Tweets like the one above address MCU fanboy “sexism” against Carol Danvers, but what Ms. Gaither and others fail to recognize is that the MCU may have coerced sexism into fanboys long before Captain Marvel.
Throughout its 11 years as a franchise powerhouse, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a problem with its depictions of women. I’ve heard the refrain: “Unlike Kathleen Kennedy, Kevin Feige listens to the fans” and I’m sorry to tell you, he doesn’t.
Now I know what some of you will say: “but there’s plenty of female superheroes/characters in the MCU” and you’ll list them all. But including women with superpowers and fighting skills does not automatically make your films female-friendly.
In fact there’s evidence that proves Marvel doesn’t understand women.
In 2014 the films in the MCU with the highest female viewers were Guardians of the Galaxy (in which 44% of the audience was female) and The Avengers (whose female audience was 40%).
However when it comes to female characters, the MCU has a female problem. Digital Spy did a little math and here’s the outcome: not a single MCU film has women on the screen for more than 40% of runtime (barring Captain Marvel of course). See the list here. The womens’ character development in the films has also been a cause for complaint. The following are snippets from articles written by female critics and journalists.
Here’s what Shanahan Europa said about Guardians of the Galaxy 1 & 2:
When The Guardians infiltrated the villain’s ship, they have all learned each others back stories and have gained each others trust. So, when Drax verbally acknowledges their collective friendships, the moment feels earned. He says, “I want you all to know that I am grateful for your acceptance after my blunders. It is pleasing to once again have friends. You, Quill, are my friend….This dumb tree, he is my friend. And this green whore, she, too—”
Justifiably angered by the epithet of “green whore,” Gamora yells back, “You must stop!”
Drax’s brusqueness in this scene does align with the curt and frank personality Gunn has created for this character. But Drax’s choice of words here commits a disservice to the relationship of trust and respect he and Gamora have built up to this point.
A similar pattern is seen in “Vol. 2.” Take for instance halfway through the film when Kraglin, a ravager, asks Nebula, one of the antagonists, what she will spend her cut of a bounty on. She shares her story of emotional and physical trauma at the hands of her father Thanos and, indirectly, her sister Gamora. Growing up, Thanos would have the two sisters spar each other, and everytime Nebula would lose, he would replace one of her body parts with a robotic equivalent.
But Gunn undercuts the horror and tragedy of her backstory through an abrupt tonal shift when Kraglin voices his awkward surprise. “I was talking about, like, [buying] a pretty necklace…Something to make the other girls go, “Ooh, that’s nice!”
From Frederica Bocco:
Of course, Natasha Romanoff was an amazing character, before Age of Ultron ruined her. Maria Hill is badass, when she gets more than a second of screen time. Peggy Carter was incredibly inspirational, before she was moved to television and ABC decided to cancel the show despite the praise of most critics.
The fact that we are finally getting a Captain Marvel film in 2019 is not something to be celebrated and praised as groundbreaking. It’s something to be ashamed of that Marvel’s first female superhero-centered movie is only coming out in 2019.
Before you say that Jane Foster is an amazing scientist and one of the most intelligent people in the MCU, and that Pepper Potts has the power and the ability to run a gigantic company like Stark Industries, ask yourself this: if these women are not just love interests, where have they been for the past films? If the very purpose of their characters isn’t to be Thor’s and Tony Stark’s girlfriends, then how come they don’t get a storyline after the breakup?
KC Moore at The Bull and Bear:
What do these women have in common with pretty much every other female character existing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
They function as Love Interests.
Jane Foster is an accomplished astrophysicist, whose original interest in Thor is scientific. Except what’s science compared to Chris Hemsworth’s biceps, right? Gamora is a trained assassin with a perfectly valid reason to be fighting on Peter Quill’s side. She then falls prey to Quill’s “pelvic sorcery,” and it’s okay because by the end of the movie, they love each other. Pepper Potts from “Iron Man” is the only woman not repulsed by Tony Stark’s spectacular narcissism. She loves him because she sees the real him underneath all those layers of money. Too bad this doesn’t make him any less of a jerk. Betty Ross from “The Incredible Hulk” (yeah, remember that movie?) had no other purpose but to serve as an aspect of Bruce Banner’s character development. She was a pretty reminder that even though he’s an enormous green rage monster, his humanity remains intact and he is capable of attracting women. In “Ant-Man,” even though Hope is way more qualified than Scott Lang to be a hero, her father was just trying to protect her from dying like her mother. Except by the end of the movie, she’s fallen in love with Paul Rudd and donned The Wasp suit.
