If any other writer/director had done Avengers: Age of Ultron, there would be minimal critique by the feminist community.
But instead, Joss Whedon did it. Joss Whedon, who created Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenburg, River Tam and Zoe Washburne, and Echo and her many personalities from the Dollhouse. Feminist Icon Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon Who-Should-Have-Done-Better.
Considering the liberties Whedon takes with Marvel’s characters and story lines, maybe he could have done better. I would have loved to see Pepper Pots and Jane Foster in this movie. Scarlet Witch could have been quippier. And Black Widow didn’t need high heels. But let’s get real for a moment.
First, this is not Whedon’s creation alone. He has decades of comic book superhero material to incorporate into these movies. He can depart from established plots, he can change the relationships between some of the characters, but he can’t change so much that it (a) negates the movies made before Whedon was crowned King of Marvel, (b) transforms the characters beyond recognition, or (c) goes outside what corporate has planned or is willing to fund. Black Widow is upset about being sterilized because she is upset about it in the comics — Whedon didn’t make that up himself.
Second, Whedon still had more major female characters with agency and an effect on the story than at least 95% of big budget Hollywood films. Most movies give you one, maybe two ladies, and most of the time they have no real identity outside of “girlfriend” or “mother”. Here we had Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Dr. Helen Cho, with Laura Barton, Maria Hill, and Peggy Carter chillin’ in more minor roles. True, the men ran point on almost everything, but there were usually women around.
(Same with people of color — I do wish the main cast was more diverse, but there were scenes full of black and Asian extras, and that’s really more unusual than it should be.)
Third, our world is sexist.
Well, duh, Your Hipp-ness, the world is sexist. That’s why Joss Whedon was supposed to show us all the way, and not stick a single female character with some woman-trope, like pregnancy or cleaning up after the boys.
The funny thing is that Whedon does show us the way. Black Widow is respected by her fellow Avengers. She’s assumed to be smart and capable, and so are Scarlet Witch and Dr. Cho. When Black Widow is underestimated by Ultron (which makes sense, considering that he just exposed himself to the entire Internet), she rigs up an old radio and brings in the rest of the team, instigating the fight that ends in the failure and death of Ultron.
Sure, there are fewer women on the front lines than men — but hey, that’s just like real life! Laura Barton is home pregnant with the kids while her man goes to war — but hey, that’s just like real life! Black Widow consented to her sterilization but deeply regrets it now — just like the real women who have been through our penal system and “volunteered” for sterilization feel.
I gotta tell you, this scares me a bit. Here I am, sticking my neck out, writing feminist fantasy. But I kick the crap out of my lady characters. They wind up kidnapped, imprisoned, victimized, tortured, marginalized, raped, degraded, underestimated, dismissed. So what is the inevitable complaint going to be? Did I damsel or fridge someone? Did I not give my women enough power? Are there more male characters than female on the battlefield? Am I more comfortable maiming my dudes than my dudettes?
Don’t get me wrong, writers need to keep asking themselves questions like this. Push diversity, leave out or subvert the tropes, and put more women (and people of color, and gay, bi, and trans people) in the thick of your stories. But the whole Fem-terweb shouldn’t be screaming-mad at Joss Whedon right now.
Whedon made an awesome movie that did assume women to be inherently capable, and there are so many popular writers and directors that I cannot say that about.