Out of the 22 films currently in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU), only 1 is female-led. Did this get our hopes up?
I went to the theatre on opening weekend to see Iron Man in 2008. When it ended, I felt like much of my real world frustrations had been thrown in my face.
“I’m upset that I paid to see a movie about a sexist, narcissistic, untouchable, billionaire, white man when I interact with people like Tony Stark almost every day,” I told my bewildered friends. What I didn’t say was that I was more upset that the only conversation between the two women in the film is comprised of them trashing each other.
I’m not interested in superhero movies, I told myself. I decided that whatever hype would come from the franchise, the films probably weren’t for me, and I didn’t need the stress of their aftermath.
When Wonder Woman — DC I know, but superhero still — hit the screen, I let my guard down. I was there opening day. Box office records were smashed, and many of us, at least while we were watching, chose to set aside the fact that the storyline relied heavily on Diana’s male love interest. But a female superhero was in the foreground. It felt like the veil had lifted. Execs and producers could no longer deny that women wanted to sit at the table, and in the audience, too. Hey — we like this stuff just as much as you!
A year later Black Panther hit the screen and this felt like a revolution.
Joe Cole, writing with Ryan Coogler who also directed the film, created a brilliant and revitalizing cinematic experience. Black Panther verbalized and visualized colonial patterns and held them accountable. It provided an all-black narrative that celebrated black culture. It put strong, black women at the forefront. It did all of this in a way that not only included its audience members but invited them in, most crucially perhaps, at a time when being black in (North) America means you have an unjust and unparalleled disadvantage because of your race.
Once again, a veil had risen, not only in the realm of the MCU but the industry as a whole. Black Panther took the superhero movie to a new level and demanded industry and audience respect. While I watched it every day of opening weekend in anticipation of what good might possibly come of it, one question surfaced in me: how many veils are we sporting? The response to Black Panther enlightened me to the number of audience members who’d just now found themselves on screen. Who else was being left out?
The following year, when I saw Captain Marvel, I felt like a child who’d opened their Halloween sack after trick-or-treating to find that it was filled only with my favourite chocolate bars.
While much good made up Captain Marvel, it was comprised of more than only its motto which, in itself, is a crucial reminder for girls, womxn, and folx everywhere: when we get knocked down, we get back up — harder, faster, stronger.
Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Lashana Lynch, Akira Akbar — this is the sort of demographic we need to see more on big and small screens alike; to see Carol Danvers’ best friend and foil is a smart, tenacious, black woman with a conscious, independent daughter; to re-discover Carol’s relationship with her unconventional family; to play with the chemistry between Nick Fury, Carol, and Goose.
The film didn’t fall short politically, either — parallels between the Kree and Skrull War exist as comparable to real-world conflict as we, the audience, can interpret.
But most of all, I was floored by the way my body responded to the button on Carol’s relationship with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law’s character); how proud I felt that Hollywood allowed me to witness a female protagonist’s non-violent response to a devastating epiphany in a series of films that notoriously resort to hand-to-hand combat in favour of entertainment. I spent the entire film up to this point feeling like there was something off about Yon-Rogg, but I dismissed it because I, too, can be very practiced in suppressing my own power to comfort men.
I fell into the MCU the same way Natasha Romanoff fell into that pit on Vormir: with purpose and vigour. “Let’s do this,” I said to my partner who gleefully pulled up the list of essential MCU movies to see before Avengers: Endgame.
We spent last month (re)watching 13 films — Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain Marvel, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War — and it was in this viewing that I made concessions for Tony Stark. I loathed him so passionately, I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking of solutions to share with Marvel that would make Tony more likeable but still troubled. To effect my life in such a way meant the writers had very expertly crafted a sexist, narcissistic, untouchable, billionaire, white man and, if that was their only goal, well I’ll give them props for that — but I refuse to believe there isn’t more that could’ve been done to include non-white male viewers in his journey.
It was also in this viewing that I made concessions for all the ways I felt terribly ignored by Marvel. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and even Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)— they’re all either exclusively in the MCU as the girlfriend (or the goal) or their screen time is dominated by scenes depicting their relationship.
Still, I went into Avengers: Endgame full to the brim with hope. The film started remarkably, for someone now invested in the series (and who was also premenstrual, let’s be real). If the best trait about Hawkeye is his love for his family, what could be more devastating than taking that away? I mean no exaggeration when I say I sobbed a little watching the opening scene. Going from hearing a proud father call his daughter “Hawkeye” (IS SHE GONNA BE — ) to their sudden disappearance due to the Thanos snap that has been marinating in our bodies since last year… I… Just…
As I said, I sobbed a little.
And then I politely watched the rest of the film.
Why did I believe Marvel would finally give Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow a fighting chance just because the industry seemed to accept progressive, feminine protagonists now?
Black Widow is a full-fledged original Avenger who dies halfway through the film. Sure, she dies of her own free will, but her death is merely a tool to motivate the male Avengers. Where was her 20-minute funeral? The only consistency about Black Widow’s storyline in the MCU is that it’s divisive and exists only to give her male co-stars and audience a boost.
I wondered if Marvel would get me again, 11 years later, by tricking me into spending the last minutes of this movie mourning a sexist, narcissistic, untouchable, billionaire, white man. With the retirement of Iron Man and Captain America, how much more blatantly can Marvel tell its audience that Black Widow never really had a seat at the table by not even bothering to keep her alive?
Marvel had 8 films to make Natasha Romanoff the mirror for all the women out there who show us that womxn can be commensurate to their colleagues. Who mountain bike, rock climb, and do martial arts because they like the sport, not because their partner does it. She had the potential to represent all the women out there who pay their own bills, who travel alone despite being told not to, who had 3-dimensional vulnerabilities and strengths, who kicked ass at work because they were not only night and day dedicated but had means and talent to make something better.
But the story, at least in this case, came second to shooting schedules. Captain Marvel being filmed after Avengers: Endgame thwarted the opportunity for fully-developed versions of Black Widow and Captain Marvel in the 22nd MCU film. Captain Marvel is absent much of Avengers: Endgame, and doesn’t arrive at the battle until the team seems to require that final nudge. Could we have cut 20 seconds off Captain America fighting Captain America to give Captain Marvel a moment to explore this convenient absence?
Watching Avengers: Endgame, I felt like I was all of a sudden at one of those frat parties I used to attend in my early 20’s except I’m 31 and I dislike those parties and please don’t make me go back because everyone there is just doing the same thing and they have been for years.
I’ll admit that the lineup of female warriors at the top of the third act made me drool and clench my fists all at once but showing up for the battle that includes, literally, everyone alive at the time — except Captain Marvel because she’s the obvious saviour — is not good enough. Seeing Pepper Potts in a suit would’ve had a much more satiating payoff if she’d existed at any other time in the MCU or the film itself as a multi-dimensional human instead of in the shadow of her neglectful husband. We didn’t even get to see her open her gift.
In the land of plenty, Marvel has proven, with two films now — Black Panther and Captain Marvel — that its team knows what needs to be done, and Avengers: Endgame only exemplified that it’s really good at making movies for one type of audience.
Sure, I’ll be at there when Black Widow hits the big screen — but it’ll be to support my female heroes on and off camera. If I don’t, then who will?