There are a number of things that happened over the last few days, following the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. First, it made crap tons of money. Second, it sparked a concerningly complicated debate about Black Widow. Then, Joss Whedon quit Twitter, because the internet sucks today.
We aren’t going to talk about the first thing, or the third thing. We’re going to talk about the second thing, because there’s been a lot of anger over a specific scene that I think is unnecessary, and misdirected. Marvel has a Black Widow problem. It’s a big one. They don’t put enough emphasis on her character, don’t allow certain storylines set up in the first Avengers film to play out as well as they should, they shoe-horn relationships into her story because they have given themselves limited options, they have little to no Black Widow merchandise, and they refuse to give her a solo movie despite her popularity among both male and female audiences. Basically, they severely undervalue what could be a great character.
But that’s not what the conversation seems to be focused on these days. This is …
WARNING: SPOILERS … PROCEED WITH CAUTION
So, about halfway through the movie, after the team gets whammied by Scarlet Witch and made to see the worst things about themselves and their worst fears, etc., they all head back to Hawkeye’s super secret farmhouse with his extra-super secret family to deal with the fallout. They each do so in their own way. Black Widow, since she’s now got an established relationship with Bruce Banner/Hulk, ends up having a heavy conversation with him.
To refresh your memory, Natasha’s big scary vision was all about her time in the Red Room, leading up to her “graduation.” We’ve seen over the course of our time with the character that a lot of her personal issues, and much of her motivation to work with SHIELD, comes from all she had to do as an assassin. This is best characterized in her conversation with Loki back in the first Avengers film:
Natasha Romanoff: It’s really not that complicated. I’ve got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.
Loki: Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Dreykov’s daughter, Sao Paulo, the hospital fire? Barton told me everything. Your ledger is dripping, it’s GUSHING red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything? This is the basest sentimentality. This is a child at prayer… PATHETIC! You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code. Something that makes up for the horrors. But they are a part of you, and they will never go away!
By the time we meet her in Age of Ultron, Natasha is no longer the cheeky no-holds-barred ass kicker she was in the first film. SHIELD has been gutted, HYDRA was always on the inside and she never saw it. Add to that the fact that they seem to be in constant battle with enemies that never end, and all the death and destruction, and at this point she’s tired. Then she gets whammied and all those terrible things she’s been running from and trying so hard to scrub out are back and at the forefront of her mind, and it’s no surprise she offers to run away with Banner.
Here’s where things get confusing for some people. It’s at this point in the conversation that we learn that the “graduation” ceremony she had to endure took the form of sterilization. She cannot have kids. As she puts it, “It makes it easier. Even the killing.”
I’ve seen a number of blog posts and articles where people seem to focus a little too much on this one moment, finding it an insulting turn for her character. Taken by itself, sure. Making a badass assassin into another woman upset that she can’t have kids (instead of choosing not to have them) might be insulting … if that were the whole story, but it’s not. Natasha doesn’t offer up this information out of the blue. She doesn’t say, specifically say, that this is why she’s a monster. It’s only part of the story.
Instead, Natasha offers up this dark part of herself in response to Banner’s claim that they can’t be together because he can’t have kids, because he is a monster. This is her response to that. This is her way of telling him, not only that she trusts him with the deepest darkest parts of herself and her past, but that they are in many ways the same. His struggles are her struggles.
Black Widow is not sad she can’t be a mother. She’s upset that something was taken away from her. She sees this sterilization process as another, lasting, noticeable mark on her life left by those people and that past she is trying so hard to scrub out. The Red Room took away an essential part of her life, of her womanhood, of her person. They took away a very important choice for her. She is an incomplete person, not because she can’t be a mom, but because something was taken, and it made the killing easier.
She has red on her ledger. She will never get it out.