To enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron is to be in the minority, and sometimes to be outright attacked. I have loved and supported this film since I saw it as a newly minted Avengers fan in May of 2015. It was instantly my favorite Marvel film and it has remained that way 12 films later. I have engaged in many a heated debate defending this film. It has taken up an embarrassing amount of space in my brain for the past 4 years. All of these points have been thoughtfully ruminated upon, refined by the fire of argument, and cooled by the passing of time.
For context, Age of Ultron, the sequel to 2012’s Avengers, at the time of its release, was given a mixed-to-positive reaction by critics, getting a 75% Rotten Tomatoes score. Critics primarily praised director and screenwriter Joss Wheaton for his writing and James Spader’s voicework. In 2015, superhero-fatigue hadn’t completely set in yet, so many of the reviews of the film can be boiled down to, “It’s exactly what you think it is and it does it pretty well!”
The film made $191,271,109 in its opening weekend and quickly passed one billion by its third weekend. It overall made $1.4 billion worldwide (almost $460 million domestic) and now sits as the 10th highest-grossing film of all time. But, by all accounts, Disney still thinks of the film as, at best, an underperformer, and at worst, an outright failure.
Why? For one, it didn’t make as much money as the first Avengers film, which sits as the 8th highest-grossing film of all time. AOU wasn’t as universally acclaimed as that film either. It also had a rocky press tour, which included Joss Whedon going around in interviews talking about how making the film nearly “broke” him and blasting Marvel for making him add things to the film to set up future movies. And lastly, the film has a complicated relationship with fans.
The fans/fandom reaction was mixed to negative. There was the kind of stuff that accompanies each franchise property, like shipping wars (I wanted Black Widow to get together with Hawkeye but Joss Whedon made them just friends!) and anger over deviations from the comics. Then there was, in the internet intersection of academia and social justice, a lot of discussion over Joss Whedon’s brand of feminism and the treatment of Black Widow in the film, which many were displeased at, to put it lightly. (I know. I was on Tumblr. I was there. I still have scars.)
We’ll get to all of that. At best, the movie has gotten a *slight* positive turn by fans who, now with the context of history, have realized AOU is the closest we ever got to a superhero hangout movie. Mostly though, as time goes on, AOU has been mostly forgotten or considered a blight at best.
If you haven’t seen the film lately, I’d suggest doing a quick recap on the plot. Read it? Is your memory jogged? Okay, great! Before I argue that AOU is actually one of the most interesting Marvel films (and maybe even persuade you that it is the best), it’s always worth noting that movie-going is subjective, and I try to disclose any major biases I have, so here it goes:
- My favorite Marvel characters are, in this order: Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) These are the characters that the film focuses on, so of course there’s bias that my favorite characters get the most to do.
- This is a loose adaptation. In this discussion, critiques about comic book accuracy such as “Wanda and Pietro are mutants and their dad is Magneto! Ultron was created by Hank Pym, not Tony and Bruce!” do not matter. In the words of Black Panther:
Now that we have that out of the way, I’m going to start breaking down major criticism of the movie and my refutation, and then move on to things about AOU that are often overlooked that I see as critical to seeing this film as, dare I say, a masterpiece.
I am willing to die on this hill. Let’s begin.
Criticism of AOU That Are Legitimate
“The plot is overstuffed and too much of it is just set up for future films. It’s confusing and ruins the movie’s pacing!” Yeah. The growing pains of the MCU’s expanding cinematic universe are certainly here, and this is an example of foreshadowing and franchise synergy bogging down a movie. Marvel has gotten better at this, but I think at the expense of their films becoming more and more similar. Because AOU has such a unique style and a more singular, standalone vision, all of the setup for future movies feels extra jarring and out-of-place.
“There are sexist jokes.” There are, and it fricking sucks. The prima nocta “joke” and gag of Bruce falling into Natasha’s chest are gross and, yes, I hate it. I have no interest in defending Joss Whedon as a person or as a feminist figure. I want to give him credit where it’s due, but also call him out when that is due, and these “jokes” were in poor taste, unfunny, and overall not-in-character for the film.
“Why is it called ‘age’ of Ultron when the whole movies takes place over what seems to be just a week or two? Cause it sounds super epic. But you’re right.
