Marvel Comics has gone from publishers of a fringe medium to mainstream pop culture gods, so why can't they handle a female protagonist?
When I was in high school I was bullied for enjoying comic books. I used to pretend at times that I was Peter Parker and that one day, just like him, I would be cool and the same people who bullied me would be the ones climbing over each other to say they knew me. It’s the dream of an egotist, but it’s also a dream that, briefly, came true. In college I became one of the popular kids. Suddenly the comic books I knew everything about found their way into the mainstream. It took me by surprise, and for awhile I had to adjust to being social and more popular than before. Just like me, Marvel Comics have suddenly jumped from being pop culture outcasts to one of the most successful and popular mainstream fictional universes out there. Unfortunately, just like me, Marvel are now having to adjust to becoming part of the mainstream.
When Marvel Comics formed it was founded by a group of white, American men, there is nothing wrong with that and it’s mostly due to the social expectation of the time. Unfortunately, like all writers, the early Marvel bullpen pretty much exclusively stuck to writing what they knew which was white, American men. This is why there are few female Marvel heroes from the era and even less from diverse ethnic backgrounds, in turn, this lead to Marvel comic books becoming the power fantasies of white, American men. This began changed as the medium grew and the audience became more diverse but it’s meant that a lot of the iconic heroes are all men with a similar background. Now that Marvel have hit the mainstream they have realised this and have made several big decisions in an attempt to nurture diversity.
Adding more ethnic backgrounds is something that may be difficult without writers from different backgrounds, although they are starting to become more common in the industry, but incorporating both genders should never have been a problem. There have been many female heroes gracing the pages of Marvel for years, but the majority of the time they have formed part of the white, american man’s power fantasy. Wasp, Black Widow, She-Hulk, Tigra and even the Scarlet Witch have been subjected to a steady stream of over-sexualisation over the years. This continued when the movies started.
I’m going to focus on the main Marvel Cinematic Universe for expedience. Black Widow was introduced in Iron Man Two, supposedly as a strong female character but in every scene she is depicted as either a smouldering secretary or a seductive assassin. The run up to Avengers Assemble did little to help matters with Jane Foster, Lady Sif and Agent Carter all appearing as possible love interests for the main character with little or no personal story-arcs. Then we got to the post-Avengers Assemble era, when geek-chic kicked into overdrive, at this point Marvel began to really push female heroes in their comics in response to fan black lash over the depiction of Black Widow and the lack of female character development. Across the phase two films the women of Marvel became stronger and more independent with Maria Hill, Black Widow and Pepper Potts all gaining their own interesting character arcs. This did a lot to earn Marvel some respect but without a female lead film fans still wanted more female representation.
Guardians gave us Gamora who didn’t only acquire her own character arc but also resisted falling into the typical love-interest archetype, as much as Star Lord tried to push her towards it. In both Agents of Shield and Agent Carter, the central protagonists are strong women who have developed and had their own non-romantic arcs but neither series appears to be moving to world of film any time soon. Avengers: Age Of Ultron actually garnered a large feminist back lash after the ‘monsters’ controversy, and rightly so, but I do feel many people missed the positive depiction of Scarlet Witch. I watched the film last night and paid close attention to Elizabeth Olsen’s performance.
There is not a single moment in the film where her sexuality is discussed or her physical appearance is commented upon. Her clothes look informal and are free-flowing which completely contrast with Black Widow’s spandex spy garb. Wanda Maximoff is one of the strongest female heroes now on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, giving me both hope for her appearance in Captain America: Civil War and for Marvel’s first female lead film, Captain Marvel, slated for 2018. Now all Marvel have to do is weather the upcoming DC Comic’s film storm, create better villains and find a way to control Kevin Feige then they might survive the next decade.