[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.”]
Late in the action of Joe and Anthony Russo’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” one of Thanos’ henchman (a CGI-encased Carrie Coon) sets about fighting a weakening Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) during the film’s massive Wakanda-set battle. As Coon’s Proxima Midnight goes after Scarlet Witch, she sneers at the superhero that her partner Vision will “died alone, as will you.” Behind her, another voice calmly announces, “She’s not alone.”
It’s one of the most satisfying scenes of the penultimate Avengers films: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is there to help defend Scarlet Witch, as is Okoye (Danai Gurira), and the pair face off against their fierce alien foe in a high-energy action scene that feels both natural and inevitable. Yes, it’s all women, but that’s not the only reason for the scene — which makes it all the more exciting to fans who have long been eager to see the MCU embrace its many female superheroes.
In the Russos’ massive followup, “Avengers: Endgame,” a similar moment unfolds during another climactic battle. However, while its “Infinity War” avoids pandering to its audience, the “Endgame” scene sticks out because it seems so intent on selling “girl power” as nothing more than an image.
As Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel attempts to move that blasted Infinity Gauntlet, she goes looking for help, and it arrives in the form of fellow Marvel heroines like Scarlet Witch, Valkyrie, Okoye, Mantis, Shuri, Hope Van Dyne, Gamora, Nebula, and Pepper Potts all assembling to assist her in her quest.
No matter the empowering intentions here, the scene feels empty, as the women — some of whom only don’t even have any lines in the script — simply line up, charge forth, and look powerful as they do it. The message is certainly a good start (look at all these ladies!), but it’s delivered in a hammy way that ultimately reduces each character to a single trait: Powerful women.
It doesn’t add anything to the film as a whole, nor does it expand on the characters themselves, and their roles in earlier Marvel movies prove they have more to offer, even as the franchise has lagged when it comes to crafting films explicitly about its many female characters. While Marvel has plans to build on its strong base of female stars, from the recent success of “Captain Marvel” to a planned “Black Widow” standalone, the MCU can’t afford this sort of superficial pandering when working towards catalyzing real storytelling change.
“Captain Marvel” co-director Anna Boden — as of now, still the only female filmmaker to have directed an MCU film, though more are certainly coming — has been honest about the process by which she and partner Ryan Fleck attempted to find their way into the character beyond just “here’s a superhero, make a movie about her.”
“We knew a little bit about Carol Danvers, but we certainly hadn’t read all the comics and didn’t know all her history,” Boden told IndieWire earlier this year. “But before we started taking the meetings, we read thousands of pages, to try to find what would be our way in, because even though we liked the character and we liked the idea of [star] Brie [Larson], we needed to make sure that we had our way in.” That means more than just writing an infallible badass who looks cool in her superhero suit.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” co-writer Nicole Perlman, who is also a credited screenwriter on “Captain Marvel,” expressed similar concerns about finding something to connect with when it came time to write the MCU’s first standalone female superhero feature. Early in the process of writing “Captain Marvel,” Perlman worked alongside Meg LeFauve, and her experience collaborating with another woman on the story proved key to her satisfaction with the work and finding a unique character underneath decades of butt-kicking backstory.
Earlier this year, she said in an IndieWire interview that she celebrated “having someone, especially another woman, to toss ideas and really get into subjects about feminism and identity and power,” she said. “It’s a very iconic character and I think it’s really important to find her humanity.” “Captain Marvel” might be a superhero film, but from the start, finding the person underneath was baked into the film’s DNA.
MCU star Karen Gillan is able to see the issue from two sides: as Nebula, she’s appeared in four MCU films, ultimately playing a huge part in “Endgame.” She’s also a filmmaker herself, having debuted her future directorial debut “The Party’s Just Beginning” last year (and, yes, it centers around a complex woman, played by Gillan herself). As Gillan sees it, the MCU already has a wealth of very different female characters, but like the rest of Hollywood, Marvel needs to be sure not to hedge towards the played out “strong female character” trope while building out the series.
“There’s just a great array of women in [‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2’], and different types of women,” Gillan told IndieWire in 2017. “Yes, there are females in big action, sci-fi movies, but we were sort of in danger of them becoming stereotypical in the sense that they’re ‘badass’ and ‘super strong’ and ‘sexy.’ It’s like people think, ‘Oh, we’re going to do the right thing by making a female strong,’ when really, that’s almost as bad in itself. There has to be a selection. There has to be more than one archetype.”
And Marvel has them, but they deserve more than just a slow-mo action shot. As the MCU readies for a post-Avengers world, it’s going to have to tap into more seemingly out-there ideas. Among the more obviously bankable: an MCU film populated principally by female superheroes, like that shot from “Endgame,” but with some actual meat on its bones.
MCU stars like Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson, and Zoe Saldana have already pitched Marvel head Kevin Feige on an all-female Marvel movie. Last year, Thompson explained that Marvel seemed pretty high on the idea. “I think Kevin Feige is really excited by the idea,” she said, “and if you look at what’s happened already in Phase 4 with me and Valkyrie and our story, and then in ‘Black Panther,’ the women rule supreme. There’s an interest in having women at the forefront of this phase. I feel like it’s hopeful.”
Last year, Feige continued to hint at a future for the MCU that included more diversity, including for its female filmmakers and stars. “I think it’s only the beginning,” Feige told IndieWire as the studio prepared to release “Black Panther.” “I think you’ll see more and more of that in front of the camera, behind the camera and that that is what is required of us as storytellers. … We want these movies to reflect the world in which they are made, and be brought to life by all types of people behind the camera.”
Fortunately, the franchise already has plenty of directors within its fold invested in telling female-led stories with nuance and care, from Fleck and Boden to Peyton Reed, whose “Ant-Man and the Wasp” offered a female-fronted superhero film months before “Captain Marvel” debuted. When that film was released last summer, the filmmaker was clear with IndieWire about his desire to make sure Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne reflected a superhero with some real grit.
“Evangeline kept banging this drum in a great way,” Reed said at the time, recalling that she told him, “I don’t want to be overly glam. That’s not who Hope Van Dyne is. When I fight in the movie, I want to be sweaty, and in terms of my hair when I’m in the suit, I want it to be a clean, practical ponytail, because how is that helmet going to go on and off otherwise?”
Last year, “Black Panther” star Danai Gurira told IndieWire how her experience with director Ryan Coogler on the set of the smash hit made her feel secure in the direction of the film. She told IndieWire that one of the great joys of the film was vision that was rooted in the women that Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole had made central to their story, including not just her own character, but roles for T’Challa’s mother, sister, and a love interest.
“He would describe these women characters in ways that I’ve never heard women described,” Gurira said at the time. “I want to see stories told authentically, given accessibility, that’s my thing. What was also really thrilling was that he wrote them as women of integrity and women of complexity and women of strength.”
It’s the next great challenge of the MCU, post-Avengers: how to deliver on a promise, with significantly less posing and posturing, no matter how cool it may look in the moment.
“Avengers: Endgame” is now playing in theaters nationwide.