My roommate and I saw Avengers: Age Of Ultron yesterday, and we both enjoyed it immensely. If I were to write a review of it as a film I would give it high marks and strongly recommend it to just about everyone.
There are plenty of other people doing that, however, and I am more interested in discussing one particular issue from a narrative standpoint. While I will attempt to avoid spoilers in the sense of overall story arc, I will be talking about aspects of the characters’ interpersonal relationships that you probably want to avoid if you haven’t seen it yet.
Much has been made of the perceived promiscuity of the character of Natasha Romanov and if writing the character that way is sexist of the writers or if objecting to it is sexist, and I’m not going to get into that. What I will say is that the character was raised in what amounts to an abusive cult and her emotional makeup is profoundly atypical due to her early childhood experiences, so one cannot infer that the writers of this particular character are saying that all women would or should act in a particular way, just that this character with her particular background would.
That having been said, Romanov has racked up a number of notches on her lipstick case. She was first introduced, I believe, in Iron Man II, and Tony Stark immediately started hitting on her (which may not exactly count, Stark has the emotional depth of a toddler and hits on pretty much everyone.) However, she was initially presented to the audience as a femme fatale before being revealed as a warrior, and I do think that is significant.
In Avengers she is shown having a deep emotional connection with Clint Barton (a relationship which is explored as being not quite what one might expect in Avengers II). In Captain America: The Winter Soldier she is shown wearing a necklace with an arrow on it (which would be a natural symbol for Barton) and she also gets physically affectionate with Steve Rodgers in a way that seems not to be entirely for reasons of concealment.
Now in Age Of Ultron she shows an involvement with Bruce Banner and, in a very different but very real way, with his alternate personality Hulk. (As an aside, the way that Banner/Hulk is written resonates with me on a very personal level as a model for dissociation, and I found Romanov’s relationship with both parts to be very touching.)
All of which, as I said, I believe makes sense for the character. She was indoctrinated from an early age into a cult of Soviet Materialism that taught that sentimentality is a lumpenproletariat weakness and that sex exists as a weapon to be used against capitalism in the glorious struggle to create the Worker’s Paradise, and so on and so forth. Monogamy was never modeled for her as something reasonable or desirable.
From a standpoint of narrative structure, all of the above is a rather baroque way of getting around a simple (and I believe unnecessarily self-inflicted) problem with the composition of the principle characters.
Why is there only one woman in The Avengers?
Now, I am not a big reader of the source material, but as a casual comics reader I am pretty sure that J. Jonah Jameson is the only character in the Marvel universe who has not been a member of The Avengers at one time or another. (I recall reading a “What-If” issue in which Peter Parker’s Aunt May became a member.)
Granted, it might be necessary to dig up a few fairly obscure characters, but there are plenty of Miniskirted Myrmidons named after songbirds with sparkly powers. It’s not as if Jonah Hex, say, was exactly a AAA title.
And, yes, there will be fans who will object to a including one character over another, but they are going to do that no matter what. And I don’t want to get into the ethics of inclusion and a discussion of whether or not putting more female characters into a group is a moral imperative–my point is simply that it makes writing about relationships easier if you have more potential parings.
Which would be easier with more women in the team. (Leaving aside any possible Hammer&Shield action. Thor’s from Asgard, Steve’s from Brooklyn–what would the neighbors think? But, damn, you’d sell some tickets…)
I enjoy ensemble cast projects. You can get a lot of interesting interactions and creating a team allows characters to be specialists whose talents complement each other. The composition of such casts is a ticklish matter, however. A single sex ensemble cast can work (the TV show Barney Miller, for example, or too many military action films to count) but an all-male cast with one token woman presents definite writing challenges. Too often the female character ends up being, well “the female character”. A Smurfette, with no other job than to be female. (The film Galaxy Quest dealt with that trope rather caustically in the person of Tawny Madison.)
Once you have more than one female character, however, they have to become individuals–even if it’s just “the smart one” and “the pretty one.” Will the addition of Scarlet Witch to The Avengers change the composition of the group for the better? I sure hope so.