Marvel Needs Women

Originally posted at My Life as a Doge. I’ve put it here as well as part of a notion that I might review all of the MCU releases to date now that I’m not restricting myself to unequivocally bad movies.

The MCU's Black Widow is awesome, but she is also one of only two core Phase 1 Avengers not to get her own movie, and has notably different hair in each appearance, where the boys seem fine with a single iconic do*. (Poster for The Avengers, (c) Marvel Studios)
The MCU’s Black Widow is awesome, but she is also one of only two core Phase 1 Avengers not to get her own movie, and has notably different hair in each appearance, where the boys seem fine with a single iconic do*. (Poster for The Avengers, (c) Marvel Studios)

It is not infrequently noted that it is a crying shame that the cinematic juggernaut that is the MCU doesn’t have more female headliners, and just as common for such rejoinders to be offered as: “But it’s got Black Widow,” or “The Captain Marvel movie is in the works,” or “Jane Porter is a strong female character, even if she doesn’t do much fighting,” and all of these are true, but it is still the case that there has yet to be a female headliner. As awesome as many of them are, all of Marvel’s female characters to date are supporting roles. The most common response when the absence of female characters in any given film is mentioned is ‘but this film is about [male character X], and you can’t hold this movie responsible for the general dearth of female leads in Hollywood’. This is, as far as it goes, true, but the thing about the MCU is that it isn’t just one film, it’s twelve films, with another ten already scheduled for Phase 3, and three ongoing TV series with four more in the works (and in fairness, two of those – Agent Carter and Jessica Jones have female leads,) plus one shots, tie-ins and a colossal presence in the cultural zeitgeist.

This (plus their own chequered history) is why is is incumbent on Marvel to take a lead here. Received wisdom is that a female lead won’t sell a comic book movie, but the MCU has sold The Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man, and if you can do that, you can certainly shift product on a Black Widow movie. As noted above, there is one extant series and one incoming with female leads, but the big screen is still the big screen, and the MCU doesn’t have the excuse that this is one movie that happens to be about a dude. When you plan your movies four years and ten pictures in advance, you can make some serious, game-changing choices. Ant-Man is a film about fathers, which is why Hope van Dyne doesn’t get to be the Wasp until the – if you’ll pardon me – stinger**, but while the film on its own weathers that decision, as part of the MCU it is much less forgivable not to have brought the character to the foreground.

I mean, don't get me wrong; I respect the progress represented by having a woman teach a man to fight and not have him end up better than her, I just think they could be going further. (Still from Ant-Man, 2015, (c) Marvel  Studios)
I mean, don’t get me wrong; I respect the progress represented by having a woman teach a man to fight and not have him end up better than her, I just think they could be going further. (Still from Ant-Man, 2015, (c) Marvel Studios)

And ultimately that’s where Marvel is falling down. They have the characters, they’re just keeping them in the background, and even when they get to do awesome it is in support of someone else and with that someone’s name on the marquee. Pepper Potts supports Iron Man, Jane supports Thor, and Black Widow is the eternal second stringer. Peggy Carter is Cap’s best gal. Darcy had to be saved by her intern’s intern in The Dark World. Hope fits into that same mould; by being the support to her father and trainer to Scott Lang, she is a strong character who is held back from taking the lead. On the plus side, she never really needs to be rescued.

But where are the true leading ladies, the heroines at the point of the spear? Well, we have Agent Peggy Carter, who is awesome in late 40s chic, and the forthcoming Jessica Jones (which may in fact feature an honest to gosh superhero, Luke Cage, in a supporting role prior to his own series.) We have Melinda May and Bobbi Morse as the top combatants in Agents of SHIELD, and even Skye is marginally more tolerable as Daisy, but it’s still Coulson’s show and part of why I dislike Lance Hunter is as the living embodiment of the need to put a white man of action somewhere front and centre***. And of course the Widow. Add in Sif from the Thor movies and that’s a fine ensemble for movie – or movies – of their own. Yet we have nothing on the cards until Captain Marvel in 2018.

