So obviously, this is quite possibly the best movie of all freaking time, and like any geek worth her salt I could go on for hours about all the different ways it is amazing. However, this blog is about gender, so I’ll be limiting myself to going on and on about how amazingly gender-conscious Joss Whedon is, and how that translates into the utterly compelling characters millions are even now enjoying.
A lot of Mr. Whedon’s work is about strong women, and Black Widow certainly fits into this larger picture. Black Widow subverts expectations at every turn, uses her ostensible weak positions—her introductory interrogation, her chat with Loki—to manipulate men who think they’re stronger than her. She has powerful reserves of inner power, and is as brave or clever as any other Avenger. Before this movie, I admit I was suspicious of having “normal” people mixed in with superheroes, but she made me eat my words and enjoy doing it.
But the movie is a boys’ club, not in a bad way, but in that most of the chracters are very masculine men. But the movie is as much about showing how weak they are as it is about showing how strong they are, and Whedon uses the combination of larger-than-life masculinized power with utterly human needs to draw characters who feel completely real.
Each of the characters excels at physical, traditionally masculine talents, able to fight as soldiers and kill as strong men. At the beginning of the movie, all of them except for Tony are alone, isolated from everyone. But none of them really fit the “island” image of a hero who needs no one but himself; Banner occupies himself helping Indians in Calcutta slums, Tony and his girlfriend plan how to stop an energy crisis, etc.
The initial tension, which is so layered and fast-paced that I will not even try to analyze it until I’ve seen the movie at least twelve times, is about how they are each drawn out of their comfortable contexts and forced to deal with each other. They have all had to rely on other people from time to time, but to join the Avengers means for all of them to admit that they cannot fit the traditional, isolated ideal of self-sufficient masculinity. It becomes clear on the ship that they must work together, must rely on each other to save or stop them.
More than that, it is not their heroic need to save the world that finally unites them as a team, but rather their shared grief. The pain of Phil’s death, the way it tears their hearts out when they see the bloodstained vintage cards, is what drives them. They aren’t fighting because it’s the right thing to do, or because they need to be the hero (cough*Batman*cough), they are fighting because someone they cared about is dead. And in that need to avenge, come the unity they need.
The final fight, which holy God was the best climax I have ever seen outside of The Lord of the Rings, was a demonstration of the strength and power behind this unity. The heroes have to work together again and again, must stop fighting with one another and just feel how they fit together. They fall into natural roles, Hulk the tank, Black Widow the brains, Captain America the commander. The choreography is such that the heroes never seem to be alone, the camera angles whizzing around New York City keep all of them connected to each other. There is no real final battle between one hero and the movie’s villain, but rather there is a complex and beautiful battle of one team against a horde. And as a team, they are able to do what is necessary and live to tell about it. And hell if I can’t wait to see what they do next.