Released this weekend, Ant-Man and the Wasp marks the first time that a woman has led a film in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). Huzzah! It’s only the 20th film, mind, while we’ll have to wait until 2019’s Captain Marvel for a solo female lead in the franchise (after all, it’s not called The Wasp).
Marvel’s gender politics have long been a glaring inadequacy for a franchise that has risen, by way of its astronomical box office takings year-upon-year, to the zenith of modern pop culture. Natalie Portman, Rachel McAdams and Liv Tyler are among several high-profile (and exceptionally talented) actresses to be cast in the MCU – only to be consigned to subsidiary characters that are forgettable at best, while degrading at worst. Even Spider-Man: Homecoming – perhaps the furthest into ‘family-friendly’ territory that the MCU has ventured – managed to restrict the Oscar-winning Marisa Tomei to a ‘hot mom’ punchline.
Those that somehow manage to avoid this narrative mistreatment are still unable to secure a standalone film. Since her first appearance in Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has been one of the long-running mainstays of the franchise, even positioned as a lead quite regularly in the ensemble entries like The Avengers. Yet, despite years of vocal outcry from fans, there’s been barely a whiff of a Black Widow standalone film. Peggy Carter remains the only female character introduced in the MCU to be subsequently given her own production – and even that was relegated to Marvel’s TV branch.
Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie and the feuding sisters of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) have not only proven to be popular amongst audiences, but favoured by the critics too – with praise often being directed at these women’s narrative arcs and distinct presence among their otherwise routine co-stars. None of the aforementioned characters have ever looked likely to make the step up to a standalone film, all the while Doctor Strange suddenly became a thing and Ant-Man now has a sequel. Go figure.
This is reflective of a wider industry trend, whereby (white) men are afforded opportunity after opportunity, despite being proven of mediocrity. Women, meanwhile, aren’t trusted with ‘getting the job done’ like men are – even if that job is a dismally haphazard one. It’s why there are so few female directors working in mainstream cinema; why hire a promising young woman if you can just hand the reins to old fogies like Tim Burton or Woody Allen for the umpteenth time?
Glancing over the fence at Warner Bros’ DCEU, they appear to be taking note of such criticisms. Indeed, last year saw the wildly successful release of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman – a blockbuster anomaly in that it was both led and directed by a woman. Disagreement remains over Wonder Woman’s actual progressive worth, given the beautiful Gal Gadot occupies the role of the scantily clad heroine. Still, it seems a little remiss to challenge Jenkins on her feminism (you’d think that was a given), while confirmation of a sequel next year can only be positive news. Should Warner Bros. be commended for giving us a female-led superhero film at only the fourth time of asking, as opposed to the 20th for Marvel? That seems to be how low the bar is now set.
As for what needs to change, the chief issue would appear to lie in the make-up of studios – in other words, the shedload of old white guys that are responsible for which films get made, and by whom. Such change needs to be systematic and industry-wide, although it’s not one that can happen overnight.
On the ground-level, it’s really as simple as going to the cinema. Patty Jenkins was only on Warner Bros’ radar because her 2003 film Monster made $60m from $8m – while a similar box-office turnaround for Ryan Coogler’s Creed showed Marvel’s bigwigs that a black man could be entrusted with helming one of their blockbusters. It’s all a cycle – and in the box-office figures, the general public possess a voice and influence that’s too infrequently tapped into for the better.
To quote Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Or as I like to say, think twice before you sanction the next Transformers sequel.