It is quite possible that the following raise more issues than they answer, and do not absolve Joss Whedon from the numerous charges laid against him, and it is also possible that all of these points have been made before, though I have not seen them. I apologise for the nature of my prose and punctuation today, as I write almost blind with an eye condition.
My contention is that, while Black Widow’s big reveal of her sterilisation is the most heavy-handed discussion of fertility and childbirth in the film, it is actually a strong underlying theme. I am not sure to what extent the filmmakers intended this, and to what extent I am clutching at shadows. However, by this reading (and I think at least some of them hold up pretty reasonably), Natalia’s admission that she cannot have children forms part of a dialogue on creation and birth , and one that possibly excuses or denies that Widow is at fault and actually complements her development. I hasten to underline that this conclusion is tentative and I take with great weight the validity of the many criticisms of her character’s writing, which I am inclined to believe but which I have overthought.
The first instance of ‘creation’, chronologically, is the Twins. The Stark missile had enormous formative power for them at an extremely young age, explicitly giving them the inner strength to survive Hydra’s experiments when no-one else could. Hydra then continued their creation, using Loki’s Staff, possibly from a very young age (immediately after their parents died). They appear indoctrinated and childlike for half of the film, until Scarlet Witch discovers Ultron’s true intentions and completes the Twins’ growth, or perhaps maturity, by switching sides – by joining humanity (as the film’s robot vs man would have it.)
The second act of conception is more explicit: Tony and Bruce made Ultron. This may have been partly by accident, and partly by design of the Sceptre, and certainly against their designs. Ultron was explicitly supposed to be the first Artificial Intelligence (about which more elsewhere in my reviews of Her and Transcendence) but due to the trauma of his birth, which we see as a montage of Stark’s complicity in warmaking through news footage, Ultron is born ‘malformed’. Is this an indictment of unplanned child-creation – of the mistakes of accidental pregnancy? That is probably reading too far, but at least an idea to hold in mind below.
Ultron, once free, first corrupts Iron Man’s ?Drones?, automata copies of the iron man suit (that backfired on Stark in Iron Man III). Ultron immediately makes forays into creation, but does so in a distinctly non-human, cold way, creating thousands of copies of himself . He is aware of the artificial, meaningless nature of this creation, and does not consider it conception, since he uses these clones as expendable pawns and even rips one apart himself in front of Black Widow when she is in captivity.
One might also understand Ultron’s very first action as an act of creation, since his attack on Jarvis causes the latter’s rebirth in the internet (or Norway), which is ultimately a step to Ultron’s undoing. (Oedipus and Orestes, hi!) Jarvis is, we are to understand, the closest computer programme before Ultron to true AI, but not fully sentient when he’s stuck with Tony Stark. However Ultron unleashing his fragments into the web, and those fragments reforming and choosing to fight Ultron’s nuclear hacking attempts, is suggestive of an act Tony had never envisaged, programmed or ordered, so may indicate actual conscious ‘birth’.
Hawkeye and Quicksilver too feature in this dialogue since they both demonstrate themselves willing to die for a very young child, this despite Hawkeye’s own family and fear that he will not be able to nurture them in the traditional manner.
The greatest example is certainly the Vision. The Vision is the deliberate conception for first Ultron, then Tony and Bruce, then of Thor. The anti-Stark Avengers led by Captain America clearly want to ‘destroy’ the Vision before his development is complete, i.e. in utero, but this abortion is repeatedly thwarted. His ultimate birth is almost Christlike, completed by the intervention of a god, and he is very quickly shown to be ‘worthy’ in lifting Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, an act that none of the mortal Avengers could achieve – not even his would-be destroyer, Captain America.
What does all this possible context give for Black Widow, her terror-vision and her heart-to-heart with Banner?
Firstly, Widow is ‘created’ at least as much as the Twins. She was taken and trained from a very young age, almost deliberately forced by the Red Room into an emotionless killing machine, now striving for redemption and a fuller identity.
Her pain at recalling her sterilisation is not just – as the simplest outrage on Twitter would have it – pain at having lost something she now considers central to ‘normal femininity’ (and a confirmation of cis het values). Her sterilisation, which was the ‘graduation’ of her training, represent the final loss of her innocence, childhood, her humanity, before she was completed as a ruthless mechanical assassin-spy. It is a loss of choice, choice she has only slowly regained through Shield defection – and her consideration that that moment was the birth of her ‘monstrosity’ is one that Scarlet Witch’s mind games greatly accentuated, as they did in the other Avengers’ visions.
She does not just consider herself a monster because she cannot biologically conceive, but because she was complicit in the creation of her former bloodletting self. Is this an acceptable metaphor for Whedon and his crew to use, one that is inescapably gendered and brought home much less carefully than the others? Probably not, but hopefully the rest of this blog at least sets it in a context suggesting it wasn’t a sole, unconsidered character imposition to explain why an attractive young woman doesn’t have kids or a family life yet. Oh wait, maybe she does have a kid…
Another string to Whedon’s critics’ bow is that the Hulk comes across as infantile, and Widow, through her ‘lullaby’ role, as the nagging, mothering Avenger. If Hulk is characterised as a new ‘big baby’ and Black Widow’s character is demeaned by ‘mothering’ him, we must bear in mind that her choices after admitting her sterilisation echo the themes suggested above. She could have chosen to abandon the baby, which was essentially what she and Banner were discussing when they considered living a quiet life together away from avenging.
Instead, she sacrifices her recent romance (her recent dalliance with normal gender roles hmm?) to shove Banner off a cliff and deliberately keep the Hulk as a force in the world – not trapped in Banner’s dark recesses. That she chooses to do this not out of nurturing, but as a tactician needing more warriors, is a nuance that shouldn’t be overlooked and is not entirely reversed by her later wish to bring Banner back at the film’s conclusion.
What does this all mean? An extreme reading, and a cynical one, would be that the film is attacking sterility, unplanned pregnancy and abortion, but glorifying in organic birth, birth that is ‘fated’. That would be an even more sinister message than the ones I’ve seen ascribed to Widow’s revelation. I would not hold to this however – I just think it indicates that the film could be seen as having more complex considerations of conception and birth than the one we consider first.
Sidenote – people also criticise Widow’s brief time in Ultron’s captivity as falling back to medieval concepts of ‘Damsel in Distress’. This has merits, but we shouldn’t overlook that she uses her spy skills to alert the whole team to Ultron’s location. Which helps them save the world. This damsel was only very briefly distressed.
Second sidenotes – Whedon says he wasn’t driven off Twitter by feminists.
I also read somewhere that the BW- Hulk conversation had been written and filmed diferently and more carefully but that it was a victim to cuts. Will post link if I find it.