Marvel may not have 99 problems, but figuring out how to give women their due in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a big one that won’t go away.
By the time Marvel Studios makes Captain Marvel—its first superhero tent pole to be fronted by a female protagonist—twenty other male-dominated MCU films will have preceded her. In the history of Marvel properties adapted to film by Marvel Studios or Marvel Entertainment dating back to 1998’s Blade, that makes only two out of over fifty comics-to-big screen projects to be led by a woman, including 2005’s megaflop Elektra.
Well, three if you count yesterday’s surprise move to shoehorn Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne into marquee position in the Ant-Man sequel, now titled Ant-Man and The Wasp. It’s “the first Marvel Studios film named after its heroine,” Marvel helpfully pointed out in their announcement, cheerfully spinning the news as a huge step forward for womankind.
But Van Dyne only took up the Wasp mantle as moviegoers were shuffling out of the aisles during the Ant-Man credits roll, and boosting her role in the sequel now slotted for July 6, 2018 feels more like an opportunistic afterthought than a statement. We’ll call it in the middle, then: That makes two and a half women-led tent poles to carry us through 2019. And that, frankly, isn’t good enough.
Because as Marvel takes one step forward, it’s taking a bigger one back. In breaking the Ant-Man 2 news, along with an accelerated Black Panther date and three more unidentified 2020 films, the studio blamed The Wasp’s promotion for why it’s also pushing its high-profile superheroine flick Captain Marvel from 2018 to March 8, 2019—International Women’s Day. Whether that date is coincidental, honorific, or pandering is up for debate.
Most likely it’s a convenient date that will double as a bonus shoulder-patting marketing tool, because Marvel hasn’t been able to ignore increasingly loud complaints over its treatment of its female characters. The Brovengers’ slut-shaming of Black Widow back in April only exacerbated the problematic ways in which the Avengers franchise already exploited Scarlett Johansson’s character, and her curves, while reducing her to the sidelines on toy shelves.
“Disney does not care about Marvel’s female market, which makes us virtually invisible,” one anonymous former Marvel employee wrote, explaining Black Widow’s absence from Avengers merch and Gamora’s glaring omission from Guardians of the Galaxy swag. “This exclusion of women from Marvel movie merchandise is completely purposeful.”
Even Mark Ruffalo implored Marvel to think of the Black Widow Effect warping the minds of little girls when he Tweeted to his comic book overlords and his nearly two million followers, “.@Marvel we need more #BlackWidow merchandise for my daughters and nieces. Pretty please.”
Marvel head Kevin Feige, who recently cemented his grasp as the once and future ruler of Marvel’s cinematic kingdom, has been skirting the woman questions for years: When will Marvel make a female superhero standalone? Why do the women of the MCU so often get railroaded by their male peers? Wherefore art thou, Black Widow?
“In terms of essays written about Black Widow in Ultron, I think they’re all valid. Everybody’s opinions are valid,” Feige admitted this summer while promoting the release of Ant-Man. Marvel has always “gone for the powerful woman versus the damsel in distress,” he argued.
Never mind that those “powerful” women—Jane Foster, Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter—have almost exclusively been love interests tethered to one (or more) of the MCU’s super-powered male heroes.
That may be why Emily Blunt has been, for the most part, diplomatically downplaying the suggestion that she’d be perfect for Captain Marvel after reportedly entertaining previous brushes with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reportedly turning down roles in Captain America and Iron Man 2. “For me, I just think that the part has gotta be awesome,” she said. “I just want to play great parts, and it’s sometimes hard to find within those big superhero movies. The female parts are not usually great, but recently, they’ve been better.”Last October, Feige and Marvel finally made their historic move, announcing that a Carol Danvers-led Captain Marvel standalone would hit theaters in 2018—ten years after the MCU was launched with 2008’s Iron Man. The project had been in development “almost as long as Doctor Strange or Guardians of the Galaxy,” Feige said.
And yet Captain Marvel feels like it keeps moving farther and farther away from being a reality, having already been pushed once to make room for the Spider-Man reboot. Now it will bring up the rear toward the end of Marvel’s Phase 3 slate.
Marvel’s public attempts at increasing gender representation in the MCU have otherwise failed spectacularly. In 2011, the studio parted ways with director Patty Jenkins over “creative differences” months after announcing that she would helm Thor: The Dark World. The Monster director would notably have been the first female director to helm an MCU film; instead, she jumped ship to DC, taking the reins from Michelle McLaren on their high profile Wonder Woman film.
More recently, Marvel lost another PR opportunity when they failed to sign Selma director Ava DuVernay, the popular choice to helm Black Panther. “I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be,” she told Essence in July.
“I loved meeting Chadwick [Boseman] and writers and all the Marvel execs. In the end, it comes down to story and perspective. And we just didn’t see eye to eye. Better for me to realize that now than cite creative differences later… I love the character of Black Panther, the nation of Wakanda and all that that could be visually. I wish them well and will be first in line to see it.”
Audiences may be ready for the next bona fide Marvel superheroine movie now, but Marvel needs a few more years. Screenwriters Nicole Perlman, who co-wrote Guardians of the Galaxy, and Meg LeFauve of Pixar’s Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur haven’t even begun to tackle Captain Marvel.
“We have not started yet,” LeFauve recently told ScreenCrush. “We just got the phone call to come over to Marvel. But for me personally, the wonderful thing about her and the challenge of her is going to be that she’s a female superhero.”
Ironically, LaFauve says, the problem is that Captain Marvel is too much of a badass. “That is awesome because she’s so powerful, and how hard is that going to be because she’s so powerful?” We don’t want the Superman curse. ‘What’s her vulnerability?’ is what we have to figure out.”
In an interview with Newsweek a few years back, Joss Whedon, who helmed the two Black Widow-heavy Avengers films as well as female-centric TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse, voiced his frustrations with Marvel’s lack of superheroine films.
“Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, You see? It can’t be done,” Whedon said. “It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, “My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,” and I thought, Yeah, of course they were. I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’”