I Liked Black Widow/Hulk, FIGHT ME
This might be the most controversial piece I ever write. Can’t wait.
So look, I haven’t seen every single movie from the MCU. In fact, I haven’t seen most of them. I looked at the list on Wikipedia, and it says I’ve seen less than 30% of their vast universe. Which is to say I’ve seen five: Thor, Thor: The Dark World, The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Guardians of the Galaxy. I’ve seen bits and pieces from others, but those are the only ones I’ve seen all the way through, start to finish.
And my overwhelming response to all five of these movies?
All of them, to me, are resoundingly, definitively…okay.
They kept my attention for the allotted time, I laughed quite a bit, I halfway felt feelings when prompted, and I walked out satisfied. Not exactly a lasting impact, but not a bad way to spend a night out with friends. Especially since we tended to get Steak ‘n Shake right afterwards (not a sponsor, I’m just literally always down for a burger and shake I can feel in my chest three hours later).
Age of Ultron was by far the most okay, when I first saw it. I liked Vision, I liked the stuff with Tony, I liked the final battle, and you guessed it, I liked the dynamic between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner.
When I took to Tumblr to see what other people were saying, though, I soon found out that having that last opinion was an offense worthy of being drawn and quartered. In fact, having any opinion beyond sheer hatred of the entire film seemed dangerous, so I didn’t say anything then. But with some distance, and admittedly having not seen Civil War, I still stand by those feelings. So, if you will, please allow me to share this apparently unpopular opinion.
To Be Fair…
There are some arguments against this pairing that involve things I didn’t really know going in, that I think are fair enough and worth bringing up.
One of the main gripes people have with this is how interchangeable a love interest it makes Black Widow out to be. The Avengers supposedly connected her romantically to Hawkeye (more on that in a minute), but then all of a sudden she’s flirting with Steve Rogers, and now Bruce. Apparently she gets treated like a romantic hand-me-down in the comics as well, so it’s an even bigger problem than just the movies, and an incredibly legitimate one.
Having your female character date around is completely fine, for the record. Not here for slut-shaming. But when she seems to switch interests between main characters to fit the script’s needs, or just seemingly at random, it can make her seem less like an active agent and more like a doll that’s being told what to feel and when to feel it. Less character, more plot device. Black Widow already gets the short stick both in the movies and in general fandom opinion, and being written into random relationships only hurts her case as an independent hero worthy of her own movie.
It also doesn’t help that, in The Avengers, Black Widow and Hawkeye’s roles in that story, and therefore their character development, were basically tied up with each other. They were the two powerless secret agents of the group (note that I said powerless secret agents because they’re not the only Avengers who don’t have superpowers, everyone likes to conveniently forget that Tony Stark doesn’t have any powers either aside from lots and lots of money), and their stories fed into each other that way. They’re each other’s closest friend on the team. This creates a problem when they’re more separated in Age of Ultron. Natasha’s having lots of deep convos with Bruce, so she’s fine development and story relevance wise (even if it’s as a goddamn damsel), but now Hawkeye’s sort of off to the side, only confiding in his wife that we just met, and eventually retiring altogether by the end. Not exactly a grand hurrah for a character that already had fairly little to do in these movies and was criminally underrated in all his appearances.
And yeah, from what I can tell he was in Civil War, but when Age of Ultron came out, the idea of Hawkeye retiring (and of Marvel giving up trying to make him happen) was pretty convincing, and only added more fuel to both the “Hawkeye and Black Widow are useless!” fire and the “Age of Ultron didn’t handle those two characters well” fire. I would know, I watched both burn high and bright in the Tumblr Colosseum as the masses cried out that Joss Whedon was cancelled.
But really now. Was Bratasha really so bad? (I don’t know what their ship name actually is, I just went with the worst one I could think of. I really hope that’s not it. Wait, hang on, I thought of a worse one.)
Things About Nuce That Work
First of all, I never bought that Black Widow and Hawkeye were a couple. THERE. I SAID IT.
