So, obviously this is spurred by Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy, which came out last weekend, which demolished all August film openings, which I saw this weekend, and which was, as everyone has already been telling you, pretty much awesome.
But you don’t need another post about that, you’ve seen it all before, there’s nothing new I can tell you. This movie is like pure joy, bottled and delivered directly into your soul. It’s not perfect but it’s fun, funny, and a great example of how super complicated ideas and utterly bizarre characters and concepts can be made “new viewer” friendly and yet still appeal to fans. It’s a success all around.
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
The biggest problem with the film is the after credits stinger which is basically a worthless joke. It’s fine that it’s a joke and it’s not a bad little laugh, but for people that were hoping against hope for a Black Widow or Captain Marvel stinger hinting at a solo adventure (Captain Marvel especially since that would be fitting for the cosmic/GotG galaxy film we’d just seen) it’s REAL downer of a stinger.
As the movie release approached and nothing leaked I (and others like me) slowly accepted that this Widow or Captain Marvel Stinger was not going to happen. I still managed to hope we’d get an announcement at SDCC, but it was not to be.
We not only didn’t get the announcement we’d all been hoping for, but we got some relatively awful news on Ant-Man regarding female characters (short version: Janet Van Dyne/The Wasp’s immediate future looks rather grim). Feige said some intelligent things recently about superhero movies and about Hollywood in general that give one confidence, but when it comes to superheroine films Feige (and co.) remain incredibly vague on the subject. Supportive but vague. There’s been MORE than enough time for us to move well past vague. We’re two years out from the MASSIVE success of The Avengers and that’s more than enough time to get your ducks in a row and at least put a team together and make an announcement.
Hell, we all know that the massive success that is Lucy should have been a little movie called BLACK WIDOW. And I hope the success of that film (which I have not yet seen) has Marvel Studios very seriously looking at all the money they have flushed down the toilet. And no, I don’t believe that money will always be there. We are quickly heading to saturation/oversaturation point on superhero films (if we’re not already there). Sure, they’re not going to stop being made, and thanks to demand for these kind of action/high effects film in the foreign market, they've got a longer life expectancy, but people are going to burn out on them and they will reach a natural nadir at which point production will slow down and become more difficult.
So, as I’ve said before, the time for a lady led superhero film is NOW. Time for some of these people to get serious. And Marvel should certainly be taking advantage of the opening DC has given them with Wonder Woman to get there first in this new age of superhero films (our last "literal superheroine film" was 2005's Elektra, before the 2008 boom that Iron Man created...unless you count this month's Lucy...which...maybe we should? I dunno, she doesn't ever like don a costume, but she definitely has powers and at some points fights bad guys? So I don't know...maybe it qualifies as "superhero" instead of just "action"?). Anyway, Marvel should move heaven and earth to beat DC to the table. And listen, I have serious skin in the game. I’m more than happy for my little indie book about superheroes to be the first "new" female led "superhero film" (god, that would be awesome) but I really shouldn’t get there first. There’s no reason on Earth I - a nobody - should get there "first."
So below is a rundown and ranking of the most significant roles for women in the Marvel films to date. And before you get to thinking that 11 (relatively) significant roles for women over the course of ten films isn’t so bad, consider that in those same 10 films there have been (by my rough count) more than 45 equally significant roles for men to the ones listed below for the ladies. That’s…not great, especially as a single female led film continues to elude us.
But we’re here to rank the existing ladies in prominent roles in the existing films, so let’s get to it. We’ll start at the bottom and work our way to number one!
11. LIV TYLER AS BETTY ROSS IN THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
Unfortunately this role is almost forgettable, despite the fact that I really like Liv Tyler as an actress and she turns in a fine performance. It’s just not a great role. While Betty Ross is an interesting character in comics, here (and admittedly it’s been a while since I’ve seen Incredible Hulk) the role is mostly just the traditional love interest. She’s also a cellular biologist, but more for story convenience than anything else. It’s true that especially in Hulk stories the love interest (usually Betty) provides a good anchor point for Bruce Banner and as comic fans know Betty goes on to become a really interesting character in her own right and eventually the anti-heroine Red Hulk, but there’s very little in this movie for the character to do short of run, hide, kiss, look scared, etc. Too bad.
