Joss Wedon is a demi-god among nerds, geeks and pretty much anybody who knows of his name – as it relates to the movies and shows they like. He is the father of cult classic series Firefly and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, he created shows like Dollhouse and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., wrote Toy Story, Alien: Resurrection and wrote for Rosanne, Parenthood and many other television shows.
Some of his most recent work includes writing and directing The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). These Marvel blockbuster titans have done well and were pretty well received by most of the ruling caste of nerds and the plebeians (those that just like action movies) alike. There are mixed reviews of Age of Ultron, many expressing either jubilation over a film well done or the disappointment of the film being the “sophomore slump” of the Avengers movie universe. Overall the median consensus is that it was a great film and a win for Whedon.
There are some voices, however, that have seemed to be broadcasting at a higher decibel, those voices are of people who found parts of the movie highly offensive. This group is made up of men and women, raging feminists and mild-mannered feminists and everyday Joes and Janes. I emphasize the diversity in demographics to make it clear that it isn’t just a group bloodthirsty feminazis pouncing on Whedon, it is many different people. This group seems claims to have two major offensive takeaways from Age of Ultron:
- A tasteless rape joke
- The implied-to-direct suggestion that women who can’t/don’t want to have children are monsters
All of this rage seems to be aimed specifically at two scenes in the film. I had the opportunity to read about these accusations before going to see the movie. I made sure to skim enough to avoid spoilers (thank you to the sites that gave effective warnings) but get the gist of the argument. This allowed me to go into seeing the movie with these issues fresh in my mind so I could make an objective assessment. In case you would like to do the same heed the spoiler alert below and watch the movie. The first issue in question is the use of a joke referencing rape. This happens during a scene when The Avengers and friends are at a party at Stark’s swanky apartment. The second happens a bit later during an intimate and intense dialogue between Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Bruce Banner (The Hulk).
***SPOILER ALERT! – If you have not seen the movie yet stop here
and then come back and finish reading after you have!***
Offense number one: During Stark’s party in his apartment The Avengers crew and good friends are good and sauced (thanks mostly to Thor’s flask of mystery Asgardian booze). They decide to question whether Thor’s hammer can really only be lifted by one that is worthy, or if it is just a parlor trick. They take turns trying to lift it causing a humorous spectacle. When it is Stark’s turn to try, he asks Thor to clarify that if he is able to lift the hammer that would make him the ruler of Asgard, when Thor confirms this fact, Stark makes a comment about how in such a position he would reinstate Prima Nocta (an ancient, and possibly mythical, practice in which the king/ruler invokes his right to deflower a bride before her wedding day). Though the line was delivered in jest and with a smirk it became a major point of contention.
Offense number two: After some trouble the crew needs to lay low and Hawkeye decides to take them to his safe house (which happens to be his house). The rest of the Avengers learn (except Romanoff who already knew) that not only does Hawkeye have a wife but also kids. It is a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting: a god, a bio-engineered super-solider, a billionaire tech-savvy playboy, a brilliant scientist with a big green Mr. Hyde side, a highly skilled assassin, a guy with a bow (whose skill could put Katniss Everdeen to shame) and his wife and kids sharing a meal and playing house. Later Black Widow and Bruce Banner (who have some serious romantic chemistry throughout the film) are alone upstairs and he shares his frustration that he can never have everything that Hawkeye has, the house, the wife, the kids because of his big smashy side. Black Widow, in an attempt to connect shares that she is not able to have kids because of all of the things that were done to her in her intense training/preparation to become an assassin. She finishes her dialogue by asking Banner if he still thinks he is the only one on the team who feels like a monster. This more than the first offense got feathers ruffled.
In fact these two offenses ruffled feathers so much that people almost literally dusted off their pitchforks and lit up torches. Whedon’s twitter was nuked with angry, hate-filled, threats and death wishes. People seemed to want to be able to physically rip out the part of him that has publicly claimed to be a feminist and beat it senseless for his betrayal.
After watching the film as objectively as possible, specifically looking for these two offensive scenes, here is my analysis:
Offense number one: Yes, Prima Nocta (if indeed a thing that happened) was terrible, as is rape in general. It is cowardly and evil and I can definitely see how this scene could have been offensive and triggering. Though, it was the once despicable, now just often irritating Tony Stark saying it and with a sense of levity, it was a bit unnecessary. It definitely would be something Tony Stark would joke about, but I think another (less rapey) line could have worked out better.
Did Whedon advocate rape? No.
Did he use a line that while quasi-witty and somewhat humorous (in that Louis C.K. kind of way) was referencing an ancient practice of systematic rape? Yes.
Was it necessary? No.
Should Whedon be tarred and feathered for writing such a crass line? Depends who you ask I guess, but in reality this should be a resounding No!
Offense number two: I believe this issue rose out of people failing to understand or acknowledge the context of the situation in which the words are spoken. The scene starts with Bruce Banner frustrated and depressed that he can never have a normal life with a family. Even if you are new the Marvel universe and the story of The Hulk and even if you have not seen any of any of the movies about The Hulk , the rest of the movie, up to this point, has given enough explanation as why Bruce Banner can’t have a normal life, simply put: he turns into a big green smashing machine and when in that form it is almost impossible to control him and bring him back. Though he has gotten better at controlling his anger and keeping the beast in its cage, it is a reality he has to live with. Therefore when he is sharing his frustration with Black Widow he is basically saying he can’t have a wife or kids because of obvious reasons (obvious to pretty much anyone who has at least been watching the movie from the start). Then Black Widow opens up and tries to create an emotional connection to him by sharing the fact that she can’t have kids either. Banner looks as surprised/confused as I felt, not knowing much about the story of Black Widow. With no films to tell her tale, anyone who has not read the comics is as oblivious to her past as Banner (I was in that camp for sure).
She goes on to explain that as a part of the processes of making her an assassin, the people that trained her took away her ability to have kids. This (among other terrible things done to her and done by her) was so she could focus wholly on the missions she was sent on with no distraction. Essentially they had built, and she had become. a killing machine that was not tied down to things or easily distracted. So when she looks at all that she has done, all that she gave up and all that was taken from her, she too feels like a monster. There are a few sentences and a broadening of the subject from the line where she says she can’t have kids and the one where she asks Banner if he still thinks he’s the only one that feels like a monster. From most of the rabble I picked out that people drew a direct line between her saying she can’t have kids directly to the last line (which they reworded to say she was saying that she was in fact a monster, not that she felt like one). Is this also a case of where a different phrase could have been used? Maybe, but it was a pivotal scene in the growing relationship between Banner and Romanoff. I think of the two, this issue was taken out of context and an overreaction. Ultimatly the scene was too short for such an intense intimate moment of character development. its brevity causes her dialogue to seem incomplete and undermined. Finally we get to know some more about the only strong female presence in the films and it is condensed into a few sentences of her trying to relate to The Hulk.
In the grand scheme these two issues (as offensive as they are deemed to be) are not enough to label the film or Joss Whedon offensive and sexist/misogynist. Any piece of art is going to come under tough criticism and be picked apart, but the level of venom the arrows being shot in Whedon’s direction were dipped in seems a bit harsh and over the top. I find it hard to believe that a man who has a track record of strong, empowered female lead roles and open criticism of sexism in the industry would intend on these scenes being purposefully offensive and belittling to women. I say we give him the benefit of the doubt, douse the torches and hang the pitchforks back on the wall.