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A Controversial Theory About Women in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or, “I Love Hope Van Dyne”

If you recall from the Ant-Man post…

There’s also the previously-mentioned Hope Van Dyne, who’s basically “Pepper Potts with a grudge and superpowers,” not that I’m complaining, but more about her in a later post.

I promised, and now I shall deliver! This is a kind of thematic “part two” to that Ant-Man discussion linked above, a train of thought spawned by my slight obsession with the latest Marvel movie woman, Hope Van Dyne. The idea that we need more female characters shouldn’t be new to you. What I want to do here is take a brief look at MCU women over time, and look at the trajectory we’re on. I’ll argue that it’s a good one.

Tony and PepperThe Marvel Cinematic Universe began by using a straightforward girlfriend model. You’ve got your male superhero and (at minimum) two other characters in relation to him: A villain and a love interest. Pepper Potts in the first two Iron Man movies (2008 and 2010), then Jane Foster and Peggy Carter in 2011. All three are awesome characters, and cool girlfriends, but girlfriends all the same. In these movies they’re entirely subordinate, storywise, to the male superhero.

A little twist comes in 2012’s Avengers, where we achieve full use of Black Widow. Previously, she’d been a fanservice-y side note in Iron Man 2, but now she’s a full team member and a vital one. In 2013 we only had Pepper’s violent moment in Iron Man 3 (questionably awesome, but unquestionably positioning her in a love triangle between the hero and villain), and in Thor: The Dark World the unfortunately-obvious attempt to make Jane relevant to the plot without much success. But then, 2014! The year of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with its awesome background-female-character representation and positioning of Black Widow as full partner in the story. In the same year Gamora was a full member of the Guardians of the Galaxy team, and in neither of those cases did the female character feel any need to smooch the male protagonist.

Black WidowThat brings us to this year, with the controversial portrayal of Black Widow in Age of Ultron. I personally did not like her character development at all, in fact I resent it deeply, but I also believe she’s a coherent character with motivations that make sense as told. Black Widow problems are scarcity problems. She’s the most prominent female character in the MCU, but she can’t be everything to everyone. If we had more than one woman on the Avengers team, those women could be portrayed in several different ways, and no one character would have to represent “what women want” or “what women are like.”

The good news is, Marvel is slowly adding more female characters. Scarlet Witch is now in the Avengers line-up, and Captain Marvel is coming. And Marvel’s TV shows shouldn’t be ignored here, either. Agents of SHIELD started late 2013 and, despite its shaky opening, developed into an awesome show that presents many and varied women, heroes and villains, sexual and non, violent and pacifist, of various ethnicities. (Various ethnicities all around in the second season, actually, and a decent disability storyline.) The acclaimed Agent Carter of early 2015 is also a crucial development, because it is amazing and basically the entire thing is about sexism.

What I see here is a process of testing the waters. There are some missteps, but we’re seeing Marvel’s female characters get increasingly more prominent. They’re deriving their story worth from story relevance, instead of from how attractive a male superhero may find them. The Winter Soldier was an experiment in female-character centrality, for instance. As a miniseries-length TV production, Agent Carter was a low-stakes dry run of a story with a full-fledged female lead. Both were wildly successful.

Peggy Carter

It’s all well and good to make demands. We want more women! Diverse women! Realistic women! And we have to keep shouting for those things until we get them. But the movie industry is not going to change overnight. It’s too big, too unwieldy, too afraid of innovation to become a haven of diversity in the blink of an eye. That can be used as an excuse not to change at all, certainly, but it’s still true. If we’re going to see better diversity in mainstream movies, not just indie ones, it takes small steps and small experiments. It has to be shown that the world won’t end if a woman leads a superhero movie. Really, I applaud Marvel for fully committing to these experiments, instead of half-assing them and then saying “See, nobody wants to watch movies about women!”

Each female character is important to me. I’m pleased when they’re well-done and bitter when I feel I’m badly represented. I’m not going to make excuses for a movie’s mistakes just because “they’re trying.” But I still feel the trying is vital, and that trajectory is important. Which, finally, brings me to Hope Van Dyne.

Ant-Man_screenshot_38

She was already awesome. A vital player with knowledge and skills, but she’s not being allowed to use those skills, and she’s angry and bitter about it. How often does a woman get to feel that onscreen, and have it be presented as entirely valid? Not often. But even though she’s angry, that doesn’t impair her ability to function. She has strong emotions and that’s not bad, but she can put them aside to work toward a goal that matters to her. There is eventually a smooch — and I resent it all the more because it’s totally irrelevant to every other moment in the movie — but in general, Ant-Man gets no special treatment from her. She’s part of planning the heist, not there as a love interest.

The real joy is in the stinger, though. The after-the-credits scene that changes the whole movie, because you suddenly realize we’ve been watching two origin stories, not one. That Hope not only could be a superhero, she goddamn will be at the first opportunity. We’ve already seen that she’s just as skilled as Ant-Man, if not more, so when she gives us that smile, we know what’s gonna happen. But we didn’t expect it, because the movie’s called Ant-Man. It turns audiences’ expectations on their heads, and it’s a moment of sheer glory.

Hope Van Dyne

Well, that’s what I think, anyway. 😉

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19 thoughts on “A Controversial Theory About Women in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or, “I Love Hope Van Dyne”

  1. Great analysis; I still haven’t had a chance to watch Carter, so I better get on that (too much stuff to watch! Seriously!)

    The scarcity problem is a real one…. I was just reading an article about how Leia (being the ONLY main female in the original movie series) is a problem in the same vein. Leia was awesome; I loved her way more as an adult than I did as a kid.