Criticism of AOU That Are Bad
“Ultron is a lame villain.” We’re going to get to that, but put simply: no. Is he as cool as Killmonger? No. Is he as powerful as Thanos? No. Is he as charismatic as Loki? Debatable, but no. But you know what he is, in a way that none of the other Marvel villains (except Killmonger) are? He’s a precise foil to our main characters and is devastatingly effective in showing our heroes’ flaws. He fits into the philosophical framework of the film beautifully, and James Spader is inspired casting.
“Natasha gets kidnapped! And it’s only because she’s the The One Girl™. She has a moment of weakness, therefore this film is ‘unfeminist.’” Natasha being the only lady Avenger is a problem, but this is a criticism towards the MCU at large and not this particular movie. This trope of a woman being kidnapped is generally considered a problem for two reasons. One, it’s frequent, and two, the female character in question does nothing else in the story except to be kidnapped and therefore be motivation for the (male) hero. But neither of these things are true in AOU. Natasha has never previously been kidnapped, and in no other way is she a weak hero. Secondly, and most importantly, she is far from a passive character in this film. Getting kidnapped is not her only purpose or plot point. In fact, this kidnapping scene (which stems from Natasha being a part of a huge and important action sequence) is used to highlight Natasha’s strengths, not that of her fellow Avengers. While imprisoned, she resourcefully reveals Ultron’s location to the team to further the plot. Getting kidnapped doesn’t make characters inherently weak or passive. Context is everything, and here the context makes this more an inversion of the trope than the trope itself.
And, speaking of Natasha, possibly the biggest criticism of all: “The Hulk/Bruce-Black Widow/Natasha romance came out of nowhere!!! Now Natasha is defined by a man!!!! I don’t know how to think critically!”
We’re gonna come back to this more in-depth later, but I’ll just say here that both of these critiques are shallow and the latter is often made with a misguided understanding of feminist media criticism.
First off, Natasha isn’t defined by a man, for the exact same reasons I said her being kidnapped is not problematic: because it’s A) not a pattern and B) a subversion of a trope. Romance is not the problem, in and of itself. Being in a relationship is not what makes a character have a sexist portrayal. If that were the case, every other Avenger should be called out because they are in romantic relationships.
The reason the role of women and romantic relationships in media is so heavily scrutinized is because women’s roles and agency in stories are often only contained within a romantic relationship, sending the message that women need to be in a romantic relationship to have value. But this should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and not an overarching generalization that all women in relationships in movies are bad. If you look at the roles Bruce and Nat inhabit in the film and in their relationship, Bruce embodies the classic romantic interest type much more than Natasha does. Natasha is more proactive, pursues without taking no for an answer, has a dramatic confession of love, and is ultimately the more heroic character. Meanwhile Bruce, in the words of our modern poets, One Direction, doesn’t know he’s beautiful! Natasha spends much of the movie telling him such:
He’s adorably clumsy! He has Black Widow guard him in the first Ultron fight. His power set is, like many classic female superheroes, dictated by his emotions. He doesn’t like violence and wants the two of them to leave the superhero business. In every movie he’s in we just happen to see him shirtless or naked! If we’re gonna be worried about anyone being the passive, defined-by-their-romantic-relationship character, it should be Bruce. But we don’t worry about him, because he has other things going on in this movie and other parts to his identity and character, just like Natasha. We don’t put the crushing weight of thousands of contradicting expectations on him so he can positively represent all men.
Secondly, there are a ton of things in AOU that are inferred to have happened between movies. The movie clearly establishes how the team has grown closer and who has become besties with who. A romance isn’t all that hard to imagine happening between two attractive, shy, similarly traumatized characters with complementary skill sets who have a mutual admiration for the other’s deeper, more peaceful self.
But, critically, the promising seeds of this relationship are sown in the first movie. Watch it again. Pay attention. Nat and Bruce have more screen-time together than with any other characters, from Nat recruiting Bruce in Calcutta, to him Hulking out, to Nat and Bruce’s various confrontations and conversations throughout, to him asking for her forgiveness at the end. As a duo they had a dramatic joint-character arc that is reflective of the emotional arc the entire team goes through: they had to learn to trust each other.
