One of the most triumphant moments of this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego was when Thor: Love and Thunder director Taika Waititi invited Natalie Portman to the stage and handed her Mjolnir, confirming that the actress would return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- not as a superhero love interest, but as a superhero.
Along with the further announcements from Marvel's Hall H presentation that Scarlet Witch will have a starring role in the Doctor Strange sequel, a Blade reboot is in the works and Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie will be on the prowl for the "queen" to her king, the studio's promised push for greater diversity is slowly coming to fruition.
"Slowly," however, is the speed the studio appears to be stuck at when it comes to inclusion. It took a decade of films before the release of the MCU's first solo, female-fronted film, Captain Marvel, earlier this year. Meanwhile, Black Widow, who has appeared in six movies, has had to wait even longer for her own solo outing to be greenlit. By the time her film was announced, her character had already been killed off, dulling anticipation for the project and limiting its story possibilities.
On television, Marvel's female characters have had a slightly greater share. Agent Carter, which showed huge promise in its first season, was canceled after a subpar follow-up. Peggy has since been reduced to making cameo appearances; her latest -- and greatest -- will be taking up the Vibranium shield as a gender-bent Captain America on Marvel's animated Disney+ series, What If..?
Netflix's Jessica Jones enjoyed a more substantial, and critically-approved, run of three seasons. The series also not only boasted a solo female lead but a range of other women in supporting roles who had complex interior lives that didn't revolve entirely around men.
That last point echoes one of the Bechdel Test's three golden rules on how to achieve a baseline level of "good" representation when it comes to women, a low bar that the MCU continually struggles to clear (along with a lot of other major film and television franchises). Something that might help with this is for the studio to buck a peculiar trend that has become even more pronounced in Phase Four.
Female characters have and are becoming gradually more prominent in the MCU -- even getting more headlining roles -- but on one strange condition: They have to be partnered with a male one.
This is made explicit in the titles of Ant-Man and the Wasp and WandaVision, but, elsewhere, women's names never get top billing. Even Thor: Love and Thunder's title is arguably an ambiguous one that could easily be a nod to both Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth's characters. Scarlet Witch's name is nowhere to be found in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' title despite co-starring in it, while Valkyrie has so far been little more than Thor's female sidekick. Elsewhere, women are blended into mixed gender teams like the Guardians of the Galaxy series and the upcoming Eternals film.
Black Widow, as well as constantly playing second fiddle to her male counterparts, rarely spent any time not being romantically or platonically attached at the hip to one of her fellow male Avengers, nor had any of her long-hinted backstory fleshed out. This was deliberately done to build up interest in solo material, interest that the studio then failed to capitalize on for years.
You could also argue that while women aren't getting their names on the posters, they're still being given plenty of moments to shine on-screen. Avengers: Endgame's big "female empowerment" moment comes to mind. However, the numbers just don't back this assumption up. Between Iron Man and Avengers: Infinity War, women only accounted for about 10% of screen time across Marvel Studios' first decade, a fact that lays bare that these moments really are just moments (with the notable exception of Black Panther's fierce and capable cast of women).
The problem is one adopted from its source material, which has been similarly slow to diversify its own overwhelmingly straight, white, cis-gendered male canon. But it's not one unique to Marvel: Warner Brothers forced audiences to endure Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Batman & Robin before Wonder Woman was even allowed to share a screen with DC's World's Finest.
Data from the Women's Media Center tells us that, of all superhero and sci-fi movies widely released between 2009 and 2018, only 14% featured female leads compared to 55% with male ones (31% had female/male co-leads.) Thankfully, that number for female solo or co-lead films has jumped up to 53% of films made within the last five years, but for male ones it's still disproportionately high at 83%.
Being the industry juggernaut that it is, Marvel Studios is best positioned to keep pushing for equality. And, with women now accounting for 51% of ticket sales and solo female superheroes being proven box office draws, there's plenty of financial incentive, too. But, as it stands, the studio appears ever-willing to gamble on lesser known solo male or mixed-gender properties and needlessly cautious about allowing women to step into the spotlight on their own.