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May 11 2012

(SPOILER) The most human moment in 'The Avengers.' An interesting essay about one of the most human moments in the movie. Joss didn't just make giant tentpole movie; he made a giant tentpole movie with his passions and interests intact. An interesting companion piece regarding the Black Widow can be found over at IndieWire.

Scroll down to Anjin Anhunt's comment & those following... well said...
I like Anjin Anhunt's comment, it's a legitimate objection.

I think it is a very human moment, Natasha just kinda frozen against that wall for a few moment, and then gathering her will and getting back in the fight. I don't get why the author thinks there is an unexplored greater trauma from that moment that should have been explored though. The column doesn't seem to even consider the possibility that she was okay after clearing the initial shock and fear.

The Black Widow thing that I found more fascinating was her 'ledger'. She was playing Loki by letting herself appear to wilt under his barrage, to excite him, egg him on, and then once she knew his plan, she shook it off. Now, it seems to me that to make that kind of play, she couldn't risk tapping into much in the way of real emotional weakness, so I am inclined at the end of that scene to assume she either had long since made peace with her ledger or wasn't actually troubled by it at all. But then, when she brings it up to Clint, it does seem to be a point of vulnerability... so as far as human moments, or at least human motivation, it made me very curious if she actually was carrying around real pain about her ledger before she talked to Loki (in which case she has more or less superhuman emotional control to open that up to his assault), or letting Loki come after it had actually picked open the scab (which would somewhat undercut the interrogation scene, since Loki would have gotten to her after all). But the ledger throughline was to me the most human and interesting thing they did with her character.
Thanks, PurpleSerenity, I heartily agree with that one. It bothers me that this has to be made about gender.

(I actually prefer to see movie-Black Widow in the context of something Joss said in regards to Battlestar Galactica: female characters in that show like Starbuck had moved beyond being Female Action Heroes and had become simply Action Heroes. It feels like that applies to Natasha.)
A friend once declared to me that everything is about gender until [passage of time = x] nothing is about gender. Mayhap we’re in the in-between where we get to argue about whether we still should be arguing about it.

Bring one’s own subtext to BW. I may not agree with the points raised in the article, but I enjoy what it opened up for me to ponder.

Being shallow, I was impressed by the fact that BW (one of the heroes) was shown in shock and pain. I didn’t think any further than that, as that alone made me happy. There was a smackdown of Captain America where he took a shot to the gut that played as effectively.

Seems we have fodder for a new college course lecture in Whedon studies: Black Widow: Gender Tropes of Alien Invasions
Also agreed with Anjin Anhunt's comment. The Hulk was about how people relate to a force of nature, beyond control or reasoning. Widow was the audience "in", as a non-powered protagonist. If the story had made her mind-controlled by Loki instead of Hawkeye, then Clint would have filled that role, and had the *same* fearful reaction.
KingofCretins - I read it as a third option. When she mentioned the ledger to Clint, she prefaced it with "I've been compromised." They weren't having a conversation about her owing him; they were having a very different conversation, and the use of the same language that she used with Loki was to underscore how much Loki didn't understand humans (and human emotions), for all that he wants to control them.
Loiosh, I completely agree with your interpretation. That's why, in retrospect, I love the Loki/Widow scene even more, having seen what follows. It makes her reaction a lot more interesting.
Well, when I see the film for a 2nd time tomorrow I will pay more attention to the 'ledger' - the first time I heard it as "I have red in my lingerie", knew I'd misheard but heard the same thing when she brought it up with Clint! :S

Interestingly, Scarlett J said in a press conference that when she and Joss talked through what was going on for her character, not once did Joss mention her gender - it was all about her dark history and what makes her tick, not about her being female. Link here, it's about 7:27 in. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBbSNnGmPfw

I was very pleased to read one of the other comments about violent men not being simply 'out of control' like the Hulk, as if they can't help it - in fact many abusive, violent men are actually very much in control and use their 'rage' to intimidate/betlittle/confuse/manipulate/control others. As the comment said, Hulk is basically just out of control and poor Bruce Banner is as much afraid of him as everybody else is.