Their relationship embodying the beats of the entire team’s experience continues in this film. This is made very clear a few minutes into the film when they have an exchange where Bruce expresses fear about Hulk’s involvement in their recent battle. When Natasha tries to reassure him of Hulk’s usefulness, he’s doubtful. Then Natasha says:
Natasha: How long before you trust me?
Bruce: It’s not you I don’t trust.
BOOM. That’s the entire team’s problem. They can’t trust themselves, so they can’t truly trust and rely on each other. Bruce and Natasha’s trust issues stem from fear they have about themselves. Bruce, that in the end he’s just a green mean killing machine; Nat, that she’ll never move past being the monstrous assassin she once was. In other words, neither of them can shake their “programming,” which of course sounds a bit like the problem of our titular murderous robot. Every one of the Avengers has this problem and it is ultimately everyone’s downfall. Thus the film operates on two levels. The micro-level is this intimate romance between two characters, which mirrors the macro level, which is a conversation of whether:
- A) The Avengers will and can last (and are even good for the world), and
- B) If the individual members will ever be able to find personal satisfaction, whether by superhero-ing or not.
By the end of the film, it’s clear that Bruce and Nat’s insecurities and trauma keep them apart (for now), and so too does it keep the Avengers from ever completely self-actualizing as a group. While Bruce and Nat are able to save the day at the end, they’ve given up on the relationship. Meanwhile, the team itself is splintered, also having, in a way, given up. Bruce and Thor go into self-appointed exile while the others try to pick up the pieces, knowing things will never be the same.
To the idea that these heroes can ever escape the self-destructive path of superhero-ing, the film ultimately gives a sad ‘no’, displaying a rather cynical view that saving other people is a job only for those who can’t save themselves. So when you consider the Hulk/Black Widow relationship, not just as a B-storyline, but as a shadow, a more intimate, smaller picture of the overall drama happening, the beats begin to make more sense.
The Thesis of AOU
So the main question of AOU is this: Can superheroes (the Avengers) live normal lives?
I talk in my Endgame review about how the MCU equates a normal life, aka “making it,” with a biological family and domestic bliss. The Marvel movies operate on the assumption that “having a biological family is a sign of a character succeeding, being relatable, and having a greater purpose. It’s presented as an ideal life.” And while I love biological families, having one should never be an idol, in any case, and especially not in a series that is the definition of a “found family” trope. AOU is the only Marvel film to really wrestle at all with this assumption, while also reinforcing it.
Throughout AOU, the language of the film makes it clear that this is a movie about family. What makes it, what destroys it, and what it looks like. Almost everything in the film is codified using the language of family. From Nick Fury calling the avengers “kids,” to Helen Cho’s machine that creates Vision literally being called “The Cradle,” to Nat’s ritual with the Hulk being called a “lullaby.” The child metaphor is not subtle.
I’ve already said that the film ends up having the view that these heroes, by nature of themselves and their jobs, can’t ever have this domestic bliss. To come to that conclusion, the film breaks down each of the Avenger’s possibility of getting biological family and domesticity. So let’s take a look.
Age of Ultron is decidedly not Thor’s movie. As a consequence, this theme is the weakest with him. However, there are some things to take away.
Thor’s family are his people, the Asgardians. He feels a responsibility to them, but as the vision, Wanda gives him shows, his deepest fear is that he’ll destroy them. In the vision, Hemindall (a wasted Idris Elba) says to Thor, “You’re a destroyer, Odinson. See where your power leads you.” Then we see Thor killing people in the vision. Even during the scene when the team is at Clint’s house, Thor steps on a Lego house, crushing it. Thor is a threat to the home. This is setting up an arc where Thor has to overcome his fear that he will destroy his own people.
This never goes anywhere because Taika Waititi and the Russo Brothers drop this character arc completely, making it so that Thor is never a threat to his own people. But this isn’t Whedon’s fault. Thor’s journey changes from “How can I be a leader if I have the potential to kill my people, my family” to “All the things I have set my identity on have been taken away. Who am I now?” But while Whedon’s arc for Thor is never completed, it demonstrates how Thor will never get a domestic ending, and by extension, will never get to quit being a superhero.
