The Marvel Comics Universe has taken great strides in presenting rounded, believable and diverse female characters. Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American Muslim incarnation of Ms. Marvel; Lady Thor (not the actual character’s name, but one pleasantly free of spoilers) and Falcon taking up Captain America’s Shield. The list goes on. It’s this inclusion of a wider variety of impactful female characters from different walks of life, all being portrayed as capable heroes or villains- which helps draw in and build up readers. But how does this translate to Marvel’s on screen offerings?
Not far behind this trend of more diverse heroes to cheer for, especially in the form of strong leading ladies, are Marvel’s adventures into television. Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are holding their own in terms of representing female characters properly, (rather than them simply playing the role of love interest, mother, sister etc. to a male protagonist, as has so often been the case in the past,) and the upcoming Jessica Jones series is already receiving high praise before even arriving on Netflix.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, still seems to be stumbling when it comes to strong female characters. Some movies feature heroines and villainesses who take command of scenes as well as any of their male counterparts, but too many others play out less like people and more like set pieces.
On one end of the spectrum: Guardians of the Galaxy. Gamora is a kick-ass leading lady. She doesn’t succumb to Star-Lord’s charms, has her own motivations, and masterminds quite a few of her own clever deceptions throughout the film. She is a three-dimensional character, perfectly capable of going toe-to-toe with any of the guys. Only when Drax inexplicably breaks his usual stoic nature to call Gamora a whore (because comedy trumps otherwise-good writing,) was there any break from this particular heroine being an unparalleled powerhouse of Marvel heroism. Opposite her was Nebula, Thanos’ other daughter. Nebula acted as an excellent foil to Gamora, showcasing how evil her green counterpart could have been. Guardians of the Galaxy may be one of Marvel’s greatest successes for superheroines and shows some awareness of the increasing need to create strong female characters.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron felt like a step backwards.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to say how Guardians of the Galaxy is one of its best and only major successes in this field, because Marvel has created a number of less impressive comparison points. Pepper Potts heroically saved Tony Stark on numerous occasions in Iron Man through Iron Man 3. This makes her, and Jane Foster’s, absence in Age of Ultron being dismissed by a single throwaway line all the more infuriating. Tony says that Pepper is off ‘managing his company’, Thor says how Jane is off ‘doing research’, and two major characters are conveniently omitted while the ensemble of tough guys continues to crack skulls and increase its numbers.
The most vexing character treatment the Marvel Cinematic Universe has offered though, is Black Widow. Her initial role was as a S.H.I.E.L.D. infiltrator to Stark Industries to keep an eye on Tony, (for which she seemed over-qualified, after all she is a highly trained master assassin.) Unfortunately she was essentially treated as a piece of eye candy for Tony Stark while he grappled with leftover demons from the first Iron Man movie and as a result, a character with lots of potential essentially became a prop. She was further relegated to retrieving and befriending, the Hulk in The Avengers. There are some positive points in her portrayal though the script improved things once she was reunited with Hawkeye. Her role in the battle in New York was undeniably important as she hijacked Chitauri aircraft and eventually disabled the portal to Earth. Notably, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow was as much of a main character as Steve Rogers.
Audiences can only cheer for so many emotionally damaged guys with special powers and toys, before these movies get dull.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron felt like a step backwards because of these things. Maria Hill makes a brief appearance, but only for the sake of losing her cool when one of the Ultron clones makes an appearance. Black Widow’s connection with the Hulk has been messily transformed into a sort of romantic entanglement, driving sub plots for both characters forward with what felt like lazy writing. Scarlet Witch saw a tremendous amount of development from being a young woman driven by revenge to an Avenger, but this feels like a hollow victory by comparison to how Pepper Potts and Jane Foster were omitted. Equally Maria Hill was reduced to a moment that felt like a punchline and Black Widow’s greatest character growth acted mainly as a means to move other characters’ storylines forward.
The best possible route Marvel could take to better handle its leading ladies in film is to follow the example set by the television shows. Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. successfully created strong ensembles from diverse backgrounds, with characters that have flaws, challenges, strengths, and personal victories. Marvel needs to find a way to strike this balance in its movies if it wants its super hero stories to keep up with the increasing number of films, across all genres, that are creating genuine and rounded female characters. Characters that play a bigger part in the plot than just supporting male protagonists. As such development in this field could prove key if Marvel wish to progress and better their cinematic output. That, and audiences can only cheer for so many emotionally damaged guys with special powers and toys, before these movies get dull.
By Phil Gorski