By Jugal Mody
Warning: Spoiler alert!
Here’s how the story begins: the Avengers finally recapture Loki’s sceptre from Hydra, and encounter Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – Pietro and Wanda Maximoff – two “enhanced” humans created by Hydra, who hate Tony Stark because his company once sold weapons to terrorists that killed their family. Guided by the power in the sceptre, Scarlet Witch hypnotizes Stark when he retrieves the sceptre and lets him leave with it.
Later, guided by his fears under Scarlet Witch’s hypnosis, Tony Stark discovers extra-terrestrial AI in the sceptre. He harnesses it and then bullies Bruce Banner into helping him use it to bring to life his Star Wars-type army of AI robots that would protect the Earth. This plan backfires when Ultron, the AI that comes to life, prematurely concludes that the Avengers and mankind are keeping the world from being at peace. Ultron announces himself as the antagonist and then attacks the Avengers.
Now that the plot is out of the way, let’s get to counting the women – Scarlett Johannson as Agent Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch, Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill, Linda Cardellini as Laura Barton (Hawkeye’s secret wife), Claudia Kim plays Helen Cho (a world-renowned geneticist) and Hayley Atwell makes a cameo in Cap’s dream reprising her role as Agent Peggy Carter.
There really should have been no excuse for this movie to fail the Bechdel Test, because it had a full deck of named women characters (unlike the first one). But it did.
The thing that director Joss Whedon gets right about this superhero movie is that he shows all the heroes as grown manchildren, and the women characters rather self-consciously “picking up after you boys”.
Black Widow spouts that line (made famous in the trailer) in the first outdoor fight of the second act. But it is the opening scene introducing the Avengers – one after the other, with a stunt and a line – that shows us what Black Widow is made of.
The boys and the girl are out to retrieve Loki’s sceptre. In that array of cocky boy dialogues, Black Widow gives the boys a reality check, asking them if it was taking them longer than it should have to defeat the enemy – thus establishing her maturity.
Wanda Maximoff is introduced in a fashion that almost makes you believe that she is the main antagonist. Right at the end of the first sequence, where Stark retrieves the sceptre, she hypnotizes Stark into seeing a vision that is truly terrifying on a gorgeous scale in 3D.
Agent Maria Hill is introduced with her calling out a pissing contest between Stark and Thor over whose girlfriend is better, smarter and a bigger achiever – since both Pepper and Jane, their respective girlfriends, are too busy to attend the Avengers party.
Dr Helen Cho is introduced with her sexuality in play – when Tony Stark hits on her by inviting her to the Avengers victory party, she brushes him off but ends up accepting the invitation when she finds out that Thor will be there too, because she has a crush on him.
Laura Barton is introduced as a caring mother who tells Clint (Hawkeye) that his team has stopped being a team and they need to find themselves (or some such thing motherly characters say).
Taking the focus away from the spoilt-with-powers and self-centred boys club, Whedon delves into the lives of Hawkeye and Black Widow quite a bit. That provides for a brilliant contrast between the lives of the man and the woman employed by SHIELD.
Hawkeye is helped by his boss (Nick Fury) to secretly maintain a family, away from the eyes of the company and others. He is an effective killer while being a family man with three kids and a wife. Black Widow, on the other hand, has an origin story that involves strange and torturous things including mandatory sterilization to make her “more efficient”. The only moment (it doesn’t qualify for a scene) where two women talk to each other about something other than a man also belongs to Natasha Romanoff, when she and Laura Barton are skyping after Laura has just had a baby, naming her Natasha after her aunt Nat, and Nat calls her “fatty”.
Importantly, in this movie Black Widow and Bruce Banner are romantically entangled. She says she likes him because – and I’m paraphrasing here – he does not enter a pissing contest every time the boys start one and has a self-deprecatory sense of humour.
Good for Black Widow, but I still walked out of the movie hall disappointed in how despite having had ample opportunities to not fail the Bechdel Test, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: Age Of Ultron manages to fail it.