[ edited by PurpleSerenity on 2012-05-11 18:47 ]

[ edited by PurpleSerenity on 2012-05-11 18:54 ]
The opening paragraph of the article, where they talk about the Justice Society of America having only one female member, Wonder Woman, is a perfect example. As bad as that is, the article didn't even make a mention that not only was she the only woman (and the strongest of the team) but she was made the secretary for the team!
I agree with the article writer. While I don't think gender is made an issue in the movie, the symbolism is there, intended or not. The Hulk might be a extreme example of male abuse, and maybe it's accidental that it's a woman that almost gets taken down by the Hulk and then has a strong reaction to it, but I can see the similarities to real life, where women are attacked by angry men. Which makes it a very powerful moment when, after almost dying and being schocked by it(in a way which I think all characters could ahve reacted in a similar way too) she gets up and continues to fight.
I'm not sure that you're right seeing similarites. I don't really see the metaphor - as someone else said, everyone was in danger from him. I'm not sure that it was significant that Joss chose to put Black Widow in the line of fire first. TBH, what I took from that vulnerable scene more than her freak-out was that she pulled herself together and got on with it, showing enormous courage. I suspect it's more about having to deal with the fact that she's human with no superpowers, unlike Thor who saved her,(or the Hulk of course!) than about the fact that she's a woman who's been attacked by a 'man'. I'm interested to see it again tomorrow to see what i think.

Joss did the male abuser metaphor quite well in a Buffy episode - well, several actually!, but in one particular episode, season 3's Beauty & The Beasts, where the guy was taking some kind of serum that turned him into a 'rage monster' iirc BUT he was also actually a right twat of a boyfriend too. All the red flags for an abusive relationship were there, even the subtler ones while he was 'normal', supernatural transformation aside. Not so for the Hulk in the Avengers. I don't know a huge amount about the Hulk and Bruce Banner, I've only seen the Eric Bana one and that was a good while ago, but I think the Hulk is more about anger and fear and how to control it in yourself, than about abuse per se. Peeps who know the avengers and the comics better, care to elaborate/clarify/contradict?
Art invites various interpretations, none of which must necessarily crowd out the others.

Regardless of what the actor and director discussed about this scene, gender and power are salient issues in our society today and deserve examination, and are perfectly legitimate issues to explore while interpreting the film.
PurpleSerenity - I agree. In particular, I think that Banner/Hulk are sort of prime storytelling material for Whedon, because it's all about how you handle life when life happens to you. Banner was just doing his job (in this case, trying to replicate the serum), and then life happened to him. He didn't make a choice like Rodgers, Romanoff, or Barton, and he wasn't born in to it like Thor. And he didn't even have the option to choose to save himself, like Stark - life, completely out of his control, happened to him.

Banner/Hulk is about how you choose to live with what happens when life happens - he's probably the most Buffy of the characters in The Avengers, because this huge burden and responsibility has been foisted on him, and Banner has to live with it, period. HAS TO - because Hulk won't let him not.

I think it's definitely true that some writers have opted to travel the raging man/abuse trajectory with Hulk - but I think it's equally true that this isn't the case for Black Widow. Natasha knew, from the getgo, that she was taunting the beast, and while she hoped she could control it, you see even in the shack that she's afraid. She handles the fear and moves forward. When things go pear-shaped, she tries to control the situation, loses control, and rabbits for safety and has a parallel - but stronger - fear reaction, mirroring the minor fear reaction in the shack (with the gun). Then she pulls it together and moves forward.

As OneTeV points out, when you flip characters for the scene, and place the other non-augmented human in Natasha's position, the scene reads the same - Clint could have the exact same reaction. The difference is in how people opt to read it - that, probably, is the more interesting and revealing thing.
I disagree with the article as well.

Emphasizing the "maleness" of the Hulk and Thor seems completely inappropriate to me. Hulk is rage, period. Especially in that scene, it's got nothing to do with gender. Calling out Thor for being a male who needed to rescue BW appears wrong to me, as well. He's a (demi-)god! Not one of the other male Avengers on board could've helped her - only Thor (=a demigod) could, again not because he's male but because he happens to be a demigod from outer space.

