Since the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, a glut of criticism has been thrown at Joss Whedon for his portrayal of Black Widow. Tuesday, The Daily Beast posted an article calling Ultron's Black Widow (real name Natasha Romanoff, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) a "baby-obsessed flirt." The author meant it as a bad thing--and in doing so, entirely missed the point of the film.
Ultron begins with an action sequence, in which Johansson's character kicks just as much ass as any of the other Avengers. When the job is done, she soothes the Hulk (real name Bruce Banner, portrayed by Mark Ruffalo), reaching out and stroking his massive, green arm with her much smaller hand. This is the first clue that something might be developing between the Hulk and Black Widow.
The article introduces the reader to Black Widow at the celebration after the action. She makes a drink for herself and Banner, and they engage in a tentative flirtation; its tentative nature is what makes the viewer understand its importance. Bruce is slightly dazzled, Natasha slightly uncertain, and when she walks away, Captain America (real name Steve Rogers, portrayed by Chris Evans) approaches. Far from launching "into an explainer on Romanoff's history of 'flirtation,'" as the article would have you believe, he reacts positively to the idea of Bruce and Natasha in a relationship, dismissing her "history" of flirtation as meaningless. Far from coming off as a group of men "taking potshots" at the female member of the group, it came off as understanding that the previous flirtations were, more than anything else, a part of the friendship shared between the group.
Yes, Natasha has flirted with several of the Avengers--and they've all flirted back. The author connotes flirting negatively and then only applies that connotation to the female member of the group. We can't--or we shouldn't--critique the sole female Avenger for behavior exhibited by all of them. Furthermore, flirting is not inherently negative. It's also not inherently sexual; a woman can have a relationship with a man, even a man she flirts with, that is not about sex. We see a demonstration of this in the deep friendship between Natasha and Hawkeye (real name Clint Barton, portrayed by Jeremy Renner). In the first Avengers film, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) assumed Natasha was in love with Barton, despite her denial--in Ultron, we see the truth. She's not in love with Hawkeye; he's her best friend.
The article next claims that Romanoff's infertility becomes the main focus of her journey in Ultron. This idea is at the center of much of the criticism of the film. Romanoff relates her backstory to Banner, which included sterilization as a part of the "graduation ceremony" from an assassin school for girls. She tells him that it makes things simpler--it's one less thing to worry about, and it prevents there ever being the one thing (a child) that could become more important than the mission. She tells him this while he's in the midst of a spiral of self-hatred for the damage he inflicted on a town whilst under the effects of the Scarlet Witch. She tells him this, and she sympathizes, "You're not the only monster on the team." She's not referring to her infertility, per se (although a Black Widow that wants a baby should not, in anyway, be problematic for her as a strong character)--she's referring to that kind of terrifying practicality that has become part of her nature.
That's the real thrust of Ultron--the fine line between being a hero and being a monster. The Hulk, albeit under the influence of the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), destroys a town and kills innocent people. Iron Man creates Ultron (James Spader), leading to the destruction in the movie. Scarlet Witch and her brother, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), begin the movie working with Hydra and teaming up with Ultron, before choosing to act as heroes in the end. Thor is haunted by the possibility that his action or inaction will destroy Asgard, and we see the beginning of Captain America undergoing an identity crisis where he will have to confront the reality that he's not the Steve Rogers that went into the ice all those years ago.
In labeling herself a monster, Natasha is struggling with the same thing every other member of the team is struggling with. Ultron explores what it means to be both a person and a superhero and the moral implications associated with that. People are fallible; superheroes aren't supposed to be. It lays the path for Captain America: Civil War, where we know Steve and Tony will come down on opposite sides of an issue--with each believing their way is the best way to keep people safe from the side effects of having people like Captain America and Iron Man in the world.
The only character who doesn't seem to suffer this reflection is Hawkeye. Surprise, surprise, he also has a secret life that includes two children and a wife who is pregnant with his third. The Daily Beast article would have you believe that because Black Widow is a woman, saving the world isn't enough for her, but it's demonstrably not enough for Barton either--it obviously hasn't been since he joined S.H.I.E.L.D. It's not enough for any of them; Ultron only exists because Tony wants all of them to be able to have more than saving the world.
This concern is not exclusive to Black Widow, nor is she the most extreme example of it. In fact, when she and Banner have the opportunity to get out of dodge, she pushes him (literally) to become the Hulk because she knows the fight isn't over. She assumes she will die, but, as she looks out at the view of the clouds, pragmatically muses there are worse ways to go.
Ultron's Black Widow is no less of a hero for falling in love or liking children. She's a complex character, but that complexity doesn't make her special--and it shouldn't. Complex female characters should be the norm. Black Widow is (was) the only female Avenger. And yet, in Ultron, she is also just another member of the team.
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