Steve is haunted by the war and can’t leave it behind, which may explain why he would rather start a civil war then talk reasonably (come @ me Team Cap). In Steve’s dream, he’s walking through a WWII victory party. But, among the festivities, the war is mixed in. A camera flashes and it sounds like explosions. A spilled cup of red wine looks like a bullet wound. Ultron says that Steve can’t live without a war. Even in his happiest moments, he can’t separate himself from the war, and this follows him until his resolution in Endgame, which is why he and Nat are the only Avengers who really stay and lead the team. They won’t abandon the fight. It’s all they know.
Peggy appears in the vision, telling Steve, “We can go home.” But, clearly, Steve can’t. This picture of domestic bliss in front of him is barred, like it is for all of the other characters. It’s still an idol, but one they will never get. But, because the Russos didn’t watch this movie he actually does get this ending, so… whatevs.
Clint’s storyline is strange here, and the most complicated in terms of this theme. He acts as a foil to the rest of the Avengers because he’s the only one who actually achieves the domestic dream (until Endgame).
He is only able to achieve this dream by 1) hiding his family away, and 2) being the least effective, interesting, or necessary member of the team. Clint and his family’s role as a foil is showcased in the safehouse sequence in the middle of the film. After the team gets a beating from Ultron and the twins, they go to Clint’s house to hide out and regroup. This is where we get Bruce and Natasha’s dialogue about kids, and some other nice character moments. But this whole sequence, and Clint’s family in particular, has a dark edge to it that adds to the film’s view on family and all it represents by being denied to the other Avengers.
The small detail I previously mentioned of Thor stepping on the Lego house sends the message that these heroes are a threat to the home, and that’s almost immediately when the Avengers arrive.
Bruce and Nat’s conversation shows their ideological split, one they won’t be able to mend in the course of the film. Clint’s wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), talks about Clint making it back home from the fight (which in movie-language is supposed to make you fear for Clint’s life). Tony and Steve have an argument that helps set up Civil War. Thor leaves, and this is the last time the whole team is ever all together again (except briefly during the final battle) until literally Endgame. And in Endgame Clint loses his family. All of this shows that for the Avengers, even if they get to achieve this domestic bliss, their identity as superheroes will always be threatening the family and any illusion of stability.
We’ll talk more about this later, but in the safehouse scene, we learn that both Nat and Bruce are infertile. They cannot have biological children. It’s also heavily implied they also both feel like they would be a threat to their own children. The movie clearly disproves this view, but the characters never get over this view of themselves. If Bruce and Nat are our micro-look at the rest of the Avengers, then the message is crystal clear: the Avengers will never be able to have children. Therefore, they won’t ever get a happy ending, because in Marvel, children and biological family = happiness and peace. (Then the Russos go and ruin that theme with Endgame. It’s fine that they didn’t watch this film. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. it’s. fine.)
The movie posits that Bruce and Nat’s only option for happiness together is to run away from their superhero responsibilities. But Nat can’t do that. She shows, time and time again, that she prioritizes the mission over everything, including her own happiness. Throughout all of these films, Natasha is the only one who sees the Avengers as a family (because she understands that this is a found-family storyline, dammit!). She’s the one who tries to unite the team in Civil War and keeps it going in Endgame. She sees herself solely as an Avenger and is the quickest out of all the teammates to stop pursuing any other end for herself.
When Bruce later frees her from Ultron and suggests that this is their chance to finally run away, she says “The job’s not finished.” It’s her way of punishing herself, trying to get the red out of her ledger. Bruce then tells her, “You’ve done plenty.” He is the first person to ever say she is enough. She’s done enough. She can stop punishing herself. The tragedy is that she can’t believe him, and turns down the opportunity to “run with it,” and instead goes back to work. That was how she was programmed: Never abandon the mission.
Tony (and Why Ultron is a Good Villain, Actually)
I said in my Endgame review that making Tony have a daughter, Morgan, is a poor choice because it undermines Tony’s arc. Tony’s arc has been about him feeling responsible for saving the world because he understands how much his mistakes have put it in danger. He didn’t need a child to make the fight personal and raise the stakes- it’s always been personal and the stakes have always been raised, which we particularly see in AOU.
Yes, part of Tony’s arc has been trying to become a better father than his father was. But this isn’t happening through Morgan Stark, who, while she is his actual offspring, is not nearly the same foil to him as his first child-figure, which is Peter Parker. But even before we got Morgan or Peter, we got Ultron. Tony creates Ultron because after his vision from Wanda, he decides his Iron Legion fleet could be used to create “a suit of armor around the world.” Loki’s scepter finally gives Tony the power he needs to make this vision a reality with Ultron.