I even see those scenes between Natasha and Banner in the beginning and Hulk on the airship to be more about making clear that Hulk is bad news. When Banner teased Natasha in the village, it was to show us that the S.H.I.E.L.D. dudes and dudettes are ALL legitimately scared of the Hulk. Tasha knows she couldn't take that thing on because she is merely human, not because she's a woman. On the airship, it's even worse because Banner is actually Hulking Out (not of his own choosing) and she is trapped under that metal beam. The only thing happening is that we learn that she keeps a cool head even when facing death by Hulk in a confined space. Afterwards is just simple shock because it was a close call.

Forcing gender roles and issues onto something is that often annoys me because it usually seems to be coming from the wrong place...
I added Jobo's IndieWire link to this entry as it makes an interesting companion piece.
I hadn't really examined it through a gender lens. The only gender-related moments I recognized in Natasha's arc were when she used her feminine wiles to manipulate lesser men into frightening her into alleged submission, all the while revealing their plan.

When it came to the Hulk, she demonstated true fear when he first slammed his hands on the table with "Don't lie to me" at the beginning, when he first Hulk-d out, and in the aftermath of him almost killing her in the bowels of the hellicarier.

But I don't think it's about gender. It's about power.

She understands that The Hulk is strong enough to take her down. She's got the skill set to demolish a person of comparible strength, but the Hulk is more powerful than her. Thor is the only one among them who could last 3 rounds with him, and even he isn't a complete match. The Black Widow WAS vulnerable and it WAS beautiful, but I don't perceive it as, here's a woman being dominated by a man. I think, here's a killing machine who just faced certain death.

Because she's human, it affects her deeply and it takes her time to recover. But because she's a fighter, she gets up to respond to Fury's call about Hawkeye, despite how shaken she is. That was a heroic moment.
That IndieWire article was very interesting. I think it just goes to show that it's not necessarily what an artist puts into their work, but what people see in it. Here we're seeing women writers praising a well written female super hero and male writers (I'm not saying all male writers, just the ones mentioned) overlooking her completely or degrading her character. These interpretations say more about the article writers than they do the movie.
Thank you to those who agreed with me and put it much better than I ever could!
I've added the link to the conference I referred to in that earlier post. I tried to make it a real link but it doesn't seem to have worked, sorry....

[ edited by PurpleSerenity on 2012-05-11 18:55 ]
I agree with what others have said. For me, that moment wasn't about her being the only woman, it was about her being just plain HUMAN (albeit one with amazing fighting skills). She is a human with human strength who was thrown against a wall by a giant green rage monster. I think any human, were they male or female, would be a bit shaken by that. And I think later, when she is talking to Hawkeye and says something like, "This is magic and monsters and things we were never trained for," is her moment to acknowledge to herself that it was perfectly acceptable for her to be shaken. Cause knowing her character, she probably despised feeling scared, but she acknowledges that it was a very human moment for her.

So, yeah, I don't feel like it had anything to do with gender.
Not once did I ever interpret it as "Black Widow is the only woman, therefore she has to be in danger when Banner Hulks out.." the movie clearly establishes a relationship between the two. Not a romantic one, but that of an agent for S.H.I.E.L.D. who has been Bruce Banner's handler. If it had been Coulson, or Hill, or anyone else it would not have had as much resonance because there was no background to work from - the fact that she and Banner have had a previous (and strained) working relationship gives her presence in those scenes more meaning.
The IndieWire article was so interesting. Especially when they compared the reactions of male reviewers and female reviewers. I've half a mind to do further statistical analysis to see what the trends are .... or I could just use the time to watch the movie again.

I tended to see the movie more through the IndieWire lens, I kept wondering how ScarJo/BW would flow with the team and the impression from her character that I got was that (1) she is impressively competent and (2) she is thoroughly human -- and she had a job to get done.
The IndieWire article - the comparisons between male reviewers and female reviewers I mean - is depressing actually. It shows just how embedded in people's minds the stereotypical role of women in film is, if even Joss's depiction of female characters, in a superhero movie no less, has been received in those ways.
PurpleSerenity, I agree. For me, it's quite interesting that people are still reaching to stereotypical conclusions despite the fact that there's absolutely no attempt by the movie to steer audiences in this way.

