Marvel’s Phase 2: The women deserved better
Marvel Studios makes fucking awesome movies. That’s not exactly a controversial statement to make. And no, not everything they’ve made has been perfect, but they’ve got a certain spark that thankfully has yet to be snuffed out.
As a younger studio, they’re far less cautious or predictable than their older competitors. They have the same fearlessness that made Pixar a success not long ago. They take risks and allow creativity to flourish, which makes their films feel more alive and less processed than similar products from Warner Brothers, Sony, or 20th Century Fox. They’ve made a reputation for themselves as the fan’s studio for their constant shout-outs and Easter eggs designed to appeal to hardcore Marvel zombies, as well as their continued dedication to capturing the look and tone of their colorful characters on film.
That’s really a large part of their success: they give the appearance of actually listening to their audience, while their competitors come off as tone-deaf. Which is why fans tend not to complain that much when Marvel films deviate from the source material, because we’ve learned from experience to trust them to get the heart of the thing right, regardless of the details.
But it isn’t just the traditional 18-35 white male demographic that’s drawn to the Marvel formula. It’s become apparent that Marvel’s movies have attracted far more female fans than they likely expected. Disney may have purchased the company to be the “boy’s franchise” to complement their more female-targeted princess set, but Marvel’s fangirls are numerous and enthusiastic. Thor’s little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe especially tends to draw in lady devotees, but all of the Avengers have their fair share of female admirers.
And the company hasn’t ignored them. Much has been made of Marvel’s repeated appeals to the “female gaze”, with several of their films featuring far more fan service for the ladies than typical summer blockbusters. Also, Marvel heroines tend to have more personality and agency than women in the average superhero film. While WB also makes the attempt to include “strong female characters” in their movies, there’s something that feels effortless about the way Marvel does it.
For example, Black Widow and Jane Foster feel like integral, natural parts of their movies, whereas Selina Kyle and Lois Lane feel more awkward and extraneous, like their roles were added or expanded to fill some diversity quota. Marvel gives the impression that they actually like their female characters and want to give them important roles to play, whereas the competition often appears reluctant to include women at all. Marvel is demonstrably willing to go the extra mile for their female fans.
But it’s not nearly enough.
This is the inherent danger when celebrating something for being “feminist-friendly” or having “strong female characters”; people can sometimes see this accomplishment as equality achieved, rather than just another small step on the road to same. It’s important that in congratulating Marvel for being a little more sensitive to women in their writing and casting, we not make the mistake of overlooking all the ways even they fall short of true gender equality.
For example, Thor: The Dark World got a lot of attention for all the important roles women played in its narrative. Jane Foster was pivotal to the plot, Frigga was a strong mentor and role model, Darcy was a likable comic relief, and Sif got to be a badass without it being a “thing”*. And of course, the film has Tom Hiddleston being angst-y and wisecracking, and Chris Hemsworth taking his shirt off. Marvel knows what its fangirls like.
[*By which I mean, the film allows Sif to be a badass without feeling the need to constantly point it out. As in, “girls being tough is totally not normal, you guys! Look at how not girly she is!”]
But when you really look at The Dark World, the fact that it can be considered progressive in its handling of female characters is rather depressing. Sure, Jane gets to be important… by being turned into the film’s MacGuffin, to be led around, examined, and fought over, one of the most literal ways to objectify someone. Yes, Frigga is a strong, wise woman who’s looked up to by both male and female characters alike… before she’s almost immediately “fridged” in order to provide Loki with motivation to help take down Malekith. Sure, Sif is a badass who fights alongside the boys… who outnumber her four to one.
Well, what about Black Widow, you say? She may have started out as little more than eye candy in Iron Man 2, but with further appearances in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she’s evolved into a key player in the Marvel movie universe and a great character in her own right.
On the other hand, she remains the sole female member of the Avengers, and one of the only two not to have a solo film. A Black Widow prequel movie has been rumored for some time now, but apparently fast-tracking the talking space raccoon was more of a priority than potentially making the first good solo superheroine movie ever.
And speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy, let’s talk Gamora. On the surface, she seems to be another success for Marvel’s gallery of lady ass-kickers. She’s visually distinctive, features a great performance by Zoe Saldana, and even delivers what’s possibly the most quotable line in the movie*. On the other hand, she’s also once again the sole female in her group, and to make matters worse, she’s the least developed. Her character arc amounts to little beyond being a tightwad and Star-Lord teaching her to lighten up a bit, which is already a worn out stereotype for female characters. Her personality also leaves something to be desired, as she’s basically a mishmash of character traits that Drax and Star-Lord both already respectively possess in spades.
[*Which for Guardians is saying quite a lot.]
Unfortunately, the future of Marvel doesn’t hold much promise of improving on these shortcomings. A female-led film has yet to be officially put on their release schedule, and the only new superheroine we have actual confirmation of is the Scarlet Witch, due to join the Avengers in Age of Ultron. And even that good news is tempered with the fact that she’s joining alongside four new male members (Quicksilver, the Vision, War Machine, and possibly Falcon), so the male-to-female ratio on this team isn’t showing signs of improving.
For all the good Marvel has done for their female characters, they’re still stuck in the roles of either sidekick or love interest, and are vastly outnumbered by their male castmates. The studio is still slower to put films starring women as the title characters* into production than all other projects, and merchandise featuring female characters is noticeably rarer and harder to find than merch for their male counterparts. There is progress to be found in Marvel’s movies, no question. But progress is not an end, it is a means. We have much, much further to go. There is still so much more Marvel could and should be doing, and we must demand it from them. Praise them when they take steps in the right direction, but don’t forget to point out where they fall short. We deserve a better Marvel than the one we have.
[*Seriously Marvel, where is that damn Ms. Marvel movie?]