Marvel (Still) Has a Women Problem

I originally wrote this post on my (now deleted) blog on Wordpress in May of 2018, a couple of weeks after my first viewing of “Infinity War.” I’m re-posting it on Medium now because “Captain Marvel” — Marvel’s first female-led movie — is now a THING, and “Avengers: Endgame” is about to be a THING in the next month.

So, I am someone who watches Marvel movies. I’ve seen almost all of them. I like most of them. I absolutely hate a few of them. And I deeply love a couple of them.

One of them I deeply love is Black Panther. I talk about Black Panther quite a bit. There are a cornucopia of things I love about Black Panther, but one of my favorite aspects of the movie is the way director and co-writer Ryan Coogler portrayed the female characters in the movie.

Black Panther’s women are allowed to be strong, vulnerable, capable, loving and loved all at the same time. It’s clear that Coogler was very intentional in his crafting of Okoye, Nakia, Shuri and Queen Ramonda. I consider Okoye and Nakia particularly revolutionary because while they were both devoted to T’Challa, they also had no problem acting without him, and were committed to themselves and their duty first and foremost. These women have a level of agency that I genuinely did not expect.

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Danai Gurira as Okoye

I didn’t expect them to have that much agency because . . . well, the women in Marvel movies hardly ever do. Even the most famous female Marvel characters are eventually reduced to being the background to their male counterparts’ foreground.

Nearly every female character from Pepper Potts — who spends the majority of her screen time tending to Tony Stark — to Natasha Romanoff — the super spy whose personality seems to change depending on who is directing the movie she’s in — ends up being bound to and defined by her relationship to the men around her. They often do not feel like full characters at all.

I feel as though there are plenty of Marvel movies that I could use as evidence for my statement, but the one that best illustrates the issues I have with Marvel’s portrayal of their female characters happens to be Marvel’s most monumental offering: Avengers: Infinity War.

Avengers: Infinity War takes two of their most prominent female characters — Gamora and Wanda Maximoff — and reduces them to their relationships with male characters. This film also treats these women as plot devices for the movie.

Gamora’s “arc” in the film is the most jarring example.

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Zoe Saldana as Gamora

Gamora is a main character of the Guardians of the Galaxy series. A former assassin and the “daughter” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most formidable antagonist Thanos, Gamora has been considered the deadliest and most fierce woman in the galaxy. It’s a title that Thanos takes great pride in.

Gamora met Thanos when she was a very young child. Thanos was on a mission to decimate the galaxy’s population by killing half of every planet’s inhabitants. Thanos claims that his mission was driven by a desire to preserve resources and prevent scarcity and starvation, but I’m pretty sure it has a lot more to do with his obsessive need to be God-like.

Either way, Thanos arrived on Gamora’s home planet and murdered half of her people. Before he left, he kidnapped Gamora because he apparently saw potential in the little girl. Thanos raised Gamora to be a ruthless killer, often having her fight/brutally beat her sister Nebula.

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In the Guardian movies, we see Gamora defined by her adjustment (or lack thereof) to her new role as a protector of the galaxy, her relationship with Nebula, and her will-they-won’t-they relationship with Peter Quill, a.k.a Star-Lord.

I’ve always felt that Gamora’s character had a lot of potential that wasn’t being tapped; she needed more introspection, and something else that helped set her apart from kinda-sorta boyfriend and murderous father.

Avengers: Infinity War does Gamora absolutely no favors. In fact, it harms her character.

Because of her relationship with Thanos, Gamora spends most of her screen time talking about him; who he is, what he wants, what he did to her and sister. She basically an exposition machine. Gamora actually spends most of her screen time with Thanos after he snatches her from the rest of the Guardians and forces her to accompany him on his journey to find the Soul Stone.

If Gamora isn’t talking to or about Thanos, she’s talking to or about Star-Lord. Since Infinity War takes place after a two-year time jump, by the time we see Gamora and Star-Lord, they are officially dating, trading kisses and “I love you’s” in the movie.

I’ll forever be annoyed by the Gamora and Star-Lord relationship in Infinity War because ̶S̶t̶a̶r̶-̶Lo̶r̶d̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶ ̶i̶r̶r̶i̶t̶a̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶m̶a̶n̶ ̶b̶a̶b̶y̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶k̶e̶e̶p̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶s̶h̶i̶t̶ ̶t̶o̶g̶e̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ it’s underdeveloped and takes up so much space in her story without adding anything beneficial to it. Their ~romance~ does more for Star-Lord’s character than it does for Gamora. It’s not about her; it’s about how Star-Lord feels about her.

Even Gamora’s eventual demise is not about her.

Towards the end of the second act, Gamora and Thanos find the Soul Stone on Vormir. Red Skull, who has randomly shown up as a wraith, explains to Thanos that the only way he can obtain the Soul Stone is to sacrifice something he loves. Gamora gets a kick of out this; as far as she can tell, Thanos doesn’t love anything.

But, as it turns out, Thanos “loves” Gamora. So he tearfully throws her over the cliff, killing her. And her death allows him to obtain the Soul Stone.