She's a genuine "kick ass female character" and for some reason, people have forgotten that in that phrase, "kick ass" comes before "female."
So the execs didn't even want Black Widow to be one of The Avengers, but Joss fought against it and won. Is that evidence of producers being unable to accept a female superhero among the men? Did they think it would be a detriment to the film's reception?

Between that bit of info and the critical reception of Black Widow from certain male reviewers, I have to say that cultural expectations about gender and power are pretty deeply engrained. And although Black Widow was a total badass fighter in Iron Man 2, I still felt her sexualization as "the other woman" was a major running thread of the story. It probably served the purposes of Iron Man effectively, especially given her role as a spy, but I thought it was refreshing to see her be a non-eye-candy legitimate female fighter who could hold her own. It'll be a while before the world at large CAN recognize women in those positions of power. Thank god for Joss.

[ edited by WhatsAStevedore on 2012-05-11 20:38 ]
Regarding the IndieWire article:

Very interesting article. I had no idea Black Widow was reviewed this way by serious critics. I knew she was considered useless by some marvel fans, and I too was confused at first, trying to figure out how she could be useful, but trusting she was.

Small nitpick: She was not talking on her phone while kicking ass.

Bigger nitpick: I am told she does have super-powers. I had no idea, but was told that by someone who's read more Marvel comics than me, and sure enough wikipedia confirms it.
WhatsAStevedore - I'll give the execs a bit of a pass, because it's actually rare enough to see a competent female comic character that I can understand why they were gun shy, especially since Black Widow wasn't well-used (overall) in IM2. I think it also says something that not only were they willing to do it in Joss's hands, but that they're quickly re-evaluating her draw and considering a standalone movie.

Gus - someone has to be human and impressively competent now, with Coulson gone.

Skytteflickan88 - there are decades of comic book iterations. Nothing we've seen from Movie Black Widow suggests that she's anything other than a badass spy with her widow bites and physical skills.
There's an excellent post that's since been added to the bottom of the first article, by Lienathan, challenigng the abuse metaphor.
I really liked the IndieWire article, but I hasten to add that in my experience online there have been a lot of women saying that Scarlett did a lousy job and/or that Black Widow as an unimportant character. This makes me sad because I thought that Joss had kept her in for good and valid reasons. AND I thought that her really pivotal/hero moment was when she was shivering in shock from the Hulk's attack on her, and Fury asks if anyone can approach Hawkeye, she pulls herself together and responds to the need (partly because she feels that she is the one who could stop Hawkeye without killing him... kind of reminiscent of when Faith wanted to stop Angelus rather than risk letting Connor kill him).

I thought that Scarlett showed subtlety and strength in her role as Black Widow.
I think that pointing out that a moment of vulnerability could be related to her experience as a female does not diminish her in any way, but rather is a source of inspiration and strength. As a gay man, I find that I relate to her a hundred times more this way.

I am much more bothered by efforts to discourage discussion about gender than by the discussion of gender itself. Not everyone feels as I do, apparently.

[ edited by Ronald_SF on 2012-05-11 22:28 ]
Re: the Indiewire piece, the thing about ignoring Widow that gets me is that in a movie (I argue) about empathy, it's Widow who withstands Loki's funhouse mirror perversion of empathy and gets him to reveal his Hulk plan.
I find the premise of the article interesting because while I don't quite like the analogy as Hulk = male aggressor abuser, it's a fascinating lens into gender having Black Widow be the human who both 1.) recognizes the innate power/strength of the Hulk, and 2.) nearly gets killed by him because who she is (female, 5'3" and entirely human) matters.

