Further exploration of Marvel’s Women Problem.
We’ve come a long way from the Dark Ages of Comics, when men dominated the industry and the general assumption was that female characters were expendable plot points that no one would miss, because women didn’t read comics. The fridging and subsequent re-birth of Barbara Gordon as Oracle proved a crucial turning point for the industry as a whole, ushering in a new wave of representation in mainstream comics. Today, Marvel Comics has taken inclusion to greater heights: Thor is a woman, Ms. Marvel is a Muslim-American teenager, The Hulk is a Korean-American whiz kid, and Devil Dinosaur has found a new companion in the wonderful Lunella Lafayette, a Black pre-teen living on the Lower East Side of New York.
But how well does this translate into the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
With the advent of the long-anticipated Captain America: Civil War, Marvel Studios have finally given viewers The Big One, a comic book movie on such a large scale that it even surpasses The Avengers in scope. The film brings back Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but also introduces us to some new faces, including Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). It also only features a handful of women over the course of two and a half hours.
Civil War was highly anticipated for the introduction of our new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and with this also comes our first look at Peter’s beloved Aunt May (Marissa Tomei). It’s worth noting that the Oscar-winning Tomei is the same age as Robert Downey, Jr., who, instead of being cast as Uncle Ben, gets to square off against Captain America (Chris Evans) as the billionaire, genius and philanthropic superhero, Iron Man. The film does touch on this controversy but instead of highlighting Aunt May’s importance, she’s reduced to jokes about how attractive she is for her age. Tony Stark flirts incessantly with Aunt May and, upon meeting Peter, comments multiple times about his hot aunt. And while the exchange is fitting for Stark, it also feels like a dig at anyone who expressed indignation at the casting decision. Tomei follows this up with a line about aunts coming in all shapes and sizes, which has the veneer of equality but is instead a cheap excuse for equating value with beauty. Aunt May gets to be hot so we should be happy.
Our other female characters don’t fare much better. In Civil War, a film centered on the ideological clash between Captain America and Iron Man, it is inevitable that men take the lead in driving and forming the bulk of the story. But there still seems to be a disparity in the way male allies, like The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) or War Machine (Don Cheadle), are used as opposed to the female characters. On both Team Cap and Team Iron Man, women are used as plot devices, predominately used for their effect on the men in the film.
We especially see this with Iron Man, as female-centered guilt drives most of his actions throughout the film. In the beginning, with some remarkable CGI effects, we a young Tony Stark saying goodbye to his parents, who are headed off on a Christmas holiday. In the flashback, Maria Stark (Hope Davis) urges her son to repair the damage to his relationship with his father, Howard Stark (John Slattery); their own relationship doesn’t seem to matter. Later in the film, as revelations surrounding their death comes to light, Tony’s actions seem to stem from the anger over his mother’s death, but it feels like a decoy. Tony mentions his father multiple times throughout the film and we can sense that his true anger and true loss is that of his father, not his mother.
Shortly after this flashback, Tony meets Miriam (Alfre Woodard), a grieving mother who blames The Avengers for her son’s death in Sokovia. But Miriam’s grief simply serves as a trigger for Tony Stark’s guilt and subsequent acquiesce to The Sokovia Accords. Miriam’s loss is not about the grief a mother feels after losing her only child, instead it is about the accountability Tony feels that he and The Avengers must have for their actions. It is this revelation, paired with the absence of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has separated from Tony, that form the backbone of his guilt. We are never given Pepper’s side of things, there is no insight into her decision, we only see how her choice affects Tony.
Team Cap doesn’t fare any better. While Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is arguably the greatest plot device where Captain America is concerned, we’re still given enough backstory and insight into his relationship with Steve Rogers to make their complicated relationship pay off and to make Bucky a character we can connect with on some level. This same consideration is never given to Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), who is never fleshed out beyond a few sparse details. The revelation in Civil War that she is the niece of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is done more for Steve’s reaction than it is for us to understand the relationship between the two women. Our fleeting glimpse of her in action at the site of the Vienna bombing only serves to establish her ability to gather inside information, which is further confirmed in the following scene where she slips Captain America a lead on Bucky’s whereabouts.
Our final encounter with Agent 13 comes mid-way through the film as she returns Captain America’s shield and Falcon’s gear. Despite the great personal risk, Agent 13 isn’t invited to officially join the team and help Captain America with his mission. Instead, her efforts are rewarded with a kiss. And while it is a sweet moment for the two characters, it also feels like an uneven payoff. Without Agent 13’s help, Team Cap would be unable to proceed but after this we never see her again. She is simply used to move the plot forward, which makes the loss of her aunt, Peggy Carter, particularly felt. Unfortunately, Marvel seems to relegate female agency to the small screen; our feminist heroines stays squarely put in shows like Agent Carter or Jessica Jones, which, while powerful and rightfully praised, feel like the minor leagues compared to films like Civil War.
Subsequently, the absence of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), while understandable, is also disappointing, especially considering how pivotal she was in facilitating Captain America’s escape at towards the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Our closest moment comes during the airport fight scene, when Black Widow holds off Black Panther, thus allowing Captain America and Bucky to escape, but it falls far short of Maria Hill’s heroics. In Winter Soldier, Captain America was captured and doomed, and in a delightful turning of the tables, he was rescued by Maria Hill. In Civil War, Black Widow’s efforts seems convenient but never vital; without her intervention, it was likely that Captain America and Bucky could’ve held off Black Panther and still escaped. Even Black Widow’s method of detaining Black Panther is lackluster, there is none of her dazzling hand-to-hand combat and instead of showing off her lethal combat skills, she she stands stationary, shooting electrical jolts at Black Panther until the coast is clear.
Despite these problems, Civil War does gives us two ass-kicking, powerful women in Black Widow (sans the scene above) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The film’s fight sequences wonderfully showcase their individual abilities, particularly Scarlet Witch, whose powers have grown exponentially since Avengers: Age of Ultron. Unfortunately, the two women never speak to each other or any other female characters in the film. For everything that Civil War gets right, it still fails the Bechdel Test.
But with the successful introduction of Black Panther in Civil War comes the hope that Marvel Studios will recognize the value of their female characters and give us the slew of female-led films that fans have been clambering for since the introduction of Black Widow in Iron Man 2. Here’s to hoping they talk about more than just a man.