Lady Sif is a warrior and a Norse deity, but the writers couldn’t leave her at that. As if being childhood friends with Thor wasn’t enough to validate her presence in the movie, they had to make her in love with him. She’s a literal goddess, she’s lived thousands of years and killed thousands of men, and she still has to cast longing looks at Chris Hemsworth and shoot Natalie Portman unfriendly, jealous glances.
In the end, Natasha Romanoff is mourned but never celebrated. The story has too far to go, and Tony Stark’s epic death undercuts her own. The film ends on his funeral, and hers is never seen, mentioned, or noted. It’s almost as though she never existed at all.
We arrive at Carol Danvers, the first female Marvel superhero to headline a film (it only took a decade…). Carol is brilliant throughout Endgame, but she’s also underused because she’s not been given any time at all to acclimate to the group setting. This is not her farewell tour, so she only shows up in special bursts, powered by fists of space-energy and little else. The same is true of Okoye, who Marvel rightfully gave top billing to, but never the screen time to match. Wanda Maximoff also shows up briefly to flex her extraordinarily powerful magic muscles, but her only stake in the film is being pissed with Thanos for killing her boyfriend Vision. All her fury gets her nowhere, which is hardly surprising because these films have never known what to do with someone as powerful as the Scarlet Witch is meant to be. She’s always getting sidelined because dealing with her true skillset would make most of the other combatants seem superfluous.
Then there’s Valkyrie, who has been in charge of New Asgard since Thor went into a spiral of depression and binge-drinking. Though the film treats the God of Thunder terribly, Valkyrie doesn’t come out of the situation any better, as she works herself to the bone to keep the ship running for the sake of the Asgardian people. By the end, Thor abdicates the throne in her favor, noting that she has already been doing the job for him, and that she’s an excellent leader. These things are true, but Valkyrie also expressed a hatred of Asgardian monarchy when Thor first met her. And more to the point, no matter how good Val is at steering their people, she is essentially being made to shoulder Thor’s burden simply because he has decided he can’t handle it anymore. Rather than offering to help her set up a new form of government, or see that the transition of power goes smoothly, he just up and leaves all of his responsibilities on her plate.
Even the final romantic nod of the entire series can ring hollow: While we’re supposed to be happy for Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter finally getting their dance on at the end of this, it’s hard not to be a little insulted over all the film is choosing to ignore in that tender moment. It is unclear if any of Peggy’s former trials will come to pass with Steve Rogers back in her life, and the idea of all of her adventures—in her own series Agent Carter and beyond—being overwritten for a life in a cute suburb with her man is frankly just as depressing as them losing one another. Peggy Carter claims to know her value, but in this moment, it’s hard to tell if the MCU knows it, or if they ever cared about it at all. Love is truly grand, but shoehorning Peggy in there for a kiss when we get no time with her at all feels like a particular kind of cheat.
Betty Ross is a woman who has only ever been in one movie, and it is a movie that most people tend to forget is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That movie would be The Incredible Hulk from 2008. Betty Ross has a PhD in cellular biology and was shown working at Culver University. She is the daughter of General Ross, though he appeared to have been promoted in Captain America: Civil War (2016).
Betty has not been talked about at all since The Incredible Hulk. She was so important to who Bruce Banner is as a person, but she has not even been mentioned once since her appearance in 2008. She was the first person to ever break through the Hulk’s mind. The Hulk was not mindless when it came to Betty Ross. Yet, she just disappeared. Even after Bruce appeared to be able to control the Hulk after the events of The Avengers (2012), there was no mention of him even calling her.
Now, her storyline is revolving around Bruce. However, Betty Ross was not just the love interest. She was able to assist a fugitive and help him escape, and she fought against her father—a general—to protect him. She was no limp noodle. She was her own character who made her own choices and stood on her own two feet. Her story did revolve around Bruce in The Incredible Hulk, but her character was not only there for Bruce.
And Marvel just made her disappear.
From the first MCU films, examples of pervasive, everyday sexism have been overlooked or dismissed in the name of history. Take, for example, the moment Tony Stark meets an undercover Black Widow in Iron Man 2, stating “I want one” after their almost Weinstein-esque introduction.
