From the New Woman of the silent movie era – an archetype of bravery and beauty in the very first action and adventure films – to the more recent summer of the “Alpha Female” in 2015 (think Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road) the female action hero has never failed to excite and challenge. Proving to be a commercially lucrative success in her own right, she has broken social convention and been dynamic and powerful for more than 100 years.
For today’s action fan, few other film series have held as much potential as the movies of the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU). But with great power comes great responsibility, especially when it comes to diversity. This year, Black Panther offered groundbreaking race representations and did not disappoint when it came to its portrayal of women either. Now, as the initial Avengers-led saga starts to wind down, and with the anticipated release of both Black Widow and Captain Marvel solo films (the latter of which will be the MCU’s first female-led movie), it seems only right to ask, what can the future hold for the women of Marvel?
The first 10 years
Over the last decade, the films which brought Marvel comic books to life have been applauded for making a difference in true representations of diversity. That’s not to say filmmakers weren’t criticised at the beginning, but in the latest instalment – Avengers: Infinity War – characters and hybrid stories are quite literally brought together from the far reaches of the film galaxy. Heroes and sidekicks from all walks of life offer representations of enhanced mortals, celestial gods and intergalactic in-betweens.
However, looking to the female characters, any future opportunities will depend on Marvel’s willingness to acknowledge and not be limited by their own history. 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 fulfil 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 humour as permissible, in an age when it is anything but. The time is up for cheap efforts in entertainment of this nature.
Female Avengers are still constrained by emotional or romantic responsibility to their colleagues, too. Why is it Black Widow’s responsibility to sooth the savage Hulk when it’s time for him to return to the form of Bruce Banner? How convenient the two characters are also possible love interests, a role Black Widow has been written to play in a number of Marvel films.
The women are also pandered to, in contrived attempts to address the uncomfortable awareness the men are expected to have of the female action hero’s power. In Thor: Ragnarok the hero-god fumbles for words upon acknowledging Valkyrie as a member of his home planet’s royal military force.
There’s nothing wrong with women of course, I love women, sometimes a little too much. Not in a creepy way, just more of a respectful appreciation, I think it’s great, there’s an elite force of women warriors. It’s about time.
The awkwardness expressed followed by a patronising thumbs up can be easily read as Thor’s attempt to backtrack from saying the wrong thing. But it is indicative of the awkwardness often expressed when addressing women of independent authority, too.
Yet there is hope on the horizon for the MCU. Female action heroes have already successfully led other superhero films (DC Comic’s Wonder Woman was a smash hit in 2017) so it won’t be hard for Marvel to replicate this success – but they can’t rely on tired old formulas.
Hollywood is changing – just look at recent calls for celebrity power to push for equal pay for colleagues, or contractual inclusion riders for greater equality and diversity. One hopes that the MCU does not miss the mark in recognising the power in these possibilities. Representations of female action heroes can be more than a reflection of our culture, they must be a vision of how we view each other and our place in the universe, cinematic or otherwise.