ARTS + CULTURE
5th April 2021
With the release and success of WandaVision, we can now see that when the MCU tries, they can create intriguing female characters that are more than just catalysts used to move the plot from one point to the other. Wanda’s experiences with grief and trauma from previous movies are built upon in this series and are brought to an apogee, providing the MCU with an incredibly humane and vulnerable side to a female superhero. Yet this does not drown out the super part of the Scarlet Witch as we are also shown how powerful Wanda can truly be, reminding us that even when dealing with loss and emotional duress, we are still looking at a superhero.
WandaVision is an incredible direction for the MCU to move in, but even so, there is a definite air of confusion present questioning whether the MCU can integrate well-written female characters into their stories. Early on in their universe, they have shown that they can do so through the characters of Natasha Romanoff and Virginia “Pepper” Potts, whereas later, they released flops such as Captain Marvel. As well as some of the female characters are written, how frustratingly satisfying is it that most female representation in the MCU consists of side-characters or superheroes that are simply not strong enough to face any of the main villains? Romanoff is stuck fighting fodder most of the time she’s on-screen as she simply does not possess the power to go up against villains such as Ultron or Thanos. Pepper, on the other side of the spectrum, fills her role of a stay-at-home moral-support character that must constantly keep Iron Man in check and deal with his company for him to have the time to save the world. You look at these characters, as well written as they are, and wonder if they are the type of characters one looks up at and strives to become.
I remember that as a young boy, the main appeal of superheroes was that they looked cool on-screen while taking down the bad guys. While I was young, it was enough that both Iron Man and I were male; I felt represented and empowered and that I could become just like him if I took the right steps in life. The problem now is that as time passed, the audience grew up while the superheroes remained mostly the same.
“The older I got, the more I realised that sharing gender with the superhero on screen was not enough, something had to be added onto it. Something deeper and more intricate had to connect us, something like emotion and experience that could create an attachment that expanded our connection beyond the mere similarity of gender.”
With all these criteria in mind, it is already difficult to find a male superhero that fits the bill, let alone a female one. When the MCU announced that they were releasing Captain Marvel, I thought that it would be the perfect moment for them to capitalise on making sure that women gain a significant foothold in superhero representation in the MCU. (Yes, before Captain Marvel there have been shows like Agent Carter that had a female lead, yet the fact that the show got cancelled due to a lack of viewership speaks for itself.) Unfortunately, Captain Marvel did not live up to expectations. The movie fails to properly portray who Carol Danvers really is. She is presented to us as this extremely powerful character that wants to do what is right, which does not distinguish her from any of the other superheroes in the MCU. Even now, I am not entirely sure whether the script is to be blamed or the poor chemistry between Brie Larson and the character she was supposed to depict. Even so, no matter what was at fault, at the end of the day, the character was so flat and dull that the whole plot-point of Danvers experiencing an existential crisis and trying to find out who she is, has no impact whatsoever. Comparing her to characters going through similar circumstances such as Natasha Romanoff and Wanda Maximoff, one begins to wonder what happened between the earlier movies and this one; it feels like Marvel completely forgot how to write female characters in-between. Both Natasha and Wanda are shown struggling with notions of morality that are tied to their actions whilst trying to find a place they belong to. Captain Marvel on the other hand simply has this existential crisis hanging over her head the entire movie yet she does not appear to be affected by it all that much. She becomes one of the most powerful beings in the MCU yet there is no real moment of introspection that can show us how she truly feels or what she stands for, unlike the brilliant struggle Natasha and Wanda are shown going through as they battle against their past actions in Captain America: Civil War, having multiple scenes dedicated to them attempting to undo their past wrongs by siding with what they believe is right.
The MCU, I believe, also struggles with tokenism. Characters such as Pepper in the first Iron Man and Jane Foster in Thor and Thor: The Dark World were mere token female characters that were there simply to exist. In the case of Pepper, she at least evolves into a substantial role throughout the movies. The chemistry between her and Tony Stark forms naturally as he passes the burdens of running Stark Industries onto her to free up his space and become Iron Man. Jane, on the other hand, has none of that development. Spanning two movies, Jane Foster and Thor built no chemistry whatsoever, yet we are meant to believe that the two are in love with one another. In Thor: The Dark World, when she gets possessed by the Aether, she at least acts as a catalyst that moves the plot of the movie from one point to the other, yet even then, Marvel has Jane do absolutely nothing with that power. Even Hela in Thor: Ragnarok was a disappointment. She is presented as the Goddess of Death and Odin’s firstborn. With Odin’s death, her banishment is over, and she returns to take over Asgard. The problem stems from the fact that we are presented with these facts about her, and intrigue is formed, yet nothing of significance is built upon that intrigue which leaves us with yet another one-dimensional villain.
Another example of tokenism would be the famous scene in Avengers: Endgame where all the female characters get together to help Captain Marvel get the Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos. Aside from the fact that there is no logical reason for this scene to exist, as Captain Marvel is strong enough to destroy Thanos and his entire army all by herself, the heroines that get together to help do not actually help. Each is shown fighting their own battles, but those battles do not contribute anything to Captain Marvel’s success in taking the gauntlet away from Thanos. In the time it takes the heroines to kill a couple of aliens, Captain Marvel flies through an entire armada without batting an eye.
Thinking of this scene brings me back to my childhood years and to the glint in my eyes as I watched Iron Man save the world. Just the same, I cannot help but think of all the young girls sitting through this scene and finally getting to experience that glint for the first time, seeing, at long last, all these incredibly powerful women come together and kick ass, inspiring them, as Iron Man inspired me, to believe that if they are to follow the right steps, they too can one day be able to save the world. Truthfully, who I was and who I am are not the same. Young me was satisfied with Iron Man saving the world and I did not care much for the depth and meaning behind his actions and development as a character. Yet as I grew up, I began to care more and more about it, and, thankfully, there was something to fall back on and pick apart. For these girls, what is there to fall back on other than false promises and superficial scenes that are half-heartedly created to make a portion of the audience keep quiet?
I see most of the MCU’s issues stemming from trying too hard. With Captain Marvel, the MCU tried too hard to make one movie that finally had a strong heroine as the main character. It felt as if the movie itself was concerned too much with achieving that goal, and focused way too little of its attention on creating relatable characters and a plot that made sense. This, inadvertently, made it so the MCU’s glaring issues were more exposed, rather than finally covered. That one scene in Avengers: Endgame also suffers from the same issue: they focused too hard on making a statement and too little on that statement making sense in the context that it was placed in. WandaVision, on the other hand, has its success come exactly from the opposite. The focus is placed on making Wanda’s character as easy to empathise with as possible. Her trauma and escapism are relatable—especially during this pandemic—that it is hard not to empathise with and be immersed in her world as she tries to find a safe space.
I truly believe that when one creates a story, the focus must be on delivering the best version of that story, not on fulfilling an agenda, because if the story itself is good, the agenda will fill by itself. If the forefront of your focus is to force-tick certain social-boxes, the story will suffer, making the actions of the characters in the story appear shallow and unrealistic. Yes, the MCU clearly suffers from a lack of female representation, and sadly, even the low number of female characters that exist, are rather poorly written, but if WandaVision is to be taken as an example of what is to come, I am more than happy with waiting to see what more the MCU has to offer.