You can lambast the DC Extended Universe for many things, but at least they haven't been sitting on their hands when it comes to representing their female superheroes. Wonder Woman made her debut in the second movie of the #DCEU, and her solo movie will be the fourth installment in the universe.
Their third (Suicide Squad) featured four female characters as part of the main ensemble, three of which fell under the muddy remit of "super" vigilantes, and two of which weren't caucasian. It also featured a central female villain — arguably two if we include Viola Davis's Amanda Waller — something that we have yet to see in the MCU, although Thor: Ragnarok will finally change that with Cate Blanchett's Hela.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be faring better on the critical spectrum, it's seriously failing when it comes to lauding female characters. In opposition to the DCEU, it's taken the #MCU 11 years and 21 movies to get to its first female fronted film with Captain Marvel, set for release in 2019. The first movie in which a female superhero even shares top billing comes just prior to this, with Ant-Man & The Wasp marking 10 years and 20 movies.
This is the point at which people may argue that "shoehorning in" female characters and basically anyone who isn't a white male is done to appease "social justice warriors" and "feminists." But when you have a #comicbook readership that evens out at around 40–50% female (via Graphic Policy), and the MCU female viewership typically comes in somewhere around 40% (via Box Office Mojo), the strawman arguments become increasingly less compelling.
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Perhaps the problem lies somewhat with the screenwriters, who in the MCU's sphere are overwhelming male. Now there's absolutely no reason to claim that male screenwriters are unable to write compelling female characters (just ask George R.R. Martin), but then you get interviews with the likes of Jon Spaihts, writer of #Prometheus, Passengers and Doctor Strange, where he refers to the powerful extra-dimensional sorceress Clea as "kind of a hot babe who studies magic."
In a new interview with Comic Book Resources about his new movie Passengers (which has come under fire for its sexist rhetoric), Spaihts was asked whether we might see Clea making an appearance in Doctor Strange 2, which he might return to pen. This was his response:
"[Clea is] a tricky character to interpret because her uncle [Dormammu] is a kind of fire-headed omnipotent god and she’s kind of a hot babe who studies magic. That’s a tricky relationship to bring out of a comic book and on to a movie screen. But she’s a really compelling character as a foil, a love interest, a colleague of Doctor Strange’s, and she always carries with her that width of mystery as to whether she is human, and how human, and what that means for his relationship to her. So we might find a way to introduce her to the story."
While Spaihts pulls back from the awful "hot babe" comment to talk about how compelling Clea is as a character, his comments do seem to echo a trend in the MCU regarding how the female characters are written.
The problem comes when you always look at women from the viewpoint of how they connect with the other male heroes, in the case of Clea it's both Doctor Strange and Dormammu. Yes, #Clea has long been Strange's most influential love interest, but she was introduced first as a helper character, a mysterious woman who defies Dormammu to assist Doctor Strange on his first foray into the Dark Dimension.
From there she goes on to become Strange's apprentice, and later his wife, but she also evolves as a character separate from him, as the heir to the Dark Dimension and a sorcerer so powerful she intimidates even Strange himself. She — and all the female characters — deserve to be treated and written as individuals, not determined by how they relate to a male love interest.
This trend has persisted throughout the MCU. Even Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the MCU's premiere female hero, has been shoehorned into a badly handled love dynamic with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo); and kick-ass space assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) seems to be heading the same way with a romantic sub-plot for her in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
And, like Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in Ant-Man, Gamora's quest in Guardians of the Galaxy (to stop Thanos from getting the Orb) was predictably taken over by the main male character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Hope too was introduced as a love interest before she was allowed to take to the skies as Wasp, after gaining the approval of her father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas).
And as it turns out, even if you're a love interest in the MCU you aren't safe. Both Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) have been summarily written off at this stage in the game.
While Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper's relationship ended sometime between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, there's still the possibility of her returning, though last we heard from Paltrow she had served her contract and wasn't sure if Pepper's return was in the cards. And Jane Foster — a character who divided fans — isn't expected to return for some time, if at all, due to tensions between Portman and Marvel.
It's also worth noting that in the comics both of these characters go on to become heroes in their own right, with Pepper serving a stint as the iron-clad hero Rescue, and Jane currently serving as the Marvel Comics' Thor. But it's a pretty safe bet to swear that we'll never see even a hint of this in the MCU, the tiny moment where Pepper wore the Iron Man suit in Iron Man 3 aside.
Perhaps #CaptainMarvel will be the one to begin a trend of change in the MCU on this note. Perhaps not. But despite the voices of those like Spaihts, the franchise is making small steps toward becoming more accessible to all fans.
And we know that this type of character development can be done. Captain America: The Winter Soldier — the most critically acclaimed movie of the MCU — was perhaps the best Black Widow movie we've had yet, as Natasha was given her own agency, and a relationship with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) that was equal and non-romantic. Heck, it would still be nice to have a Black Widow solo movie, but we'll take what we can get at this point.
Which female superhero do you want to see most in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Sound off in the comments below!