For one thing, they never once admit they have feelings for each other. Which isn’t to say I needed one to turn to the other and go “Given the opportunity, I would 100% have intercourse with you”. Mostly because the movie was written by Joss Whedon and thus would probably sound more like “Hey Tash, once we finish beating up the cast of I, Robot, I was thinking we could do the frick-frack”.
But there are ways of making a character’s feelings clear without having them say things outright, especially in a visual medium like film. While plenty of characters imply that the two are an item or at least have feelings for each other, neither of them confirms it, even accidentally, even just through a look. And you can yell at me all you want about “oh, but they’re secret agents and it might be compromising to show a weakness like that”, but they have an entire scene by themselves that, to me, shows nothing more than a very close friendship. They’ve developed a bond through the dangerous work they do, and the trust that comes from having each other’s backs in life-or-death situations. They understand each other in a way the other characters can’t, because of that shared experience. But to me, it still doesn’t read as romantic. It’s a coworkers-to-siblings sort of arc, if anything.
Part of the reason for that disconnect is that outside of work, they don’t really have a lot in common. Neither of them cry at the drop of a hat, but Hawkeye is still more openly emotional than Natasha. He talks candidly with her about exactly how Loki’s mind control felt, expresses intense remorse for the people he killed under that control, and explicitly says he’d like to “put an arrow through Loki’s eye socket”. Meanwhile, Natasha not only lies about having any emotional connection to Clint (admittedly a smart move when talking to a mind-controlling supervillain, but she doesn’t even flinch when she says it), but always puts on a face like she’s in control. The one time we see her look scared —
— it turns out to be a literal act to get Loki to keep talking and reveal his plan, or at least that using the Hulk is a part of it. She only shows emotions when it’s convenient, and firmly believes that keeping a tight leash on her feelings is the only way to keep herself and others safe.
Which brings us to Bruce Banner.
Bruce and Clint are complete opposites, when compared with Natasha. While Clint has a lot in common with Natasha on the surface, there isn’t much connection beyond that. Likewise, Bruce and Natasha have very little in common on the surface. He’s a scientist, she’s a spy. He’s a bit awkward and non-confrontational, she’s a smooth talker who’s always ready for a fight. He wears the same glasses, button-up shirt, and jeans all the time, she has an outfit for every occasion.
But under the surface, there’s a lot more going on. For one thing, Bruce can be just as sneaky as any spy. Take the scene where they first meet.
Natasha does get the upper hand luring him to their meeting spot in the first place with the child pretending to be in trouble, but by the end of the scene, it becomes clear that from that point onward, Bruce was in control of this conversation. He sees right through her calm, distant exterior and can tell she’s just as scared of him as everyone else, going so far as to lash out on purpose to see how she’d react and prove that point. He reads things viewers usually don’t notice until their second viewing, like that Natasha subtly steps away from him when he first mentions “the other guy” and then deliberately changes the subject. He might have even spotted the backup when he looked out the window, despite Natasha claiming it was “just you and me”. Spying and interrogation may not be his MO, but he’s hardly the bumbling, nice-guy dork fandom would have you believe. He was, and possibly still is, the only Avenger who ever beat Black Widow at her own game.
They also have the exact same way of dealing with their emotions, which is to say not at all. Bruce’s way is a bit more healthy than Natasha’s, but that’s not saying much. Both of them suppress their negative feelings for fear of what sharing them could do to the people around them. Bruce’s feared consequence of opening up is pretty obvious.
Natasha’s isn’t quite so literal. She was raised in the Red Room, where she was trained and molded from a very young age for assassin work. This training involved being forced to kill someone begging for their life, among other things. Throughout the films, we see Natasha struggling with the fact that spying and assassination are the only things she knows. She believes that is all she brings to the table, and as she notes in the scene below, she doesn’t even really believe she’s a hero. She’s very good at convincing herself that she is selfish, that everything she does is for her own benefit, even when that’s clearly not true (e.g. knocking Clint out instead of killing him when he tried to kill her in a mind-control state).
