It’s late Tuesday night; it must be time for me to write about superheroes or feminism or something again! (Having a deadline means never getting to have nothing to say.) Fortunately for me, my son and my boyfriend go to bed at roughly the same time these days, so I have the time and space to really unfold what I’m thinking. And right now, as threatened, I’m going to write about the place where feminism and superheroes collide. Just as a heads up, here be spoilers for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) finished her arc in Ant-Man with the phrase, “It’s about damned time,” I agreed. Passionately. While I could see why her father was trying to protect her from the dangers her mother had suffered, the fact remained that she was the obvious choice to be in the Ant-Man suit, and he didn’t let her use it. She could communicate with the ants if anything better than he could. She was skilled in martial arts. She was intelligent. Educated. Aware of the ins and outs of the company. Mature. That last, incidentally, being pretty rare among superheroes of the MCU. It’s, what, her and Captain America (Chris Evans)? But no. Her father had to go find some random guy he couldn’t even be sure would agree and had to resort to entrapping and blackmailing.
So why did it take until the post-credits scene before we even got a suggestion that Hope might be the Wasp? Note, she doesn’t put on the suit. Note, the suit leaves a heck of a lot of bare skin. But we get to see her given it as a gift from her daddy, not because she’s clearly earned it but because he has resolved his issues enough to let her be a person now.
We are now up to four superhero women of the MCU. Four. There are some female X-Men, but Jean Grey of course exists to die in heroic sacrifice and produce angst in all the men around her. Kitty Pryde wasn’t allowed to follow her own comic book arc. Mystique likes to run around naked because empowerment, and Emma Frost likewise. And we’re pretty well running out of female X-Men, aren’t we? And over on the DC side of things, they haven’t even managed a live-action Wonder Woman since the ’70s, during which time we’ve gone through how many Batmans?
This, incidentally, is the main reason I’m going to focus on Marvel. There’s something to focus on. I could, I suppose, write a treatise on the many faces of Lois Lane, and the Batman movies usually have a woman he can be tortured over. I’m given to understand the Green Lantern got a love interest, but that movie looked terrible and anyway I don’t like Ryan Reynolds. Marvel seems to be trying, I guess, but they’re failing so badly that it starts to seem deliberate.
The upswing of Marvel films begins with X-Men, a mere fifteen years ago. And, yes, a large chunk of the focus of that was on Anna Paquin as Rogue. However, the main focus was on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and that, as the trilogy progressed, meant Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Who is, let’s be honest, boring. This is in part because she’s never allowed to develop a personality of her own. Especially in the movies, she exists for two reasons. She is a bone of contention between Wolverine and Cyclops (James Marsden), and she is a supernatural force of pure destruction. Neither of those require much character development.
The Spider-Man movies get a bit of a pass, because Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery is predominantly male. Certainly most of the ones more casual fans care about. And they did reduce the number of women inexplicably fixated on a dweebish student, which is something. However, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) still ends up romantically involved with three different characters over the course of the trilogy, and let’s remember that her life is rewritten on Peter’s whim. She even seems to get engaged to a man she doesn’t really love because she’s trying to show Peter that she’s not going to wait for him forever. The remaining female characters likewise exist more or less on Peter’s whim except for Rosalie Octavius (Donna Murphy), who exists to die.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, however, the one with the most opportunities to break out of the “women don’t matter” attitude, and therefore it is the most irritating that no one running things seems to have any interest in making sure it does so. I mean, I like Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) a lot. She has pretty much all the same attributes as Hope van Dyne except the martial arts thing. Well, and communicating with ants. But she can get through to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) more often than anyone else, and that’s got to be at least as difficult.
The name? That’s not the screenwriters’ fault; I’ve said for some time now that Stan Lee should never have been allowed to name characters, because if they weren’t alliterative, they were usually some sort of terrible joke. (“Betty Ross”? Seriously?) I also firmly believe that screenwriter Justine Theroux was right, and no matter what qualifications she brought to the table, the press would refer to her takeover as CEO as “Tony Stark gave his company to his girlfriend.”
The thing, though, is that I don’t think the viewers are supposed to see it that way. If anything, it’s “Tony Stark gave his company to his nanny.” Pepper is completely capable. No, she might not be quite up to wearing the suit when she ends up doing so in the third movie, but that’s about the only thing she isn’t shown as capable of doing.
Betty Ross (Liv Tyler)? Okay, so I wish they’d had Jennifer Connelly still in the role, since that was one of the only aspects of the Ang Lee version that I liked. Still, Betty is intelligent, capable, and determined. She still loves Bruce, but she’d rather get on with her life than wait for him, all things considered. She’ll go with him when he comes back, but I think there’s more to leaving her out of The Avengers than just having to deal with the fact that we’d switched Hulks again. I think Betty is off living her own life, and I don’t blame her for it.
I could go on like this. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), of course. The girlfriends of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are usually capable. Usually intelligent. Usually educated above average; two of these women, after all, have PhDs, at least if I’m remembering the details of Betty correctly. These are women who, in their own stories, would be women to look up to.
The problem? They aren’t in their own stories. All of these women are in men’s stories. They’re all love interests. That’s what they exist for. Yes, they all do other things that move the plot along, but when you get right down to it, they’re things for the Avengers to banter about, not women with agency in their own movies.
And then, we hit the wall that is Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Her first appearance was in Iron Man 2. She was, to be blunt, SHIELD’s spy on Tony Stark. She caught the public interest, and she’s been in three more MCU movies since then. She’s slated to be in two more. Not counting post-credit scenes, she has been in more MCU arcs than anyone but Stan Lee and Samuel L. Jackson. Naturally, fans—male and female—started to campaign for a Black Widow movie.
And were told no. No, and no, and no again. Oh, she’ll probably continue appearing in other characters’ movies. But, no, there would not be a Black Widow movie. There is talk now of one, apparently dating to last year, but there is no Black Widow movie slated until after 2019. The only movie starring a female until then will be Captain Marvel.
Arguably worse, Black Widow and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) of Guardians of the Galaxy are routinely left off the merchandise. Little girls who love superheroes are more likely to find merchandise with the Avengers logo than with Black Widow. Heck, browsing Amazon, I found a set of “Avengers” masks for sale offering Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Spider-Man, and Batman. Batman! Or a set of cupcake toppers featuring an array of Marvel and DC heroes, plus someone I couldn’t identify in what appears to be a green diving suit and a cape. No Wonder Woman or Black Widow or Rogue, though. Even Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) seems slightly more likely to appear on merchandise.
In the end, the problem with how Marvel treats female characters seems to be that, with few exceptions—I haven’t talked much about Agent Carter, mostly because I haven’t seen all of it—women are allowed to be strong and intelligent and educated and driven and all sorts of desirable things, but they aren’t allowed to have agency. Their stories aren’t being told. Even Peggy Carter is mostly seen through her relationships with Captain America and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Gamora? Working for her foster father and won over by a team full of men. And a tree. And a raccoon. Both of whom are more likely than she is to make it onto T-shirts, even in group pictures.