Here's why Marvel's most random pairing actually works.
Forget Ultron and Vision and the Infinity Stones, because there is something much more prominent and interesting in The Avengers: Age of Ultron that we need to talk about: Black Widow and the Hulk. (Bruce and Natasha? Brutasha? BruceNat? Whatever you want to call it, we need to discuss it.)
Obviously, MAJOR SPOILERS ahead if you haven’t seen the film:
At the beginning of Age of Ultron, the Avengers are unleashing all of their Avenger-y type power on Baron von Strucker’s Hydra base in Sokovia. Things go boom. Motorcycles go flying. The twins escape. Hawkeye gets wounded. Somewhere in between all this, we learn that Black Widow and the Hulk have developed a rather intimate relationship… the kind of relationship that involves a lullaby and a few tender touches, all of which apparently help the Hulk transform safely back into normal, nerdy Bruce Banner.
But wait, there’s more! The two characters share a quiet moment in the quinjet afterwards where Widow tries to connect with him about the battle, and then there’s some major flirting on her part during the big victory party. Banner is kind of half confused and half cautious (and also half daft, as Cap has to point out, “I’ve seen Natasha flirt—up close—this isn’t that.”) After all, thinks Banner, why should anyone want to be with him when he’s a volatile monster who could snap at any second? Widow disagrees—all of her friends are killers and fighters, but Banner is someone who tries to avoid the fight despite the fact he’s the most powerful person on the team. That hesitancy and fear of exploiting his true super-potential makes him intriguing to her.
In its two hour and twenty-something minute running time, Ultron takes us through a bunch of different situations where it’s clear that Widow is trying to show her interest in the Big Guy, eventually culminating in two significant moments. One of those moments happens in Hawkeye’s farmhouse, when Banner, still reeling from how he acted while in “Scarlet Witch mode,” suggests running away. Widow suggests they run away together, because there’s no way they can ever have a normal life—or a normal family. Another moment is near the end of the film when, after being rescued from Ultron, Banner tries to get her to avoid the fight with him by telling her she’s done enough. “So we just disappear?” asks Widow, with a small amount of hope. Not exactly. But the two end up sharing a kiss and afterwards, Widow pushes Banner off a cliff in order to get the Hulk back so they can return to the fight. She then tells him to “go be a hero.”
The Avengers save the city (with the help of Nick Fury and a resurrected helicarrier) and during one of the high points of the battle, Hulk helps get Widow to safety… before taking off again to attack Ultron, who is trying to get away in a rogue quinjet. After the battle is over, Widow contacts Hulk via the comm on the quinjet that Hulk has commandeered and starts her lullaby talk-down. But her words seem to fall on deaf ears: Banner switches off the transmission, refusing to answer. Adding insult to injury: he can’t be tracked because the quinjet he’s riding in is still in Stark’s stealth mode, and as the movie ends, Widow’s left alone with her feelings.
Female treatment in the MCU aside, there’s been a lot of discussion about who Black Widow should be with (if she should be with anyone.) The Avengers had her leaning heavily towards a relationship with Hawkeye, while Winter Soldier played up a possible romance with Cap. And now, in Ultron, she seems to have found shared solace in the Hulk.
Black Widow and Hulk have always had an interesting relationship. In Avengers, she was sent to recruit him, a connection which set the stage for a mutual mistrust underscored by Widow’s fear of “the other guy.” By the end of the movie, Banner realizes how to safely embrace his alter ego, and the two seem to come to a mutual understanding following their brutal fight on the Helicarrier. But aside from a few group moments and the first part of the movie, that’s pretty much all we see in terms of their connection. Despite what Avengers showed, their new relationship as a whole was one that seemed to come out of the blue, and it wasn’t exactly the most popular choice for a coupling. But weirdly enough, it’s a relationship that actually kind of… makes sense.
I should stop here and mention that I’m not someone who is trying to convince people to accept this duo (though I’ve been a big fan of the friendly pairing of Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson during this press tour.) In fact, I’m very much a Hawkeye/Black Widow fan, and even saw the potential of Cap/Widow when it was presented. But it’s hard to be a superhero and also have a relationship. There’s the lifestyle and the secrecy and the activities and the pressure of always being needed. There’s the normal stuff, too—the emotions, the trust issues, the connections—all of which are heightened tenfold. And then there’s the damage—the emotional and psychological quirks and flaws that go hand-in-hand with a savior mentality. Yet the Marvel Cinematic Universe is full of women who are in relationships or who have strong feelings for men… women who also, more often than not, contribute mightily to the story. (Pepper in Iron Man 3, Jane in The Dark World, Peggy in Captain America.) There has been backlash from those who have categorized Widow’s latest relationship with the Hulk as something that undermines her character, suggesting that pairing her up romantically has also made her someone incapable of being the strong, proficient leader that we saw come to fruition between The Avengers and Winter Soldier.