The movie clearly sets it up that the human members of the Avengers are vulnerable and weaker in comparison to their superhuman counterparts. Black Widow vs. the Hulk is pretty much akin to normal human being vs. Black Widow. And having that vulnerable, terrified moment where she's shaking and breathless after coming that close to being literally squished -- it plays both as a lovely moment of human vulnerability AND a coded gendered moment. Women (like mere humans) are terribly vulnerable to violence. But this is a Joss story, so that leads to one of Black Widow's best moments: saving Hawkeye (her best friend) from the mindwhammy by kicking his ass.

Joss does this a lot: some of his strongest moments with female characters are those in which they get torn down and brought low, only to emerge stronger. It's that pesky empowerment narrative he can't stop telling.
Fair point, Ronald.
@Ronald, I appreciate your comment, you're right, the two threads of interpretation are not mutually exclusive nor diminish each other.
I bristled a touch at the first article, I think, because as a woman I find the female action hero in movies often either rejects their femaleness or (more often) their heroic exploits seem to rely in large part in using sexuality as a tool to manipulate/distract. I loved Avengers in no small part because Widow's manipulations of Loki/Russian Gangsters wasn't based on implications of seduction (contrast to IM2). SO, when we see her vulnerability after the Hulk-out, the first identification for me was "Human Hero Nearly Killed By Team Member" rather than "Female Attacked by Male Aggression Exposes & Vulnerability." But to support your point, the fact that the person who dealt with Hulk is a "she" gives the scene extra dimension.

@b!x -- Yes! I love that she absorbs Loki's crazy and hubris turns it back on him!
Just came back from seeing the film a second time, I paid special attention to Black Widow & Hawkeye, and the Hulk. In no way was the Hulk/BW scene a metaphor for male abuse of women, in no way was BW a 'broken woman'. In the scene with her and Loki, I do think he did genuinely get to her though, because she mentions it again to Hawkeye, but that she opened herself up to that deliberately to get his plan out of him.

I appreciated so much more second time round the relationship between BW and Hawkeye, knowing now what I didn't know before about them. Good stuff. First time round I thought Hawkeye was a little underused, I thought having him taken over by the spear just meant it made it easier to include all the characters, but in fact second time round, I can see that it is a very important plot device for both BW and Hawkeye, showing us what their relationship is, and giving them both more of 'the push' that Nick Fury talks about ;). Although I would have preferred to know him better before he was taken over...

Also, I'm convinced now of the fact that the first time Banner 'Hulks out' he is out of control because he is being manipulated by the spear, and the second time it is his choice; Banner has indeed mastered the Hulk by the time the movie starts. I wonder where they can go from here with him, though.

As an aside, we brought our eight year old daughter with us this time, I think she enjoyed it, she was a bit fidgety during the slower bits but seemed pretty enraptured by the action scenes. She says her favourite Avenger is Captain America "because he's good". :) Interestingly she usually chooses the women/girls in films as her favourite characters, and Black Widow was her first choice before seeing the movie, she's now second best!...

[ edited by PurpleSerenity on 2012-05-12 17:35 ]
Another excellent pov of BW; I too, enjoyed the IndieWire review, especially after reading one which described BW having a superpower called "passive-aggression" LOL! Ultimately, I think BW's superpower is raw human emotion; and a fearlessness that motivates every action - similar to Buffy, in that she forms the plan, executes the plan - uh, when she realizes she's in an environment that needs one. What I love about BW char in this movie, is that Joss begins to peel her layers, and they are very much female; subtle, emotional, fearless, instinctual AND intellectual. It's because of this that I think BW throws her whole self into any given situation (and probably her relationships) - ready for whatever gets thrown her way. It's very Zen in a way. Re: the Hulk - imho the Banner/Hulk char is not just male aggression - it could be female too! But what I took from the scene between BW and the raging Hulk was a metaphor, perhaps for what is going on politically with women today; in that negotiating with a single "man" is much different than negotiating with "an army" aka the Hulk. Maybe it's women hitting a glass ceiling or maybe it's about always dealing with the "good ole boys club" and never rising above a certain level. Her human moment is all too familiar to me, personally, lol - perhaps we all can relate to her "recovery" moment many times over in that context.

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