There’s also something else these two share, specifically in this scene. It’s unclear (to me, anyway) whether or not Bruce can physically have kids, but either way, he clearly doesn’t want to risk putting his own child in the path of the Hulk, so he doesn’t see kids as an option. And in this scene, we learn that as part of Natasha’s “graduation ceremony” from the Red Room, she was forcibly sterilized. All the other Avengers either seem like they might want to settle down someday or, in the case of Clint, already have. Bruce and Natasha are the only two who can’t even imagine it.
And yeah, okay, let’s talk about that “monster” line.
For those who didn’t watch the clip, after Natasha emotionally reveals that she is sterile, she says to Bruce, “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?” I can see why that upset many people. Equating a woman’s fertility with her worth, her usefulness, and even her humanity is hardly a new thing, and having a male writer seem to impose that toxic thought process onto such a kickass character like Black Widow is disheartening.
She actually doesn’t say that line immediately after saying she’s sterile. She’s explaining the thought process behind sterilizing the agents (yet another way of dodging her emotions — instead of saying how she feels, she overexplains). She says it’s “efficient”, that it ensures that nothing will matter more than a mission, and that it “makes everything easier — even killing”. And THEN she calls herself a monster.
The clunky and awkward way this reveal is written accidentally masks what I think that bit was going for. Natasha doesn’t just think she’s a monster because she can’t have kids. Her sterility, to her, is just one more bit of proof that she can never be more than a heartless killing machine.
We even see this in the way she approaches Bruce. One of the main complaints about this relationship is that it came out of nowhere, and started too strong too fast, but I think that all ties back to Natasha’s conflict. Her first instinct when she starts to have feelings for Bruce is not just to flirt with him, but to flirt with him at level 11 right out of the gate.
This isn’t exactly surprising, either for viewers or in-universe. Viewers have seen her flirt with Steve in the Captain America movies, and Bruce in this clip says she “flirts with everybody”. But as Steve notes, this is different. She flirts with Steve almost as a joke, but Steve and the audience can tell there’s a lot more behind her flirting with Bruce.
I think this goes back to Natasha’s inferiority complex. She knows her feelings are deeper than sexual attraction, but either thinks she isn’t worth more than that or wouldn’t be able to bear the rejection (probably both). So, rather than risk it by being softer or more subtle, she ramps the sexual stuff way higher, since wanting sex is less of a risk than wanting love. She lays it on thick at the bar with the sultry looks to counteract the more genuine things she’s saying, and later is quick to imply that she wanted to jump in the shower with him instead of admitting she was waiting to talk to him about the vision Scarlet Witch gave her.
Ultimately, the story of Bruce and Natasha is a story of two people who feel worthless and dangerous, finding the worth and safety in each other. I don’t know about you, but I find that more compelling than the office romance of Black Widow and Hawkeye.
Look, it could have been handled better. I get that. This movie had so much going on with creating Ultron, setting up the Maximoff twins, showing everyone else’s inner struggle when shown their greatest fear by Scarlet Witch, the countless philosophical discussions of what it means to be a hero and the worth of humanity, and of course, drunk hammer lifting.
And don’t get me wrong, this scene is pure gold. But when you have that much going on in a movie, not to mention you have producer mandates to include certain characters and moments for franchise building purposes, some things are bound to get left by the wayside.
This is an issue I find with Marvel movies in general: they all have a lot of potential for really strong themes and character moments, and come SO TANTALIZINGLY CLOSE to following through, but stop just short to make way for other things, be it jokes or setups for future movies or even just character development that needs to happen elsewhere because there’s a lot of main characters that all need attention. But I still think that potential and thought is worth pointing out, so that others can see it and maybe even build on it.
Because good focus and building on potential is the difference between an amazing movie, and a movie that’s amazingly okay.