    I personally was neutral to her character developments in Ultron. I didn’t read into it any further than that *particular* trauma being dredged up when Hulk is talking about not being able to have a family. It made sense to me in context. I’m sure if he had been talking about pain, or torture, or violence, different traumas would have revealed themselves in her psyche. That’s just the one we got.

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    1. Totally agree about Leia. As a casual fan, I really don’t see her character the same way as my serious-fan friends do, because not only is she the only woman, she’s HARDLY IN IT. I remember thinking it was cool to have a princess with a laser gun when I was a kid, and it is, but we NEVER get Leia’s perspective and that’s really frustrating.

      Anyway. It’s significant to me that they chose not to have Hulk discuss those other options. The thing he (they) decided to bring up was kids. They decided to have her main arc be a romantic one, and limit her interactions with the other characters. THEY chose how to script and edit the movie. (In that light, I’m already interested to see the much-longer version because I felt the whole movie had script issues, but within that I want to see if they cut other Black Widow scenes or what’s up there.)

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      1. Good points. It never really occurred to me that she might have a bunch of scenes on the cutting room floor… I’ll have to watch the DVD versions of things eventually. 🙂

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  2. In hindsight, the Black Widow love story in Age of Ultron really doesn’t do the character any favours. She’s also kidnapped at one point and needs Bruce to rescue her. She does have some great fight scenes though, and her non-love subplot character development works.

    Everything else that’s come out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Winter Soldier is a step in the right direction though. Agents of Shield has a bunch of great female characters, from Skye/Daisy to Mockingbird, and the sheer awesomeness that is Melinda May. Agent Carter is a fantastic espionage show with a character that puts up with so much and still gets the job done better than anyone else. Gamora in Gardians of the Galaxy is hardcore and the movie even gave us a well defined female villain with Nova.

    If Marvel can continue to improve in this way, and their movies continue to do well, this could very well have a positive affect on the movie industry as a whole. Let’s hope so, and for the same reason, let’s hope the Wonder Woman movie will be good.

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    1. Yep. I could understand those two characters trying to form a relationship, being interested in each other, but the script didn’t work. I believe in the actors, but they didn’t have good scenes to build chemistry, and that fertility dialogue was just awful, and Black Widow being captured served NO purpose whatsoever. Still, I think those reflect larger problems with the script — it felt rushed, no theme development, etc. But as you say, everything ELSE is great and improving! (And here’s hoping about Wonder Woman.)

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  3. Loved that stinger. When she’s like “It’s about damn time,” I was like “Yes, yes it is.” Hope isn’t maybe exactly what I would have chosen for a Wasp, but I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with her.

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  4. My brother’s a fan of the Wasp, and he kept getting all worked up every time she was even alluded to in the movie…and was just about giggling with glee at that mid-credits stinger! In fact, he says he thinks the whole reason “Ant-Man” was rushed out onto screens so quickly was because they wanted to get the Wasp established in the cinematic universe as soon as they possibly could. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do think they were eager to get her set up, since they’ve been so short on heroines thus far. (It doesn’t help that they don’t have control of “X-Men,” of course, given how many women are on that team; they lost a number of choices before they even started.) Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing her get a chance to prove her skills really do outshine Ant-Man’s! (I totally agree with you about the smooch, btw. Where did that even come from?)

    He was telling me today that they’ve re-scheduled two of their Netflix series, so that the one about a heroine is going to be next, rather than the hero-based show that was scheduled to be the next one aired. I thought maybe that was to compete with (and, based on the trailer, probably trounce) the “Supergirl” TV show, but perhaps it’s less competitive and more organic. That’d be nice, anyway…

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    1. 😀 I’d love it if they rushed to get Wasp out there because she’ll be a major character very soon.

      And yep, I just got the new that the Jessica Jones series drops on Netflix at the end of November. Pretty excited. I think Marvel’s savvy enough to keep an eye on the competition, but also probably self-aware enough to realize their competition is still in the rear-view mirror…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was literally bouncing up and down in my seat with glee during that last moment. The only thing that could make me happier than the Wasp getting a large role in the Marvel Universe is a Captain Marvel movie. And I mean Monica Rambeau, not Carol Danvers. (Not that the upcoming CM movie isn’t something I look forward to. But CM will always be Monica to me.)

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  6. I see the same process you do. We have come such a long way from Catwoman slinking over the screen and Mary Jane Watson getting kidnapped. Ant-Man…feels a little bit like a step back (just like Age of Ultron did), but I give Marvel a pass for that one, because this movie has been in development for a long time and Wright is not exactly known for liking to write about female characters. I suspect in his first draft the original Wasp was actually dead instead of lost in Limbo.
    Hope’s role in Ant-man feels like a big apology. As if Marvel studios is saying “yes, we know, but we have already set up a possible sequel for this which might be all about the Wasp (or wasps) with Ant-Man taking the backseat.

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    1. That’s an interesting take on it. I wish there was some way to track who created what, since Ant-Man was such a production mess. (I’m actually really impressed by how well it hangs together, given that, although one can certainly see some residual oddities and seam lines.)

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      1. Yeah, it feels like the new team needed a little bit more time…perhaps half a year…to iron out some aspects. But since the release date was set when Wright left the project, it sometimes feels as if two movies are fighting with each other, one about mentor and mentees relationship (which I suspect was Wrights angle) and one about the relationship between fathers and daughters.

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        1. I can see that. The mentor/mentee stuff was underdeveloped. That can end up a positive, though, because I think it connects the two. You kind of expect to see a mentor/mentee thing here with Hank and Scott, and you do — but only in CliffNotes. Instead of staying there, the movie links that to daughters and female mentees. Could’ve been smoother, but it’s better than sticking with one or the other, in my opinion.

          PS I’m reading your old post about Black Widow right now and it’s excellent. 😀

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