Even more recent films are occasionally marred with a sense of humour that tends toward displays of toxic masculinity and casual misogyny, denoting an air of sexism the films can no longer afford. From the way the women are spoken to, to the way they are spoken of, the men of the cohort consistently undermine the female action heroes. In Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther’s female security chief warns Black Widow to “move or you will be moved”. The interaction is abated by Black Panther with the line “As entertaining as that would be…” – an all too common inference of woman on woman action to fulfill male fantasy.
In the case of 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a scene when the male Avengers each attempt to lift Thor’s hammer – an exercise in worthiness and not strength – Iron Man’s offhanded joke about reinstating prima nocta presents rape humor as permissible, in an age when it is anything but. The time is up for cheap efforts in entertainment of this nature.
(Don’t forget in The Avengers Loki called Natasha a “mewling quim” which translated means “whining cunt”.)
Kathy Banjamin at Cracked.com:
Black Widow is like the redheaded stepchild of the Avengers when it comes to stuff you can actually buy. She gets lots of screen time in the movies, which is good, but any kid who wants a toy of her is better off making one out of Play-Doh. It’s so bad that even Mark “chillest guy to ever play the Hulk” Ruffalo called Marvel out.
There’s an entire blog that does nothing but point out how Black Widow is nowhere to be found on Avenger’s merchandise. We could see some executive getting away with saying that boys wouldn’t play with a girl action figure, even though that is obviously bullshit (and what about the girls who want those action figures?).
(Note: When Avengers: Age of Ultron was released, a toy of the scene where Black Widow rides a motorcycle was released – with Captain America instead.)
And then there’s Mantis. Talk about character assassination. Literally.
Mantis exhibits all the signs of a woman who is being mistreated, but rather than save her immediately, the Guardians simply ignore it. Excited to finally meet his father, Peter is never bothered to acknowledge Mantis or her plight in any tangible way, a marked difference from the comics where Peter goes out of his way to recruit Mantis and has a positive relationship with her. As for the rest of the Guardians, they actively participate in Mantis’ abuse: not only are their insults and violence against Mantis normalized, they’re even used for comedic effect. Each of the Guardians’ actions help to enforce an idea that film Mantis has already internalized: she is worthless.
And then there’s the physical violence that Mantis suffers. When she meets Rocket Raccoon, Drax leads her to believe he’s his pet. When she reaches out to touch him, Rocket snaps around and bites into her hand; she cries out, terrified, as Drax roars with laughter. Later, when Mantis reaches out to Gamora to demonstrate her empath powers, she’s immediately grabbed by the wrists and told, “Touch me, and the only thing you’re going to feel is a broken jaw.” When Gamora finally finds out the truth about Ego’s plans, she runs up to Mantis, grabs her by the throat, slams her against the wall, and tries to choke her. Gamora never apologizes for this, and we never see any follow-up to assure us that Gamora and Mantis will have any relationship beyond these moments of animosity.
If you haven’t noticed by now, the women in the MCU never get along, while the males relationships are developed and celebrated (Steve and Bucky anyone?).
And speaking of relationships:
What tenuously binds everything together is daddy issues. The question of Star Lord’s father anchored the first film, and deserved a payoff to match. Things start with introducing Kurt Russell meeting Peter’s mother. Peter questioned his heritage in the first film, but this second movie sees Peter so hung up on his dad you’d expect to see him on a therapist’s couch. Instead, it’s the now motherly Gamora (Zoe Saldana, still pointless) who tells him to bond with his father. She’s also the one who simultaneously tells her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) to get over her own father issues. Considering how the film presents Nebula’s hatred of her father in a way that feels like assault – he replaced parts of her with machinery against her will – the film has a very gendered look at how men and women are told to deal with their parentage. Peter gets to act like a 10-year-old and play catch with his dad; Nebula’s told “Eh, move on, girl.”
And that was disappointing, particularly after all the build up of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) as the strongest Avenger. I mean, Nick Fury paged her specifically at the end of Infinity War, making us believe she was clearly the one to stop Thanos. She was also coming off the first female-led Marvel standalone film, which meant the studio was moving toward feminism, right? Ehhh…not so much.
In Endgame, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel felt like a guest star, popping off to handle matters elsewhere in the universe only to reappear toward the conclusion of the movie — and fail at vanquishing Thanos. Yes, it was a group effort. Yes, she spectacularly, single-handedly destroyed his ship. Yes, the guys needed her to wear Thanos down. But the message was still pretty clear: Saving the world is ultimately a man’s job. It’s tough to reconcile the way Endgame handled its female characters with what we see in daily life, as well as other onscreen representations.
