Now that we’re winding down our Superhero Saturday posts I thought that I’d focus on the women featured in the set of films in the Marvel Universe that have been titled ‘Phase One’. So this really means no X-Men characters or Mary-Jane Watson or Gwen Stacy or Invisible Girl. I’m going to look at the female characters from the films, JUST the films, leading up to Avengers Assemble. There may be spoilers so if you haven’t seen a film just scroll past!
Iron Man (2008)
The first Iron Man film only has two female characters worth mentioning: Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb).
We first see Pepper handing dry-cleaning to Christine and escorting her out of the building. Then Pepper spends most of the film mothering and pining over Stark. Having said that, she’s still a highly intelligent, motivated woman. Her career may have been slightly stalled by her love for one man but she made the best of her situation. And she helps with the final fight by using her wits to unveil Stane’s true plans and then drawing Agent Coulson in to help. With someone dangerous hovering near her she is able to think on her feet and act quickly. I don’t think I’d have the calmness that she did. And don’t forget her helping to replace Stark’s arc reactor and he announces that he “doesn’t have anyone else”.
Christine starts off looking like a dedicated, intrepid investigative reporter. That doesn’t last very long. Sadly she then reverts to one of Stark’s one-night stands. She tries to make a comeback by using her reporting skills and, actually, if it wasn’t for her then Stark might not have found out about Stane’s evil plans. I do kind of wish that she hadn’t gone through the stereotypical sleeping with her investigative subject though. (Maybe that’s one reason Hammer was so keen to be her subject in Iron Man 2.)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
We pretty much just have Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). And that’s nothing to rave about really. As I mentioned when we attended the Avengers marathon at The PCC, The Incredible Hulk was my least favourite film – and the audience’s from the reactions throughout. And a lot of the disappointment came from Liv Tyler. Betty has a few strong moments but for much of the film she just seems to be controlled by her father. Obviously not all female characters have to be strong, not all male characters are strong, but when you are the only female character to speak of, with an army general a father and the love interest of ‘The Hulk’, you expect a bit more.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Back to Iron Man and we have a new female addition to Pepper and Christine: Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson).
Pepper gets to take on a much stronger role in this film. Yes, it’s mostly because Stark gives her the job as CEO but she does a great job with it; including removing Stark when necessary. She no longer needs to “look after” him as part of her job – that responsibility belongs to Natalie. Pepper can concentrate on proving herself in the job that she has been doing behind the scenes for years. This film shows Pepper’s emotional strength. She may need saving by Tony in the end but she is instrumental in helping save members of the public and having Hammer arrested. This may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things but when you realise that Pepper has no special powers and only her wits and bravery you’ve got to give her points for that.
Christine returns briefly but her only purpose seems to be to further the rivalry between Stark and Justin Hammer. She has no investigative journalism input and doesn’t seem to aid the plot in any way. This is a little disappointing because we saw some sign of her intelligence and skill in Iron Man but all we have here is bickering, the attempt to witness arguments between Stark and Hammer and to get an interview with Pepper for Vanity Fair’s ‘Powerful Women’ edition. Saying more about Pepper than Christine.
Natalie’s role is a little more interesting. She starts out as Natalie Rushman – the over-qualified, ex-model, assistant to Stark. Having said that, the first time we meet Natalie it becomes clear that she can take care of herself after beating Happy in a boxing ring without breaking a sweat. Then (no surprise to the audience who was alerted to her true identity at casting stages) we find out that she is really Natasha Romanoff, working undercover for Nick Fury. From this point she becomes key in the world of SHIELD but remains slightly on the periphery, but does play a key role in saving Rhodey from Vanko’s control. Then she’s gone. Just disappears. But then, that’s what spies are meant to do. The role always felt slightly like a trailer for Natasha’s role in Avengers Assemble. She is very capable but never seemed entirely necessary to “watch over” Stark when they realised he was ill. Her best work as ‘Natalie’, rather than Natasha, is when she works for Pepper not Stark – two strong women together in a male dominated industry.
Thor has many more female characters than you may initially remember. We have the obvious Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) but there is also Frigga (Rene Russo) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings).
Jane’s interest in Thor stemmed from a scientific angle. He somehow landed on Earth and she wants to find out how, why and what he knows. Then she wants to help him and get ‘revenge’ on SHIELD. Her motives are never initially romantic so when a romance does unfold it feels more worthwhile and less forced. Her main role in the film is to help to humanise Thor by giving him a greater understand of the world (both his and ours) and of people. Although she isn’t involved in any great battle she enables Thor to win his; for the right reasons.
Sif is one of the warriors on Asgard – the only female warrior as far as we can tell. All she has wanted to do is to fight for her world and be seen as a strong fighter rather than “just” a woman. She has followed Thor into battle many times (including into the forbidden Jotunheim) and comes to Earth, along with the Warriers Three (Fandral, Volstagg and Hogan) to help Thor return to Asgard and stop Loki. Sif was willing to die in the battle against The Destroyer if Thor hadn’t convinced her to run. To live and tell her own stories.