10. EMILY VANCAMP AS SHARON CARTER/AGENT 13 IN CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER (2014)
This is again a case where there’s not much to the role we’ve seen thus far. This is more about the promise of what’s to come, which is likely more interesting to comic book fans who really understand who Sharon Carter is. For me, VanCamp is not a great cast for this. It’s possible she’ll come into her own as a movie star, but she still feels more like a TV actress to me and so she didn’t really command attention on the screen. The role had little meat, but my gut feeling when I saw the film was that a different actress could have given it a bit of gravitas it was lacking, but perhaps not, it’s pretty hard to stand out among already established superheroes and movie stars. Also, though I am a fan of Sharon Carter in the comics, I have to admit the idea of her as Cap’s love interest in future films is pretty icky (it is in the comics too)…the niece of a woman you loved who’s now a (dying) grandmother? There are so many amazing women in the world, Cap, let’s look for one not named Carter, okay? All that said, there’s a lot of potential for Carter in the future and if VanCamp can grow quickly into the role and own it she might be able to climb this chart.
09. KAREN GILLAN AS NEBULA IN GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)
Nebula was a nice surprise. She was all but absent from the trailers and yet she has a decently juicy supporting role in the film. She takes over the hunt of the Guardians at one point and thus kind of becomes the big bad guy they’re dealing with by default and she gets one really great hand-to-hand combat scene with Gamora. The make up/effects for Nebula are fantastic (far better than Gamora’s in my opinion) and Karen Gillan simply does an excellent job with what she’s given. Nebula is not a funny gal (neither is Gamora, more on that below) and so it would be easy to get lost among all the jokes and charismatic/weird characters in Guardians of the Galaxy but Gillan holds her own.The character was significant enough that I’d definitely like to see her again in future films and with Thanos a big player in the current Marvel Film Universe, that doesn’t seem like it should be a problem. Watch out for this one to potentially move up!
08. NATALIE PORTMAN AS DR. JANE FOSTER IN THOR (2011) AND THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)
Thank the gods they cast Natalie Portman, because this role is a struggle to make work even for someone of her caliber and magnificent beauty. Plainly, Jane Foster is a snooze fest. She’s beautiful and brainy and you can feel the writers trying hard (and valiantly) to make her significant, but except for a few surprises where she proves funny or more resilient than expected, she’s mostly a “Mary Sue” of the highest order that doesn’t ever quite earn a reason to be on screen. The “big moment” they gave her (punching Loki in Thor 2 and saying “that was for New York”) is a huge miss in my opinion and an example of why the character remains so flat – there’s little personality there, despite Portman’s best efforts. Loki almost destroys NYC and the best we can do is punch him in the face Jane? SIGH.
In comics Foster was of course originally a nurse and in the films she’s been “upgraded” to astrophysicist but in both cases she has those jobs mostly as a function of plot as it relates to Thor (i.e. in the comics so she is conveniently located to Dr. Blake and in the film so that there’s a reason for Thor and Foster to come into contact). And herein is the essential problem with love interests. They are there primarily to service plot and emotional development for another character. It’s a well used device and there’s nothing wrong with it, but when there aren’t any alternatives (i.e. female leads that are NOT love interests) then it becomes a big problem. Jane Foster is there to serve Thor’s story and there’s no way around it. You can build her up as much as possible (and it’s good that the effort is made to do so) but at the end of the day, she can’t ever be a Black Widow or even a Gamora because those characters have their own agency and hopefully one day their own films, they can anchor those things, but can Dr. Jane Foster anchor her own film? No, she can’t. It’s certainly no fault of Portman’s that the character is thin, and she does what she can with the role, but there’s just not much there. She’s a love interest coupled with a plot device, and it’s hard to make those characters feel like more than that, because it’s what they are supposed to be.
Jane Foster would need a whole lot of evolution to level up on this list, but it’s almost entirely thanks to Portman that she scrapes by at #8.
07. COBIE SMULDERS AS MARIA HILL IN THE AVENGERS (2012), CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER (2014), AND MARVEL AGENTS OF SHIELD - TV (2014)
To be honest, without a couple wonderful key scenes in Captain America: Winter Solider, Smulder’s Maria Hill is maybe batting last on my list (or maybe coming in just before Agent 13, if I'm generous). I’m one of the only people in the world (or so it sometimes seems) that is not a big fan of Smulders (on How I Met Your Mother or anywhere else). Despite Whedon being a fan of Smulders and making a clear effort to find a place for her (and Maria Hill) in The Avengers - which is much appreciated given how few female roles exist in the film - Hill in The Avengers does almost nothing for me. Perhaps it’s simply because she’s surrounded by so many characters and massively charismatic movie stars as well as a huge movie/plot but I was generally bored by Hill/Smulders. HOWEVER, in Winter Solider Hill gets a couple of really juicy scenes that take the character dramatically forward and Smulders plays them expertly. Winter Soldier alone shot Maria Hill up the list at least 4 places. It also speaks to how important getting additional titles are to advancing in this kind of character game.
