(Spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron, but for some of you, this is probably very old news.)
When I was in college, I took a creative writing seminar. The format was one three-hour class a week, and the dozen or so students in it wrote a short story for each session, printed copies for everyone, and passed them around to be read before the next session.
So every week, we produced a new story and got feedback on the previous one.
One of my classmates wrote this zany little plot about a guy who was paid to guard a billboard, one of the big ones you see on the highway. I don’t remember why–I think it was something controversial that had been vandalized previously so the organization hired him to guard it. In a way, the premise seemed preposterous, especially when the unmarked black helicopters showed up, but the tone of the piece was serious, very matter-of-fact. Overall, we all (professor included) considered it to be a strong story.
For our final assignment/exam, the last week of class, we were told to revise one of our previous stories instead of writing a new one, based on the feedback we’d received.
My classmate chose that particular story to revise and managed to make it worse, according to the professor, by adding one line of dialogue addressed to the main character, Mr. Billboard Bodyguard:
I didn’t catch that, when I read the new version and put together my critique. I was woefully inexperienced at picking apart stories to see what made them tick, and as soon as the professor launched into what I can only describe as a diatribe, a light bulb burst in my brain. It can only take one line to ruin a story.
Having a character question the mental stability of the protagonist put the entire narrative in a different light, when the author clearly hadn’t meant it to. The unbelievable plot we were originally forced to accept by the serious tone of the piece, reporting everything as if it were fact, came completely unraveled by the suggestion of paranoia. The narrator became unreliable, so nothing could be viewed as real, which altered the fundamental intention of the story.
I hadn’t thought about this in years, and then, I watched Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which, on the whole, I thought was a decent movie. But I only saw it a few weeks ago–my husband and I have embarked on a project to watch all the MCU films in order, because I’d only seen a few, and out-of-order at that, so some of them made NO SENSE WHATSOEVER. When it came out, I did hear vague rumblings on the Internet about the movie’s treatment of Black Widow, but since I wanted to avoid spoiler territory, I didn’t know what, specifically, the issue was.
Comparing her forced sterilization to Bruce Banner’s Hulkitude, calling herself a monster? For shame, Joss Whedon (both director and screenwriter). For shame.
I see what the intention was, and I don’t entirely disagree with it. BW was trying to connect with Banner by revealing an aspect of herself, her body, that caused her emotional pain, that was outside of her control. On those levels, presented with that reasoning, there are parallels between her and the Hulk. It could have worked.
But simplifying all of that into a single line: “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”
Directly equating an inability to have children with being a monster? Not cool, Joss Whedon. I see now why you lost some of that feminist street cred you were famous for (though arguably didn’t always deserve, even before this.)
Now, what that line did to her character doesn’t undermine the entire movie the way the line about paranoia did my classmate’s short story, but I hope my point comes through. These types of game-changers should be used sparingly and intentionally. If you want to throw the story on its head with a twist, go for it, but do it on purpose!
Because when something slips by you like that, it could be the line that ruins everything.