After he and Bruce create Ultron, Ultron appears “in the flesh” at the Avengers’ dinner party, quite literally interrupting the most intimate, family-like setting we’ll ever see them in again for the rest of the MCU. This “birth” is chaotic, unplanned, and changes everything, and sets the stage for why the Avengers will never get families of their own.
The movie consistently uses the language of father and son to express Tony (and Bruce) and Ultron’s relationship. During one of their first confrontations, Tony and Ultron have this exchange:
Ultron: Don’t compare me to Stark. He’s… a sickness!
Tony: Ah, Junior. You’re gonna break your old man’s heart.
Ultron: If I have to.
Later, Wanda tells Steve, “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Where do you think he gets that?” and in context she’s obviously talking about Tony. And maybe most explicitly:
Wanda to Ultron: I saw Stark’s fear. I knew it would make him self destruct.
Ultron: Everyone creates the thing they dread. People create… smaller people? Children! I lost the word there. Designed to supplant them, to help them end.
This is literally what happened with Tony. He tried to grasp onto the domestic dream, hoping it would help not only him achieve peace, but the world. And it turned against him, and ended his chance at ever being free from the burden of being a hero (until Endgame). He created Ultron, the thing he would come to dread.
Bruce’s arc here is less clear, as Bruce is more coerced by Tony into creating Ultron and Jarvis and therefore the film gives him much less responsibility in the matter. Despite this, there are fascinating implications of Bruce becoming, like Tony, a father of these two AIs. The best way is to see them is in a callback to a small moment in the first Avengers film.
In the scene where Bruce and Nat first meet, he touches a baby cradle (splattered with green) and says “I don’t every time get what I want.”
Along with the looks of longing Bruce has as he watches Natasha interact with Clint’s kids, it’s clear that he had wanted children. So isn’t it just a bitter and yet darkly hilarious turn of fate that Bruce is then the “father” of both Ultron- a literal supervillain that reflects Bruce’s worst fears about himself, but ALSO Vision, the scientific, heroic Messianic figure who is worthy enough to wield Mjolnir? Bruce, a man of dual natures, creates two equally dualling forces. That’s-
In this, we get a little pushback on the theme of the Avengers not being able to have children. Bruce’s arc here suggests that, sure, they might mess them up and be bad parents, but perhaps not. Perhaps children can truly save the family tree. But sadly, we’ll never know for these characters.
Age of Ultron uses a complex metaphorical framework, in both its language and visuals, to explore ideas about family. It comes to the conclusion that family, both in a biological sense and in a team-sense, is impossible for these heroes. This conclusion questions many of the traditional worldviews and themes of comic book stories, making Whedon’s film more subversive then it may initially appear.
However, like any good piece of art, there are multiple themes and interpretations within this one film. So let’s take a look at a few more things Age of Ultron has to say.
The Gospel According to Ultron
Steve tells the team in the pre-final battle speech: “Ultron thinks we’re monsters. That we’re what’s wrong with the world. This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether he’s right.” The movie, by showing us the monstrosity of its heroes throughout and denying them a chance of redemption through a happy family ending, seems to fall, in part, on the side of Ultron. Our heroes are what’s wrong with the world, but they’re also the best we have, because there are no other saviors. And speaking of there being no other saviors:
Age of Ultron is an atheistic movie. It sure doesn’t appear that way at first. Even a non-religious viewer will probably notice the references to biblical scripture, the religious imagery, and Vision, the messianic Christ figure who is born of men to save them from their own sins, literally calling himself, “I am.” But context matters, and in AOU, only the villain believes in a God.
Ultron, despite being only days old, is more biblically literate than some of the most seasoned Christians. Throughout the film he quotes Scripture. For example, when he finds the vibranium metal he quotes Matthew 16:18, saying, “Upon this rock [vibranium] I will build my church.” When he tells Wanda and Pietro of his plan to turn Sokovia into a meteor to destroy the world, much to the twin’s dismay, he offers the comfort that, “The human race will have every opportunity to evolve.” When Pietro asks if they don’t, Ultron responds, “Ask Noah,” directly tying his plan to destroy the world into God’s in the Biblical story of Noah and the flood in Genesis. Ultron furthers his point by saying, “Whenever the earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it. Believe me, he’s winding up,” and the stone is obviously Sokovia/meteor, which makes Ultron into God.