06. KAT DENNINGS AS DARCY LEWIS IN THOR (2011) AND THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)
This is arguably not a significant enough role to make the list, and to make matters worse Lewis is not/was not an existing character from the comics, however Dennings steals every scene she’s in and makes you wish she was in the whole damn movie. I’m a big Natalie Portman fan, but Dennings performance makes you wish Thor would fall for Dennings smart mouth and “unconventional” curves rather than Foster’s smart brain and classic beauty. It really puts a fine point on the limitations of being a love interest. Dennings gets to do far more as the funny sidekick than she would ever get to do in the romantic lead role, though that speaks volumes about how small-minded we are in our approach to romantic leads/relationships. In fact, now that I think about it some more, I don’t wish that Thor would fall for Dennings at all, instead I wish that Darcy would be involved in some kind of intern lab accident, get superpowers, and get her own film. Cause I would watch the CRAP out of Kat Dennings’s Darcy tearing stuff up with her sarcastic wit AND bare hands.
Good god. Someone make that happen, please.
05. JAMIE ALEXANDER AS SIF/LADY SIF IN THOR (2011), THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013), MARVEL AGENTS OF SHIELD – TV (2014)
And here you can see some obvious bias and not of the actor kind. I LOVE Sif. I love the character even independent of comics, TV, and film. It’s simply a character from Norse Mythology I find fascinating and am always interested to see adapted in other stories and media. So it was really exciting to see her cast so well – Jamie Alexander has a wonderful presence and as a nice bonus she’s a little more “physically significant” at 5’9” than most actresses which works well for Sif (and for superheroes in general). I think Alexander’s incredibly strong performance in an extremely minor role in Thor was what guaranteed her much larger role in Thor: The Dark World. But that, coupled with fans desperation to see some leading ladies kicking ass really made her a fan favorite. She’s earned every bit of it. It takes a well-written role and a capable actress to draw the spotlight to you without stealing it, to capture fans minds, and to easily balance battle-tested warrior, and non-resentful scorned love interest. Alexander handles it all with grace and she looks incredibly capable (read: badass) in fantastic looking battle armor. There's a reason so many fans wanted her to be Wonder Woman after seeing her take on Sif. They weren't wrong.
04. HAYLEY ATWELL AS PEGGY CARTER IN CAPTAIN AMERICA (2012), MARVEL ONE SHOT: AGENT CARTER – SHORT (2013), AND CAPTAIN AMERICA 2: WINTER SOLDIER (2014)
People are fanatical about this character and I don’t really blame them. Atwell absolutely owns the Peggy Carter role and she gets to do it in awesome period fashion. But I don’t think it’s an accident that people have attached themselves so rabidly to Agent Carter, she IS at this moment the only woman on this list with anything named after her. Sure it was a digital short and it’s not lead to a film but a television series, but I think it’s as much a testament to the desperation of fans for a leading lady as it is of Atwell’s Carter being a great character. I’m not saying we’d support something crappy just because we’re desperate, but just that our death grip on the delicious thing we’ve been given is even more intense for fear it’s going to be taken from us, and because we’re simply STARVING for it.
Atwell plays Carter perfectly in her film roles, staying firmly entrenched in a supporting role but unwilling to be anything as flimsy as just a love interest, she’s wonderfully capable, and badass in a way appropriate to the time period. In her digital one-shot short she steps into the lead as naturally as if she’d been born for it. Let’s hope she can do the same for the TV series.
03. ZOE SALDANA AS GAMORA IN GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)
I like Zoe Saldana. I think she’s a very talented actress and she does a good job with Gamora, but I’m not sure why she’s become the only woman (along with Jennifer Lawrence?) to get all the action roles in big movies/franchises (Star Trek, Losers, Avatar, Columbiana, and now Guardians of the Galaxy). It’s great of course that an actress of color is getting these roles, but it seems like maybe we should let Saldana take at least a small break – spread the wealth around a little bit. I say this is in part because I think Saldana being pigeon-holed into these action roles (ALL the action roles) is starting to limit her range. Her Gamora was perfectly acceptable, but she felt like a lot of other action roles for women…and worse, she felt a lot like other action roles for Saldana. Gamora is a pretty unique character and I’m not sure the role as written, or Saldana’s performance quite got us there. Also, what was up with that super annoying leather (vinyl?) mini-skirt at the end? Eyeroll.
Anyway, Saldana kicks a ton of ass in GotG, as expected, and she’s certainly the most honorable of the group, despite her back-story, but to be honest the writing of her felt a bit thin. In fairness to GotG it has a ton of characters, a million jokes, a lot of plot to cover, several bad guys, and some great music, none of which leaves as much time as I’d like for character development, but Gamora does feel like she gets the short end of the stick, and as the only woman on the “team” it’s particularly noticeable. Still, Gamora has some incredible fight scenes and establishes herself well as a force to be reckoned with. There’s a ton of room for future development for the character and I’m excited to see where they take her. The right moves and Gamora could easily continue moving up this list after an already solid debut.
