Since Marvel started the 10+ year endeavour that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, countless characters right out of the comic books have been brought to life on the big screen. For comic geeks, it has been an exciting time to be alive. Most of us never believed a time would come when superhero films were as mainstream as they are today and as acclaimed as they are.
And yet, despite the accomplishments that Marvel have achieved within the MCU, there has yet to be a single film led by a female character. Black Widow, who has been around since nearly the beginning, has still not been gifted with any proper backstory to shape her character.
Of course, Carol Danvers will soon arrive on screen in Captain Marvel, and hopefully, that will help with the problem that the women of the MCU face (as well as pave the way for other characters). It doesn’t change the fact that it’s taken an awful long time to get here.
The women that we do have within the MCU are great for the most part. They’re strong, powerful, and kick ass, despite the fact that none of them are ever really given their own storylines and arcs.
I think one of the first times I noticed this was with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Potts has been an integral part of the Iron Man franchise as the better half of the egotistical Tony Stark. She keeps his life in balance and ensures that everything with him, and Stark Industries, runs smoothly. But who is Pepper Potts? Despite her prominent role within the films and the MCU, we don’t really have any understanding of her as a person.
How did Pepper meet Tony? How did she come to work for Stark Industries? What did she do before Stark Industries to give her the background needed to run Stark Industries (eventually)? Who is Pepper Potts if not just a side character with a lazy amount of background given to her. Pepper is not just integral to Iron Man but to the MCU as a whole, but she still isn’t anywhere close to being a well-rounded character.
Then we have Natasha Romanov aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Like Pepper, Black Widow made her debut in the Iron Man movies. From there, she quickly grew to be a fan favourite character because duh, she’s amazing.
For years it was assumed that her character would evolve more when she was given her own solo film and that we’d get a chance to some of Romanov’s mysterious past. The only really glimmer we’ve seen of that is in Avengers: Age of Ultron when Wanda Maximoff uses her reality-bending abilities on Nat (and the rest of the Avengers). We really only get fragments of her life, and it’s not nearly enough to satisfy (in my opinion). Over the course of Black Widow’s cinematic appearances, we get hints of other things such as what happened between her and Hawkeye in Budapest, but nothing more.
I don’t know that we’ll ever really find out many of these things. Marvel doesn’t seem committed to shedding any light on Black Widow’s origin story, which is arguably one of the most interesting origins out of all the Avengers. They are planning to finally give us a female lead with Captain Marvel, but it seems like such an odd choice to use a comic book fan favourite over the pre-established character that they’ve been developing for years (although I am a big fan of Captain Marvel so this isn’t a complaint, it’s simply an observation).
I’m not sure if Marvel assumes everyone has read the comics and therefore should already have a knowledge of all these characters, but it should matter to them that we see them fleshed out fully on screen as well. The only heroes that seem worth a full backstory are the male leads, and that is incredibly frustrating.
While Pepper Potts exists to be the ying to Tony’s yang, Black Widow is tossed around from Avenger to Avenger as the writers test out various potential love interests for her. Her character is more than capable of standing alone without a love story arc. It seems that Marvel doesn’t know what to do with women if not to be involved with someone romantically. There was hints that Nat would shack up with Hawkeye until Age of Ultron stopped that dead in its tracks with the sudden appearance of a wife (Linda Cardellini) and children.
From there, Nat was passed off to Bruce Banner, despite the fact that Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo have nearly no romantic chemistry. The relationship feels forced and out of place.
Then there was the weird inclusion of Nat’s feelings towards motherhood in Age of Ultron. I don’t think anyone had been wondering “Gee, when is Black Widow going to settle down with a GOOD MAN and start a family?” through the course of the MCU films. I know that I personally never once wondered that. Yet this was something that apparently needed to be addressed, possibly to justify the stiff romantic ties that they keep trying to build for the character.
For me, that just cements that the writers behind these female characters really have no idea what to do with them. If they’re not being defined by a relationship or where they stand on maternal issues, then who are they!?
In Thor, we have Jane Foster who lives for science, and her research. Things are quickly derailed when her life becomes wrapped up in Thor’s and the world of Asgard. I dislike Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jane, but she’s given one of the more intelligent, fleshed out characters who at least has SOMETHING that defines her outside of Thor. We don’t get any of her backstory, and had she stuck around for the third film, I don’t think that would’ve changed, but she’s interesting and different, and definitely has her own agency, even if it’s not fully explored.
Still in the Thor films though, we also have Sif who quietly pines after Thor and the fact that he does not love her. Thankfully, this isn’t dragged out for too long. Instead of just being this badass warrior, her loyalty is tied to her feelings for Thor. This is something from the comics that they transferred over (so I understand where the writers were coming from with this), but it would’ve been easy enough to leave out.
Within Ragnarok, the closest that we get to a character that isn’t solely an afterthought to the male lead is Valkyrie. She’s not without her issues as a character, but I will explore those further in a separate piece for another day. That being said, she isn’t romantically tied to Thor. It’s even hinted very subtly that she’s been in at least one romantic relationship with a woman previously.
Still, Valkyrie is still not really fleshed out and delved into as a character, outside of a very brief scene that shows a fraction of her backstory. But I guess at least a relationship with one of the male leads isn’t being shoved on her.
The list goes on as far as the women of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is concerned. Wanda Maximoff and Gamora fall victim to this trend in Avengers: Infinity War. I won’t get into this for now since Infinity War has only been out for a short period of time, but Gamora’s portrayal in the film is especially irksome to watch. This is something I’ll elaborate on further down the line.
Wanda’s relationship arc is more organic, having been built up to at least a little bit in Civil War with Vision. I chalk this up to the films using the comics as a skeleton for constructing this. Their relationship plays heavily into the Marvel Comics Universe, especially leading up to the arc, House of M.
It still isn’t properly developed in the films though, and again gives off the vibe of being rushed in just for the sake of it. With Vision, there’s not a lot of character to explore since he’s only just been “born”, so to speak. Wanda, however, is only briefly explored as a villain and as a sister to Pietro, and that’s only really talked about since the Age of Ultron story hinges on those details. Wanda is literally one of the most powerful characters in the MCU and we don’t ever really talk about it and what exactly that means.
The exploration of Wanda would be an incredible way to expand upon the women of the MCU but again, her personal development and growth is cast aside in favour of building a love story for her.
At the end of the day, taking the time to build upon the female characters that have been put out into the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t a lot to ask for. Building these characters up even a fraction of how they’ve built up the male characters is important for the sake of representation. As we’ve said time and time again, representation matters. It matters to not just the young women of the world, but it matters for young boys and just young people everywhere to show that heroes come in all kinds of different forms.
Women aren’t beholden to the men in their lives, and despite the fact that they’re fictional characters, they deserve to be shown as individuals that stand alone from their male counterparts and not strictly tied to them. Women are more than just love interests.