But Black Widow fights! In fact, Black Widow does a heck of a lot in this film. She’s essential in all the big team battles, she gets in the thick of the fight during the final act, and she helps save people. She gets to use her nifty new batons and suit to help kill some robots. While captured, she cobbles together a transmission system to send a code to her partner, which is how the Avengers even know where to find her (and Ultron.) She rides around on a motorcycle (that drops out of a moving quinjet) and is instrumental in helping Cap hijack the case carrying Vision. In fact, the only time we truly see her look “helpless” is after Scarlet Witch’s vision kicks in, and Thor and Cap are in the same boat.
Black Widow is one of the most developed characters of the MCU, but she still remains something of an enigma. We now know much more about her past, though certain things referenced in earlier films (Sao Paolo, Budapest) still remain vague. And given the fact that she’s so guarded, we’re still not really sure if what we’ve seen so far is the “real” Widow, or just another mask that she’s wearing to suit her purposes. (The closest we’ve probably come to seeing her let down her guard is the Avengers Hawkeye/Widow scene after the Helicarrier attack, and the Winter Soldier Cap/Widow scene after the explosion.) We’ve never seen a moment where she’s allowed to figure out what she wants for herself.
At the end of Winter Soldier, Black Widow leaves Cap and Falcon with the intention of re-establishing her identity. When we pick up in Ultron, it appears that whatever she’s been doing with the team—including the exploration of a potential relationship with Banner—is finally allowing her that chance. Black Widow is growing. She’s learning what she wants, and also learning what she can’t have. For the first time, she’s taking control of her life and trying to figure out how to be someone other than an assassin or an Avenger. She’s doing what every normal person does at some point in their life: trying out a relationship, and essentially watching it fall apart when it doesn’t work out. She’s never had something of her own before. And now, after four movies and a lot of different situations, she’s trying to take this one small connection and make it into something personal.
Come on. That’s a great way to further her character.
It helps that the relationship with Hulk isn’t one that gets thrown together and stays in the same place; it’s a constantly evolving connection that’s about as messy as you’d expect from any two people trying to navigate their feelings. For one thing, Banner’s not entirely on board with her flirtation. He’s nervous and he’s wary and at first he doesn’t even see the attraction. It makes him challenge Widow’s feelings for him, telling her that he can’t trust himself not to Hulk-out and hurt her, and that he’s so self-destructive there’s no way he could ever have a truly healthy relationship. And this only makes Widow fight more as she tries to convince him that no matter what he thinks of himself, she trusts him, because she sees someone that she feels connected to.
When it’s all said and done in Ultron, love isn’t something that’s on the table for either character…at least, not right now. The groundwork seems to have been laid for something more, though, and it’s an interesting place to leave the two characters considering that we leave everyone else pretty stable, relationship-wise. Hawkeye heads home to his farm, following through on his promise to his wife that he’ll take things a little easier. Cap realizes that he’s become a different guy, and that he’s just not ready to do the settling-down thing. Tony, on the other hand, is intrigued by Hawkeye’s simple life and wants to settle down with Pepper, while Thor is comfortable with Jane and her Nobel-Prize winning awesomeness. The Hulk/Widow romance isn’t necessarily going to be something that will be tied up in the next film. Or the film after. Or even the film after that. (Coincidentally, there’s also no Black Widow stand-alone movie or a stand-alone Hulk movie to explore this in.) All of which gives us plenty of options to explore Widow’s character in a more thorough way, and maybe expand on her even further… with new dynamics.
And look, it’s not like Widow’s in a particularly bad place at the end of the film. Sure, she’s upset that something didn’t work out, but she’s not rocking back and forth crying. She’s figuring out how to move on. And when we leave her, she’s basically doing what she knows best: helping to train new recruits Scarlet Witch, War Machine, Falcon, and Vision. She’s being sent super-cute photos of Hawkeye’s new baby. She’s learned what she wants, she’s tried to navigate her own life, and she’s found that it’s harder than she thought—but she’s not going to let that make a difference. In short, she’ll be okay.
And hey, maybe Banner will send her a postcard.