I just saw it today, and this is after reading all the neb-feminist rants about the Black Widow and her character development….
Warning, spoilers included…
As someone who spent roughly 6 years writing literary critique papers (not all great mind you), my reaction is pretty much “This is what happens when you let someone go through Prose 101 and let them think they know what they’re doing.” It’s bullshit, unless you want to consider the Black Widow in the very narrow window of this particular Avengers movie and not in the wider MCU, that includes Avengers, Capt. Am. Winter Soldier, Agent Carter (where we learn about the Red Room program), and Iron Man I and II.
In this Avengers, you start to get more of what’s going on in her head, besides the kick-ass assassin that you find out about in Avengers. When she’s introduced in Iron Man, she’s just Pepper’s Assistant who manages to take down Stark’s bodyguard in the ring (in a scene that I heartily laughed at because it’s a common sight in any fight gym that doesn’t have many women). Then you find she’s Fury’s recruiting scout who happens to be nicknamed “Black Widow” and shares the name of the “missing” princess of the Romanov family.
As I stated earlier, in Agent Carter you are introduced to the Red Room program when Carter and the Commandos go off on their mission behind the Curtain in episode 5. While I can’t be too sure of the timeline in the MCU, I will not be overly surprised if it’s revealed eventually that the girl in that episode turns out to be Natasha. From the flashbacks she had under Scarlet Witch’s touch, the time frame looks to be “classical” Soviet post-war Russia decoration around late 50s early 60s – provided there wasn’t another “red room” training center elsewhere.
As to the actual dialogue, the trending theme of the movie seems to be what is a monster? The idea of Ultron was a benevolent protector of Earth, who turned out to be so protective that he failed to see the “moral” difference between protection and destruction of the human race because he wasn’t looking at anything but the timeline of humanity and lacked the input of the issues with the Cree and all that is “above” us. That’s what made Vision an improvement – so much so, that he could easily wield Mjölnir, which spawned many unsaid jokes.
Capt. America and Stark had several conversations about monsters, Stark and Banner did as well. The sub-plot, given that we do not have any current Hulk movies, is that he is struggling with the integration of the monster within and the human without. Stark tells him to embrace the inner monster, that it’s his saving grace (because he literally took a bullet to save Banner’s life when he tried to suicide) and use it to be a better person. Which brings us to Banner’s interactions with Natasha.
Natasha was created, not really much of a choice but she is making the effort to atone for her monster behavior. That’s what brought her to the Avenger team, atonement. She’s done bad things, things which have only been alluded to and not overtly stated. She wants a normal life, because she looks at the rest of the team and sees “super-heros”. She’s just a regular girl that received special training, and lost a lot in the process.
The dialog between her and Banner is a means of drawing out both of their story arcs. In becoming the Hulk, Banner irradiated himself (which causes sterilization). In becoming the Black Widow, Natasha was surgically sterilized. It’s common ground for them. He sees himself as a monster because when he transforms he has little control, because he hasn’t learned how to fully control it, yet (which is where Stark’s suggestions should come in to play, in order to fully realize himself as Banner – the Hulk). She doesn’t see herself as a monster because she’s sterile and can’t fulfill her “womanly duties”; in fact, for most couples that is a discussion that comes up during the coupling process – do you want kids? How many? She sees herself as a monster because of what she did, and the point was to show that monsters come in various packages with different reasons. When this conversation occurs, they’re with Hawkeye’s family at his “safe house”. They’re surrounded by kids and an impending kid who will be named after Natasha. They are her surrogate family, the one that she can’t have but embraces because they embrace her.
As far as the “stereotypical” lessor female role claim to some of these arguments, yes, she picked up after Capt. America. In Winter Soldier, she was the one who ensured that he didn’t get picked up by video surveillance. She filled the role that Loki fills in Thor and probably the greater MCU storyline. She’s a catalyst for Banner as Pepper is for Stark and as Carter is for Capt. She also acquired the cocoon that held Vision as well as provided the needed “lullaby” for Hulk to return to Banner. The latter wasn’t for the purpose of infantilizing the Hulk, but do you really see anyone else on the team creating that type of connection with an entity whose entire thought structure is basal or “reptilian”? It’s not in their character. But it is in hers, as her character up to this point has been cold, calculating, and emotionless – because that’s what is needed for a highly trained assassin. She’s trying to “clear the red from her ledger” which includes learning to love and care for people.
If anything, I’d be willing to say this is something many women can relate to, given a lot of what we deal with in the process of becoming a “modern woman”. Some of us get a charmed life that allows us to openly love others and be who we are. Others have to go through their process of being closed off from that aspect of our humanity to get there, whether it was started off by a controlling mother, father, first love, subsequent negative experiences within the dating world, etc. etc. Couple that with learning how to integrate who we are as individuals and what we truly want with the person that society tries to groom us as being. She is the modern woman, lambasted for wanting something that resembles traditional because she exists outside of the tradition and what she wants flies in the face of the societal feminist view of the individual strong woman who doesn’t need or want a man.
If there is any feminist bend on her character arc, I believe it is on that we should embrace the strong, independent woman who wants the “tradition” as much as we embrace the strong, independent woman who bucks the tradition. It is her choice and we should allow it to be her choice.