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A few scenes later, Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Dr. Strange, Nebula, Drax, Mantis and Star-Lord are facing off against Thanos on his Thanos’s home planet, Titan. They had concocted a plan that ended with them holding Thanos still while someone snatched the gauntlet off of his hand.

They actually manage to incapacitate Thanos, mostly thanks to Mantis climbing on his head and getting into his mind. But while one of them is slipping the gauntlet off, Star-Lord starts getting in Thanos’s face, taunting him and demanding to know where Gamora is. Mantis reads Thanos’s mind and reveals that Thanos is in pain and mourning over Gamora’s death.

Star-Lord realizes that Thanos has killed Gamora, and then reacts extremely poorly, causing a bunch of chaos that allows Thanos to break free of the group and attack them.

Gamora’s death literally pushes the plot along (Thanos gets the stone) and ostensibly adds dimension to Thanos’s character (he is capable of love/pain.) Her death also adds another layer of that sweet, sweet mangst to Star-Lord’s character.

Gamora is the clearest example of a walking-talking plot device. She is afforded very little personhood outside of her relationship with Thanos and Star-Lord.

But I can admit that this is a little bit understandable to me, considering Gamora and Thanos’s history, and Thanos’s position in Infinity War (he is, in a weird way, the main character.)

What threw me for a loop was the way the film treated Wanda Maximoff.

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch

Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a Scarlet Witch, was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Because they cannot mention mutants (at least not yet,) the movies have had to tweak her backstory a bit. Instead of being the (potential) daughter of Magneto who taps into arcane magic and has some boundaries issues with the spirit world, this iteration of Wanda is a young woman who HYDRA performs experiments on. Wanda is telekinetic, telepathic and can manipulate energy.

Wanda is one of the most powerful characters in the comics and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but we don’t really get to see her at the height of her power all that often.

There are only a few moments that really showcase her skill. One of them happens in Infinity War, when we see Wanda destroy the Mind Stone while also holding Thanos back with one hand. Wanda could probably take anybody out if she really, really wanted to.

Since Wanda is so strong and Thanos is the most powerful antagonist to come through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’d think that she’d have a more active role in the film. But, nope. She doesn’t.

No, the majority of Wanda Maximoff’s screen time is spent trying to protect her boyfriend, the android Vision.

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Vision was also introduced in Age of Ultron. He is basically a physical manifestation of JARVIS, created when Thor slapped the Mind Stone into a lifeless android that Tony and Bruce were planning on using to fight Ultron and then struck that android with lightning.

Since his creation, the movies have hinted at some ~romance~ between Wanda and Vision. It makes sense: the two have a long, dramatic af romance in the comic books. But the movies don’t really establish the relationship well. We see them have a moment in Age of Ultron when Vision catches Wanda out of the sky, and then we see them have a couple of moments in Captain America: Civil War.

In that one, Vision is basically helping Tony hold Wanda hostage in the Tower without Wanda knowing (again, not the best foundation for a relationship.) The two flirt while cooking only to end up fighting when Wanda learns that she can’t leave the Tower. But it’s apparently okay, because Wanda and Vision make up by the end of that movie.

When we find them in Infinity War, they have been living together for two years, and are fully in love.

Here’s the thing: Vision has the Mind Stone in his head, right? And Thanos really wants that stone. So Vision is now in danger, and Wanda is committed to protecting her robot lover. So Wanda becomes sort of a bodyguard for Vision.

A terrible dilemma pops up halfway through the movie: the best way to stop Thanos from getting the stone is to destroy it, and Wanda’s the only person strong enough to do that.

But destroying it would mean killing Vision. So, the Avengers come up with a plan to have Shuri remove the stone from Vision’s head without disabling Vision. When the stone is out, Wanda will destroy it. It’s a little jarring to see Wanda literally standing to the side, making sad-puppy eyes at Vision as Shuri works on him.

Of course, that plan doesn’t work, and Wanda ends up having to kill Vision anyway. That’s when we see that amazing sequence of having fighting Thanos while destroying the Mind Stone and killing her lover.

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Wanda’s whole purpose in this movie is to dote after Vision and then drag out the inevitable by refusing to destroy the Mind Stone earlier in the movie. Wanda’s romantic relationship with Vision becomes the only reason she is relevant to the story. She doesn’t get to do much else other than be with Vision.

And again, this relationship could’ve added a lot emotion to the movie, but it doesn’t because it’s so underdeveloped. The two-year time jump hurts the movie way more than it helps it. Just like I didn’t feel invested in Gamora’s relationship with Star-Lord, I didn’t feel the slightest bit invested in Wanda’s relationship with Vision.

Marvel’s inability to see women as anything other than appendages to the men around ultimately harms the quality of the films. It gets so boring to watch these strong, powerful women play second fiddle to a bunch of dudes who aren’t even as competent as them half of the time. And while Black Panther felt like a huge step forward, Infinity War felt like three steps back.

Look, Captain Marvel is here. It’s worldwide release is Friday, March 7. This will be Marvel’s first female-led superhero movie. It’s an amazing opportunity for Marvel to show that it can actually write women in a way that doesn’t shrink them. I need for Captain Marvel to help establish a new status-quo, one that Avengers: Endgame can continue.

Otherwise, Phase 4 is going to more of the same old, same old for women.

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