As a long-time fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I’ve always struggled between denial and frustration when it comes to the lack of major female characters onscreen – denial because, despite the low number of them, the women of the MCU are usually (though by no means always) interesting, well-written characters. Peggy Carter and Pepper Potts spring to mind: two women that are figured at first as love interests, but whose abilities rival or surpass that of their male counterparts.
But this is what frustrates me: it’s 2018, and the MCU celebrated their ‘First Ten Years’ last week. In those ten years, the studio has produced over fifteen films, none of which have a titular female character. Women have headed up Marvel’s TV shows – Jessica Jones on Netflix, Agent Carter before it was cancelled – but these are really only ever going to be ancillary compared to the films themselves, especially if we’re looking at audience numbers.
Now in their tenth year of releases, the MCU has announced and started production on films that mark significant changes: next year, Captain Marvel will be the first film with a woman as the eponymous character, and after nearly ten years of her character’s progression in the universe, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow will finally be getting a film of her own. This summer, Ant-Man and The Wasp will star Evangeline Lilly alongside Paul Rudd – not as a sidekick, not merely a love interest, but as an actual superhero.
It does not surprise me that this progress comes in the wake of DC’s Wonder Woman (2017), a film that has broken the mould when it comes to female-led movies. The DC Extended Universe has often been seen as inferior to the MCU: they simply haven’t retained the same cult status, critical ratings or star power that the MCU has. And yet looking at the success of Wonder Woman, I feel like I can let the let-downs of Suicide Squad and Justice League slide. Marvel might claim to have strong, positive representation of women with characters like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Maria Hill, but it’s only now that they’re even considering making films for any of these supposedly central characters.
I’m not asking for the MCU to fill quotas, nor am I trying to devalue the developments that have already been made, the female characters that I, along with many other fans, have become attached to despite how they’re often sidelined. But I do think we need to be wary when we look at the MCU and the simple fact that the team in The Avengers (2012) consisted of five men and one woman, and that in most cases, the advertising and merchandising still either ignores or sexualises the women (yes, there are a lot of shirtless Chris Hemsworth scenes; I’m just saying that it means something different when you’re looking at a male-dominated industry that now, more than ever before, is plagued by accounts of sexual assault and constant abuse of power).
the studio has produced over fifteen films, none of which have a titular female character
Is it too late for Marvel to make a change? Not necessarily: with the release of Black Panther this week, the studio is clearly making huge steps forwards in terms of representation on the big screen – both with its majority black cast and the all-female special forces that protect the protagonist. With the number of female characters increasing and with it, racial diversity (looking at the women of colour in both Spider-man: Homecoming and Thor Ragnarok) it is obvious that, whether ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ or not, Marvel is committed to producing narratives that centre around the skills, identities and ingenuities of female characters. I’m holding out hope for the coming years, where I want to be able to watch a film that does more than just scrape past the Bechdel Test. I want to see women working together as the men have been: female characters of different races, sexualities, ages, (planets, even) in teams that celebrate diverse ability and identity, but solidarity too.