But wait, I know what some of you are thinking: “What about that awesome moment when Captain Marvel is about to be destroyed and then nearly all the female characters in the MCU (except Peggy and, oddly, Sharon Carter) show up, announce they have her back, and are there to save the day?”
Well, the problem is… they don’t. Instead, we get this big “girl power” moment with a bunch of women we haven’t spent any time with…and then they’re all defeated.
Each woman is picked off by Thanos or his minions or, in the case of Captain Marvel, literally tossed aside.
Men have caught on too.
Derrick Clement’s title says it all: “The Early MCU Films Are As Sexist As The Trolls That Crashed ‘Captain Marvel'”:
The Marvel movies in “Phase 1,” as the episodes up to the first Avengers are known, established a toxic cinematic vocabulary, where sexual harassment is depicted as acceptable and funny, women are either sexualized or ignored altogether, and the male gaze dominates.
When The Avengers came out in 2012, Joss Whedon’s pseudo-feminism was celebrated, but it has since come under more scrutiny. After revisiting The Avengers this week, I’m sorry to say the red flags were there all along. Lots of male gaze, lots of dumb little jokes (like that one terribly misogynistic line Loki says) that were ignored at the time but which now seem like toxic masculinity bursting out of its leather skin of wokeness.
Steve Englehart, Mantis’ creator:
Well, I was not happy with Mantis’ portrayal. That character has nothing to do with Mantis. I really don’t know why you would take a character who is as distinctive as Mantis is and do a completely different character and still call her Mantis. That I do not know. That’s not Mantis.
Despite those setbacks, Marvel has plenty of female fans and for ten years they’ve been demanding one thing: a stand-alone Black Widow movie. What were Feige’s excuses? “We’re too busy to make a Black Widow movie.” “It just isn’t the right time.” “We have a lineup of films already in production.” etc, etc. Yet there have been 3 Iron Man films, 3 Thor films, 3 Captain America films, 2 Guardians of the Galaxy films, 2 Ant-Man films and soon to be 2 Spider-Man & Black Panther films. Would it have killed them to change their schedule to make room for Black Widow, She-Hulk or Elektra?
When DC said the same thing, they got this:
Never mind that the raccoon – and possibly the machine gun – are male.
And it’s not just women in front of the screen that get the short end of the stick. Women screenwriters, directors and critics have also expressed their frustration with the studio.
In 2009 screenwriter Nicole Perlman was hired by Marvel to pick a comic to adapt into a movie – and chose the then obscure Guardians of the Galaxy. She spent the next two years devouring its back catalog and drafting a story that so impressed the studio execs, they gave it the green-light – only for it to be re-written by James Gunn. One wonders how Gamora and the other female characters would’ve been presented had Perlman’s script been used.
There’s a reason why Natalie Portman no longer makes any appearances as Jane Foster in the MCU (with the exception of Avengers: Endgame, and even that’s debatable). She originally turned down Thor: The Dark World because she wanted a break from acting to spend more time with her son – until she found out that Patty Jenkins was attached to the project and what actress wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with a woman director? But creative differences made Jenkins leave the project, much to Portman’s dismay. Today Jenkin’s Wonder Woman is considered the “crown jewel” of superhero movies. Thor: The Dark World on the other hand…
Critic Amy Nicholson of BoxOffice.com got subjected to a ton of hateful, misogynistic comments from fanboys for not giving The Avengers a good review. While there were articles reporting the incident, no one bothered to write some think piece about “toxic fandom/masculinity”. In fact, some even excused the fans’ jerkiness simply because Nicholson misidentified Nick Fury as Nick Frost. Never mind that she was the first to point out that Steve’s, Thor’s and Bruce’s respective love interests never make an appearance or are discussed, she misidentified Nick Fury! The nerve of her!!!
And with all the talk of sexism, “toxic fandom” and “manbabies” regarding Carol Danvers, where were the accusations of misogyny when the Oscars and the Golden Globes snubbed Wonder Woman and Patty Jenkins? Why didn’t the media call out the “toxic fanboys”, “mababies” and “misogynists” for saying Wonder Woman didn’t deserve an Oscar? I felt like the only person in the world who defended WW and a bunch of jerks sent me some gif of Peter Quill flipping the bird. Classy.
We can’t call out politicians for their sexism and then be entertained by sexist Marvel. We have to be better than this.