Ultron took in the entire internet at the beginning of the movie, but out of all the religions he could choose from, he chooses Christianity. He’s not quoting the Qur’an. He speaks beyond the language of metaphor. He speaks with complete assurance that there is a God. Yet it’s clear that Ultron is less interested in knowing God then actually being God. He is using religious imagery and stories to justify himself, the way many people abuse Christianity to justify themselves and various atrocities.
When Ultron first recruits the twins, he meets them in a church in Sokovia, where he sits on what looks to be a throne. Then, in the climax of the film, we find out that Ultron has made his fortress/hideout in that church in Sokovia. That is where he has implanted the device that will destroy the whole world. The final fight then takes place primarily inside the church as the Avengers work to stop the device.
In other words, the Avengers literally have to destroy the church to bring peace.
I think Joss Whedon might have some issues with organized religion.
Whedon is a self-proclaimed atheist and humanist, and his worldview pulses through this film with every scene. Ultron is not just a manic A.I. or the spurned child of Tony Stark. He’s a religious extremist, who uses religion as a coat for his own desire to play God, and misuses Scripture to justify his actions. Meanwhile, the heroes are the ones who believe there is no God and take it into their own hands to make the earth better. Religious people are the delusional ones who, if not using religion to suppress others, use it as an excuse for their apathy, while the atheists/agnostics are realists who will actually make the world a better place.
Vision, Ultron’s foil, then is the perfect expression of Whedon’s alternative to religion, which is humanism. This may seem strange; consider what I said before about Vision being a messianic figure who refers to himself with God’s title of “I am,” but these lines of dialogue between Ultron and Vision at the very end summarize the film’s thesis on humanity:
Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites, and try to control what won’t. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.
Ultron: They’re doomed.
Vision: Yes, but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It’s a privilege to be among them.
In the end, Vision does not save humankind. He helps save the day, and he reflects the best of the Avengers, but crucially, he is made by them. Pluggedin reviewer Paul Asay writes in his article over the topic that Tony is dutifully punished for creating Ultron, a false idol and god. If the movie had stopped at this, then there would have been a very biblical theme of not “messing in the divine act of life-creation.” But then he goes and makes Vision, who “is, in a way, a New Testament savior pitted against a wrathful, Old Testament-like god—an intercessor to stave off Ultron’s ultra-doom.” No longer do we have a man (Tony) who causes harm when he tries to create a god, but we have a man actually succeeding in creating a god, and now the theme is about humans overcoming through science and technology, which again is a triumph of Whedon’s ideology.
This is part of what makes AOU stand apart from other Marvel movies. While I don’t agree with Whedon in this area, I love AOU’s philosophical quandaries that I don’t believe any other Marvel movie, besides Black Panther, has truly had. DC movies, particularly Batman vs Superman, have had some similar religious tones in their scripts, but there were no coherent ideas presented there.
“You’re Not the Only Monster On the Team” – or, Why Ya’ll Need to Pay Attention to SUBTEXT
This is it. This is the moment we’ve all been eagerly anticipating. We’re gonna think critically about that dang safehouse scene, the scene that gave us a hundred bad hot takes and made people say, “Joss Whedon thinks women who can’t give birth are monsters!” Guys,
The safehouse scene should only be watched out of context in Mark Ruffalo or Scarlett Johansson’s Oscar reel. That’s it. Otherwise, it has to be taken in context, because it’s crucial to understanding what’s happening. Remember: These are the characters at their worse. They have just been mind-controlled by Wanda and shown their worst nightmares about themselves. The entire team has been thoroughly beaten, and they are questioning everything. Everything the characters say should be taken with a grain of salt.
We can infer between the movies that Nat, like Bruce, has come to see the Avengers as her family (she expresses this explicitly in Endgame). Revisiting her past, seeing the violent killing machine she was made into, shakes her entire trust in her ability to ever fit into the Avengers and be a hero. She tells Bruce in this scene: “I had a dream. The kind that seems real… that I was an Avenger.”
