Do female heroes have a problem in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Yes and no.

Scarlett Johansson: Image provided by imdb/Marvel

Warning, some mild spoilers follow.

On the one hand, for a franchise that will comprise nearly a dozen movies by the end of this summer, there have only been three female heroes in the mix. Prior to the just released Avengers: Age of Ultron, that number was two. That’s not a great mix.

On the other hand, the female heroes that have appeared are pretty badass. Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) are strong, active characters. They’ve each gotten good spotlights in various movies, even if none of them was a solo title character.

Zoe Saldana: Image provided by imdb/Marvel

The MCU films have also boasted some strong supporting female characters. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the Iron Man movies, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in the Thor films and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in Captain America: The First Avenger weren’t helpless damsels waiting for their boyfriends to save them. When they got in trouble, they weren’t passive. They were full participants in saving themselves. And in helping bring down the bad guys. First Avenger went a step farther and presented Peggy as an experienced soldier, while Cap was the noob who needed to learn how to fight. As great as those ladies often were, though, they weren’t the stars of their movies and their emotional journeys were presented as adjunct to those of the male leads.

After Age of Ultron, there’s been a lot of discussion on the web about women in superhero movies, both in general and in in the MCU. Some fans were disappointed with a scene in Ultron where Black Widow discussed her inability to have children. In the view of some, that reduced Natasha to a baby-obsessed stereotypical female movie type.

I can see why having one of the few examples of a strong female hero in a genre lacking them discuss children could be a red flag. Linda Holmes at NPR has a nice discussion about how it’s not the topic itself, but the fact that there are so many other things to do with a character like Natasha, who represents a rare resource in comic book movies.

I’d like to point out a couple of things about that scene, though. First, it’s not like Natasha just dropped that bit of info into a conversation out of nowhere. It wasn’t “Phew, we survived that killer robot attack, now let’s talk about my ovaries.” In fact, Natasha wasn’t even the one who brought up children.

What happened was that Natasha had initiated a discussion with Bruce Banner, the alter ego of her teammate, the Hulk. She wanted to address their mutual attraction and see if there was anywhere to take it. Bruce was the one who went all drama queen and insisted that he “couldn’t give” children to Natasha because of his Hulk issues.

Elizabeth Olsen: Image provided by imdb/Marvel

Instead of bitch-slapping Bruce for assuming that when an intelligent adult woman with a demanding job initiates a discussion about a potential relationship that her endgame is reproduction, Natasha instead shared a difficult piece of her past. The conclusion of her spy training had included a forced sterilization. Natasha never even said she wanted to have children. She merely noted, in response to a point from Bruce that jumped several steps beyond what Natasha was discussing, that it wasn’t an option for her. Thanks to Johansson’s skill, that simple, short bit of dialogue carried multiple layers.

But that was it. One scene in a movie that ran well over two hours. It didn’t come up again. If anyone was obsessed with babies in Age of Ultron, I’d argue it was Bruce. Natasha was never seen weeping for the children she’d never have. If she was upset at all, it was that Bruce couldn’t allow himself to embrace potential happiness with her. Not her and their theoretical future children. Just her.

And even that was, again, subtext in one or two scenes. Natasha spent most of the movie being a pivotal factor in any number of fights. She wasn’t drowning in mawkish sentiment. Quite the opposite. At one point, she even pushed Bruce off a cliff in order to make Hulk emerge for the climactic fight. That’s not the hallmark of a woman thinking about her unused birth canal.

The MCU’s television properties have done a better job of spotlighting female heroes. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. features a quartet of strong women who are often in the thick of the action (three of whom also get the show’s best fight scenes). And Agent Carter promoted Peggy from sidekick/romantic interest to central hero who kicks butt and saves the world herself. The film corner of the MCU should take some notes from its TV siblings.

The world of Marvel comic books is filled with strong, colorful, compelling female characters. The movie arm has been slow to bring those female heroes into their world. That’s a failing that needs to improve. Not that Marvel is alone in dragging its feet in spotlighting female heroes in action/adventure movies.

Marvel does have some promising signs that things are inching in the right direction. A movie featuring Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel is in development, with a release date targeted for 2018. Following that is a planned Inhumans movie that, if it hews to a traditional focus on the Royal Family, should include complex female characters Medusa and Crystal. This summer’s Ant-Man features a female character who could become a version of the Wasp, one of Marvel’s earliest female heroes.

Even better, Marvel Studios is courting acclaimed writer/director Ava DuVernay, offering her the chance to direct either Captain Marvel or another in-development property, Black Panther. The behind-the-scenes talent at the MCU has been something of a boys’ club to date. Nicole Perlman, co-writer of Guardians of the Galaxy, has been the only prominent female creator in the mix. Bringing in more female voices is a necessary move. The more diversity on the creative side, the more diversity fans will see onscreen.

I think that the state of female heroes in the MCU isn’t quite as dire as some commenters might believe. But there is no dispute that Marvel can and must do a lot more.

Originally published at on May 15, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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