If you recall from the Ant-Man 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.
The 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.
That 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.
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.
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.
Well, that’s what I think, anyway. 😉