Bruce only brings up the topic of children because he just saw Natasha interacting positively with Clint’s children. It’s not that he assumes she wants to be a mother because she’s a woman. He is caring about her needs and what he perceives to be her desires, so- and this is incredibly important- he brings up his infertility first. I can’t remember ever seeing a movie, much less a blockbuster, that treats a man’s inability to have children seriously and sees it as a tragedy, which is very much what the scene is about. We’re not supposed to just be sad for Natasha, we’re also supposed to be sad for Bruce. For both of them, because within the metaphorical framework of the film biological family means healing, and they literally can’t have it! He is being vulnerable, which gives her the space to be vulnerable. That’s a connection! That’s a relationship! That’s maturing and growing past their disgust with themselves and their inability to get over the past! That’s-
I do think the placement of “you think you’re the only monster on the team” is ill-placed as it directly follows up Natasha’s reveal, and if it had been put maybe after another a line or two it could have avoided any ambiguity. But if you are watching the events as the film has presented them to you as- a moment where both characters are at their worst and are still operating out of deep-seeded self-destruction- then it makes complete sense!
Natasha is saying the Red Room made her into an assassin. Part of that process was being sterilized against her will, but that’s not what made her a monster. It was that she embraced and thrived in the role, and her vision suggests that she killed a lot of people to gain the favor of her instructors and become the top Black Widow. That’s why she is a monster. It’s because of the red in her ledger.
Even in the least-charitable interpretation of the scene, if she was saying she’s a monster because she’s sterile, then remember: that’s the exact same thing Bruce is saying about himself. And also, if she did believe her infertility meant she was a monster or less of a woman, that is, unfortunately, a very real reflection on women who have been sexually assaulted and may take on blame or think it is their fault. I don’t think that’s what the scene is saying, but it could be read that way. Either way, both Bruce and Natasha believe they are monsters, and can’t come to forgive themselves. That’s why Bruce/Hulk leaves at the end of AOU and why Natasha sacrifices herself in Endgame. They are clearing the red in the ledger the only way they know how.
When Nat pushes Bruce off the cliff, she takes away his bodily autonomy, forcing him to become the Hulk and encouraging him to “go be a hero,” stating her faith that Hulk, like her, will find purpose in finishing the mission. But that shows a misunderstanding between the characters of the other’s core motivations. This could have been a great thing to explore and work through in future movies, but instead, they drop the whole romance subplot altogether because Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are c o w a r d s.
If you liked almost any other Marvel movie that came out after AOU, then you can thank AOU. Despite its mixed reputation and lower profile, it sets up more of the MCU then I think either Whedon or Marvel realized.
There are so many other good reasons that this movie is the best besides all the ones I have laid out in excruciating detail. The quips! The great group chemistry! The action sequences are some of the more memorable for Marvel. It has one of the better scores that makes use of the international locales of the film. There are references for the comic book nerds (Helen and Amadeus Cho!!!!). Steve rips a log in half with his bare hands! This is when the Avengers still had distinct personalities and their senses of humor were different!
You don’t have to love Avengers: Age of Ultron now. But I do hope you reconsider it, and respect it.
(And respect me. I’ve finally rested my case to the haters).
It may be hard to believe, but there is a lot left on the cutting room floor of this essay. So wanna discuss AOU’s commentary on colonialism and America as the world’s policeman? Want to talk about how absolutely fantastic Downey and Ruffalo’s acting here is and the fascinating relationship evolution that takes place between Tony and Bruce? Want to know more about why I regularly cry during the Hulkbuster fight in Johannesburg? I also have a theory that what Bruce is listening to in the beginning, “Casta Diva,” from the opera Norma, actually foreshadows the rest of his and Nat’s relationship in the movie! Want to get together and just rag on Jeremy Renner and Hawkeye? Let’s do it!
An Editorial Note:
This essay was finished before the first trailer for the upcoming solo Black Widow film was released. This trailer focuses on Natasha’s family (or does it???? It is about spies). I did not rewrite the essay to fit with the possibility of this because for one, we haven’t seen the film yet and don’t know to what extent biological family for Nat is examined, and two, it doesn’t change AOU and the arc Whedon gives Nat in it. I will be interested to see how this film handles the issue of birth family vs. found family, and if that will change how Natasha views herself and her role as a hero. I’m hoping the new film will not change the core components of Nat’s character that I’ve outlined here, but instead will simply be a further progression of her already complex character.