “punish herself”
Let us not forget that the first time Buffy ever had sex it turned the man into a KILL KRAZY monster***
Let us not forget that the gay relationship ended in tragedy, the widowed party going crazy with grief and needing to be talked down by a gentle white straight male ally
Let us not forget that the sci-fi universe with legal and highly respected sex work features one major character in this profession, and she is constantly the butt of “lol u a hoe” jokes by our NotHan Solo cool white straight dude. She is also abused by a client and in need of rescue by NotHan Solo so hmmm maybe this system isn’t so wonderful, eh?
Let us not forget that the happy, cheery female character that enjoys casual sex was threatened with rape (by a black man lol)
What I’m trying to say here is, Whedon can do good, and he can do bad. Some people are annoyed at him doing bad because of how much he purports to be a champion of good. Nobody really cares when there’s a baffling subplot about exactly how legal it is to fuck Nicola Peltz in TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. When you sit at a trough, you expect to eat swill. But when you go for kaiseki at n/naka and one of the courses is carefully laid out vomit with a single hairy wart on top in between a dozen other, perfect meals, you may get angry for shelling out all that money!
You may have seen these t-shirts around:
No, he’s not. No creator is. If you enjoy some media, the best thing you can do for it is to be critical of it when it fucks up, or listen to other people who have problems with it. Two things might happen:
1.) you don’t agree, and lay out your reasons for not agreeing, and both parties are exposed to a new point of view. This causes personal growth, however minor.
2.) you do agree, which causes a change of perspective. This causes personal growth, however minor.
If both options seem terrifying to you, perhaps it is time to evaluate exactly why stagnation is the best possible mode of life. But don’t come complaining when your nice little pond is suddenly upset by a lightning strike because
*Which, ironically, had some Whedon script-doctoring going on.
**Please keep in mind that these three were absolute NOBODIES to the general public ten years ago.
***Hiya, Stephenie Meyer!