Assessing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Part 1

I’ve always contended that fan battles are, for the most part, silly — as if you couldn’t enjoy both Star Wars and Star Trek, or appreciate David Tennant and Matt Smith in the role of The Doctor. Yet if I had to choose a side in the contest between DC and Marvel Comics properties, I would declare my allegiance to Marvel. The only superhero graphic novel series I’ve taken an interest in over the last few years have been She-Hulk (the “Superhuman Law” stories), Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Squirrel Girl. In the realm of television, the only DC show I watch is Supergirl, yet I’ve followed Agents of SHIELD, Jessica Jones, and Agent Carter, and my husband and I are just starting on Luke Cage. In animation, DC has an edge, since Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and Young Justice were all favorites of mine, yet I don’t think the DC Animated Universe has released a strongly female-positive movie since Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. (And no, I’m not keen at all to see Batman and Harley Quinn.) On the Big Screen, for me at least, there’s just no contest. I haven’t seen, and don’t plan to see, every Marvel Cinematic Universe release, but in general the MCU adopts the tone I prefer to see when I watch a superhero flick — fun, energetic, and on the whole optimistic. Marvel all the way.

But now that Wonder Woman has happened, I’m a little less sure. After years of waiting, we finally have proof that a female superhero can serve as the lead in a good movie that people want to see. No longer can Hollywood execs point to Catwoman, Elektra, and Red Sonja as evidence that comic book movies featuring female heroes just don’t work. Those days are gone, and good riddance to them. Yet I find myself retroactively disappointed in the Marvel films, that so far none of them have shown remotely the same kind of faith in female superheroism that we see in Wonder Woman. In the Marvel films, when female heroes (not superheroes; of all the women I’ve seen in Marvel films, I can think of only two on the side of good that possess any superhuman qualities) show up, they’re part of teams on which they’re outnumbered by men, and in most of these films the female leads aren’t heroes at all, but love interests, women of Kleenex whose usefulness varies wildly. Yet Kevin Feige, executive in charge of the MCU, claims with pride that his movies are full of “strong women.”

Some of them are. Yet none of them are protagonists. Perhaps it’s time to take stock.

THE GOOD:

Captain America: The First Avenger. My love for Peggy Carter, absolutely the best non-powered love interest any movie superhero ever had (although Steve Trevor comes very close), is already well documented here. This movie also shines for me thanks to Chris Evans’ sheer likability as Steve Rogers (which hopefully the MCU will maintain, avoiding that “Cap is Hydra” trainwreck), the World War II setting, and the rousing musical score. (Just try getting “Star-Spangled Man” out of your head.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier. An adventure more stark in tone than the first film, more appropriately “wintry,” it’s still a lot of fun to watch (the elevator scene is a highlight) and it features two badass ladies, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff and SHIELD agent Maria Hill, both of whom manage to kick extensive butt despite having no superhuman abilities. This one also stands out as the only superhero film I can think of to focus on a friendship, not a romance, between its male and female leads.

Thor. In this movie directed by Kenneth Branagh, best known for his adaptations of Shakespeare, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor exudes the charm and charisma of the swashbuckling heroes Errol Flynn played back in the 1930s, and Christopher Hiddleston’s Loki is by far the MCU’s most interesting villain. While I don’t care much for Natalie Portman’s listless performance, I do admire the character of Jane Foster, whose scientific inquiries are relevant to the plot, and whose friendship with her intern Darcy counts as the first (and so far, the only) example of true cameraderie between women we’ve seen in the MCU. Then there’s the awesome Sif, finally a superpowered woman. A pity her role is so small.

The Avengers. This movie opens with a brilliant subversion of the distressed damsel trope, as a tied-up Black Widow plays the role just long enough for her supposed captors to feel comfortable with their presumed upper hand — and then she demolishes them. The rest of the film lives up to this good start, as each hero gets a chance to shine. Plus, Loki’s back! The moment when an old man who remembers Nazi Germany refuses to bow down before the conquest-minded Loki stirs the heart. These glimpses of the heroism of ordinary humans help make the best MCU films special.

Guardians of the Galaxy. This one has some problematic elements, but I admit I was hooked from the opening credit sequence (featuring Star-Lord dancing through a swamp fill of poisonous lizards to the tune of “Come and Get Your Love”), which ended up setting the tone for the whole movie. Since I have a soft spot for nonhuman characters, I love it that only one of the team is human. Gamora the assassin is, surprisingly, the film’s moral compass, the one whose decision sets the plot in motion. The problem: leaving gender out of the equation for the moment, the writers evidently feel the audience can only identify with the human, so Gamora isn’t allowed to be the protagonist. The good news is that the human male protagonist is only able to save the day in tandem with his team.

Any of these movies I’d happily rewatch in a heartbeat. All of them feature heroines I can get behind. Yet I can’t help regret that even in its best films, the MCU hasn’t yet achieved a female hero. Next year’s big offering, Black Panther, promises to feature a whole coterie of badass women, and I can’t wait to see it. But it’s called Black Panther for a reason.

Still waiting, Marvel.

(Up next: Part 2, The Okay and the Disappointing)

 

 

 

 

 

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