Okay, if we want to do this right we might want to talk about the outfit... (Image from Marvel.com, (c) Marvel)
Okay, if we want to do this right we might want to talk about the outfit… (Image from Marvel.com, (c) Marvel)

I guess part of this comes from the source material; there are far fewer a-list female superheroes than male (Marvel.com’s ‘Women of Marvel’ page categorises all of seven iconic female characters****,) and in particular most of Marvel’s options are mutants, belonging to the forbidden X-Men franchise (not that that stopped them with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver*****.) It can not be said that the MCU doesn’t take chances, however, (Ant-Man, Guardians) and it’s hard to accept that, say, a movie featuring the mutant Firestar would be that much tougher to sell than one about a gang of competent misfits including a foul-mouthed raccoon and a walking tree. Not only that, but the MCU has had a marked influence on the comics it sprang from, so more women headlining the movies could translate into more women headlining comics: Win!

From the perspective of Marvel, there is an even bigger reason to push forward a female headliner: As it stands, DC are going to beat them to it with Wonder Woman. Aside from the fact that DC has never been a bastion of feminist sensibility, Wonder Woman is also a notoriously troubled solo property; hugely influential and wildly successful as part of the various incarnations of the Justice League, but she hasn’t had a successful live-action screen outing since Linda Carter hung up her satin tights, which is pretty much as if Batman had been a no-show since Adam West. Maybe Marvel would like to see Wonder Woman fail, but it would make it that much harder to make any other female-led comic book movie, given the tunnel vision for which studio executives are famed. Either way, win or lose, Wonder Woman will be highly influential on the future of the MCU, whether as a win for DC or a loss for superhero movies as a whole. One might have thought that Marvel would want to get out in front of that.

Perhaps most compellingly of all, I contend that the MCU should have more female characters, and black characters, and queer characters, because they can. Because now is the time when the studio has the potential to bring it home, and make the continuity that was spawned by metaphors for exclusion and prejudice a place to take a stand for equality again, instead of pandering for the bottom line. It’s all well and good saying that the X-Men represent all minorities, but it doesn’t really make up for the fact that in the otherwise excellent First Class the black guy died and the Latina turned evil.

The 'bad present' contingent in Days of Future Past are trying a little harder (which is more than can be said for Iceman's beard,) but then we remember that Wolverine (the ultimate manly superhero) was given the starring role  originally taken by reader-liaison everygirl Kitty Pride. (Poster for X-Men: Days of Future Past, (c) 20th Century Fox
The ‘bad present’ contingent in Days of Future Past are trying a little harder (which is more than can be said for Iceman’s beard,) but then we remember that Wolverine (the ultimate manly superhero) was given the starring role originally taken by reader-liaison everygirl Kitty Pride. (Poster for X-Men: Days of Future Past, (c) 20th Century Fox

Obviously, X-Men and the Sony Spider-Man movies are their own thing unconnected to the MCU, and I don’t mean to go into them here except to say not falling, but doing motherfuckers******!

And that’s what I want to see in the MCU – female characters, not falling, but doing; not helping, but leading; neither hogging the limelight from the male characters, nor shrinking from it, but participating and contributing as full equals. There are ten movies planned in Phase 3; one has a female headliner. It should be more, and I sincerely hope that by 2019 it is.


* And then there’s the whole ‘infertile = monster’ thing in Age of Ultron, which I think is largely a result of conflating a couple of unrelated points due to lack of screen time, but is still problematic.

** I know some people are sad that Cassie Lang is too young to be brought in as Stature for at least a decade, but that’s more of a nerd discussion.

*** The race thing is a whole separate issue, but again we’ve got lots of supporting non-whites and the likes of Luke Cage and Black Panther coming up to play lead. shame about Spider-Man.

**** Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Medusa, Ms Marvel, Scarlet Witch, She-Hulk and Storm (http://marvel.com/characters/list/996/women_of_marvel). Take that Invisible Woman! For comparison, there are 10 ‘top heroes’, two of whom are Black Widow and Captain Marvel.

***** Because the twins are also part of the Avengers franchise in the comic continuity.

****** Seriously; I wrote that post just over a year ago and the idea of an Ant-Man movie was laughable then.

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