Frigga gets a little bit of a short shrift in Thor but she still gets moments to shine. We first see her taking amusement in Thor’s brash walk to his planned coronation. We don’t see her again until she tries to explain to Loki that he is still her and Odin’s son – despite his true birth. She is a consummate mother. Then we see her try to protect Odin against the Frost Giants. They are dangerous foes but she manages to strike one down before Loki defeats Laufey. Sadly, Frigga ends mourning her son and maybe never knowing completely how far he had strayed. This is what we shall discover in Thor: The Dark World.
Darcy is the more average girl. A student who has taken on Jane’s study for the college credits; despite being a political science student. She likes Thor because he’s hot and funny. She is snarky but still seems to have developed a fondness for Jane and Selvig. And she helps save the inhabitants of New Mexico when The Destroyer attacks. That’s something we could all do.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
This film may have my absolute favourite female character from this universe: Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Sadly, she is really the only female character beyond the briefly seen, disastrously for Steve and Peggy, Private Lorraine (Natalie Dormer).
The first time we see Peggy she is calling new recruits to attention and punching one who wouldn’t accept her superiority. Strong enough entrance? Pretty sure she wins there. Throughout the film she takes a hands-on approach to training the new recruits and fighting battles. She even goes against Colonel Phillips’ orders by taking Rogers, with Howard Stark’s help, to enemy territory. Breaking rules may not seem like that big a deal but in the army it can be career ending. That’s bravery and then some. That decision also helped Rogers to believe in himself in the way that Erskine believed in him. She helped Rogers to fully become Captain America.
Private Lorraine has a horrible role to play – to separate Rogers and Peggy. Why? So that they’re not a couple when Rogers goes off to attack Hydra’s base and he can “earn” her respect back before their one and only kiss. She has clearly worked hard to get to her position in the army but all we get her used for is the mildest attempt at a love triangle; following the failed attempt at a Stark love triangle.
Avengers Assemble (2012)
We have the return of Natasha, now splitting more fully into her Black Widow persona, a brief return of Pepper and the introduction of Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).
We meet Natasha apparently held hostage by Russian terrorists. But then we see that she’s playing stupid to allow their pride to take over with revealing answers. And that she beats them all despite being tied to a chair. Her first responsibility is to recruit Bruce Banner. This is not an easy task and shows how much faith and trust SHIELD have in this spy. Throughout the film we see her taking on tough odds whether they be the cause, to rub out the red in her ledger or to help her friend (Hawkeye). We also see aspects of her spying in her using the expected female vulnerability against people. Is this playing to female stereotype or playing to male weakness? The assumption that women are weak and emotional… There is one key scene where it’s spelled out to the audience that she’s a spy and not a soldier and yet here she is willingly going to war. She has made bad choices in her life but is now trying to make amends.
Pepper’s appearance is very brief. We see her convince Stark to follow his heart in helping Coulson, we see her fear at the news footage of the battle in New York and then helping Stark redesign their damaged home. What can we learn from her here? Both times we see her she is concerned about Stark but she is also busy working as the CEO and furthering their clean energy projects. A confident and happy career woman with a seemingly healthy home life.
Agent Maria Hill is the first female character we encounter in Avengers Assemble. We see her interacting with Nick Fury and Coulson, already established within the Marvel universe, so she needs to mark herself out fairly quickly. She is clearly a woman in power. After Loki’s attack on the base she takes it on herself to follow Hawkeye and Loki. After this she went back to try to save any trapped SHIELD workers. Maria may not have had too much more involvement despite a few great shots when the Helicarrier was attacked but that’s due more to the fact that the film is called The Avengers. With her appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its greater focus on SHIELD, there is more of a chance of her character having the chance to shine.
And that’s the end of Phase One. Phase Two is well underway with Iron Man 3 already released, Thor: The Dark World due to be released in November, Captain America: The Winter Soldier filming, Guardians of the Galaxy due to start filming in the next few months and Avengers 2 due to film early next year. We’ve had cases of interesting female characters so far with Thor probably boasting the most, but with characters now appearing in other films (Black Widow and Maria Hill both in The Winter Soldier along with the return of Peggy and the new Agent 13) hopefully these strong characters will continue.
Final Note on The Bechdel Test
Helen referenced this when looking at female sitcom stars and it occurred to me to mention it here. There are three basic rules:
- There has to be at least two named female characters
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
If you go through the Marvel Phase One films the result is a little depressing, if not altogether surprising when you see the “vast” range of female characters.
There is debate as to whether Iron Man passed all three rules because of the conversation Pepper and Christine have but, to me, it is so clearly about Stark that it means it gains only two out of three.
The Incredible Hulk passed one test. There is another named female character (Major Kathleen Sparr) but she and Betty never interact.
Iron Man 2 passed three out of three because of Pepper and Natalie’s brief business discussion (and possible Pepper and Christine discussing the Vanity Fair article).
Then we come to Thor where it easily passed three out of three.
Despite the strength of Peggy’s character in Captain America: The First Avenger, the film only passed one out of three – for the two named female characters.
And finally we come to Avengers Assemble. Only passed one out of three. There are three strong named female characters. Who never interact with each other.
Out of the six Phase One films we have two films successfully passing the Bechdel test even if some of the other films still contain strong female characters. We’ll see what happens with Phase Two. (Iron Man 3 passed three out of three.)