02. GWYNETH PALTROW AS PEPPER POTTS IN IRON MAN (2008), IRON MAN 2 (2010), THE AVENGERS (2012), AND IRON MAN 3 (2013)
Pepper Potts has the benefit of four movies, more than any other female characters on our list. Given four movies I’m sure characters like Gamora can eventually outpace her solely by being their own leading women as opposed to meager beginnings as love interests, so Potts should enjoy this #2 spot while she can! That said, four movies means nothing if you don’t let a character grow and Potts grows beautifully and realistically, from brilliant smart-mouthed assistant and potential love interest in Iron Man to brilliant smart-mouthed CEO of Stark Industries and actual love interest in Iron Man 2, to fully realized partner in love and business in The Avengers, to all of that plus temporary damsel in distress, and then full blown superpowered badass that actually takes down the big bad in Iron Man 3.
None of the women in the Marvel films have been given the same consideration of their arc as a character and Paltrow has made the most of it. Think what you will of Paltrow as modern day guru/entrepreneur but as Pepper Potts she’s simply nailed it. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark does his level best to steal every scene he’s in, and yet Paltrow finds the perfect give and take with both Downey and Stark so that she holds her own on screen but doesn’t tip the scales. Their chemistry is pure magic. Iron Man 3 gets a lot of criticism, some of which I agree with, but as an example of a strongly feminist film – ultimately Tony Stark fails to rescue Potts who then rescues herself and also saves Tony – it’s wonderfully on point. When I watch Iron Man 3, other flaws be damned, I find myself shocked that Shane Black and company got away with such a feminist ending and I love it.
01. SCARLETT JOHANSSON AS BLACK WIDOW IN IRON MAN 2 (2010), AVENGERS (2012), CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLIDER (2014
Well, duh. Johansson’s Black Widow has been the best and most cleverly positioned woman in Marvel’s films since her first appearance on screen. She has been a chameleon quite deliberately in both how her character is realized and in her more obvious physical appearance. Johansson’s Black Widow slides flawlessly from overtly sexy mysterious badass with improbably odd curls in Iron Man 2 to capable spy and superhero, smart and holding her own among men with far more physical power than she possesses in The Avengers, to a more personal look at her fears and insecurities, coupled of course with plenty of ass kicking in Winter Soldier. One of my favorite things about the way Marvel has handled Widow is in the choreography. They are very smart in their choices, as you’ll notice that Widow really has to throw her entire body weight around, and use technology as well as her environment to fight incredibly smart as she’s often fighting characters with far more physical power than she possesses. We all come into superhero movies with a certain suspension of disbelief, but it really helps me believe a 120 pound woman can take down a man twice her size when I see real thought in her fighting technique and clever use of objects and even her own body. It’s some great stuff.
Quite frankly, the chameleon-like roles Widow has been given in these films and Johansson’s execution of those roles rivals the development of some of the male leads who have had much more time to do the same kind of work. Marvel has set Widow up perfectly for a standalone Black Widow film, which is perhaps why it’s so damn depressing that we don’t yet have an announcement on that film.
So. That’s it for the list. As we wind down, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, not the lack of female leads which we’ve already well covered, no, the OTHER elephant in the room. Every single woman on this list is white (and no, green and blue don’t count toward diversity). It IS great that Zoe Saldana is an actress of color and one of the biggest female leads to date, but since she’s playing a green alien, it doesn’t count toward diversifying the list of characters, even if it does count toward diversifying the actresses.
It’s doubly frustrating to realize that even if we got our dream and got a female led film (or two!) announced, they would likely be white women as well – the most likely candidates discussed (and well positioned) are Captain Marvel and Black Widow, both white. Other names that we regularly see bandied about and discussed are usually white too - She-Hulk and The Wasp are two I frequently see mentioned. And we already have our newest female “love interest/supporting cast” announced in the form of Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man - again, white.
Comics has a real problem with diversity and it’s something that’s being exported into the films. I hope some of the very smart people making these films see the problem and are doing their best to make sure they course correct.
I suppose we could solve basically ALL our problems with a Nextwave: Agents of HATE film starring Monica Rambeau. It would be like an even crazier R-rated version of Guardians of the Galaxy…who’s with me?!?
Kelly Thompson is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She is the author of the superhero novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING recently optioned to become a film, and her new novel STORYKILLER is out now. You can find Kelly everywhere, but twitter may be the easiest: @79semifinalist