It’s the Battle of Wakanda 2018, and Proxima Midnight is descending upon a vulnerable Scarlet Witch. She stands above her and tells her that she will die alone. Then a voice from behind speaks up, “She’s not alone”. With Black Widow on one side and Okoye on the other, the women battle it out in our first ever all-female Avengers fight scene. It’s pretty damn cool; sat in the cinema I couldn’t help but enjoy seeing these women come together, but I also couldn’t help the little voice in the back of my head telling me that was wrong. At that moment I was filled with questions and confliction – is this patronising? Is this cool? Is this enough?
Caught up in the buzz of a midnight release and reeling over that ending, I soon forgot all about it. Then, a few days later, a male friend asked me what I thought – as a female fan, did I find it condescending and shoehorned, or just plain badass? I told him that even if it felt a little forced, I couldn’t help the goosebumps on my arms and the swell in my heart upon realising how much more this would have meant to a younger version of myself. If I had been exposed to scenes like this in the movies I grew up with, I would have felt unstoppable.
Then Endgame did the exact same thing.
Picture the scene: Spider-Man is taking his turn in trying to get Stark’s Infinity Gauntlet to Scott Lang’s van. He hands it to Captain Marvel, concerned about how she is going to get through Thanos’ army, but don’t worry – “She’s got help”. Soon, she is surrounded by an army of practically every female MCU hero we have met, from Valkyrie on her Pegasus to Hope Van Dyne and Gamora, our women fighters unite from across the battlefield in one moment of solidarity.
My first reaction was, again, mixed; a combination of chills and an eye-roll wasn’t how I expected to react, but if I’m honest this wasn’t a scene I was expecting to see. As with Infinity War, I was happy to see these women come together, and if anything it displayed the amazing number of female characters we have gained over the last few years, but for them to basically recreate the same shot just felt a tad lazy.
Conflicted on how I felt, I took to Twitter. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who had something to say about this shot – from people lauding its representation to others criticising it for being far too on-the-nose, it got people talking. So, I asked the women of Screen Queens what they thought and how this scene made them feel, both as fans of Marvel and as women.
Here is what they had to say:
“Yes, it’s about as subtle as an elephant walking down a flight of stairs, but it put a huge smile on my face and hopefully on the faces of thousands of young girls around the world”
My gut reaction was one of complete and utter joy. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing a diverse group of women superheroes coming together to kick ass. It’s something that happens so rarely that I would hate to look at it with a cynical eye like a lot of people have done. I do understand, however, why many think it’s hypocritical and tokenistic for the Russos to create a sequence like that when you consider how brutally they ended the arcs of both Natasha and Gamora. As long as they’re not patting themselves on the back for the shot and thinking that it’s sufficient in terms of representation, then I’m happy.
“It’s the movie equivalent of Primark releasing ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ shirts and then paying their workers pennies to make them”
Personally, I cringed so bad during this shot, having previously been actually welling up at seeing Black Panther and co. come through the portals. The first instances of the heroes reappearing felt so cool and this female team-up shot felt like a terribly undeserving shoo-in; the Russo brothers just wanting to give themselves YET ANOTHER pat on the back for the BARE MINIMUM. A large amount of these female characters have never even met or interacted, it seems illogical that they would team-up and have a vast knowledge of each others’ powers, skills and tech in order to form a team during that moment. If the Russo Brothers are pointing to the fact that they want the women to be more prominent in Phase Four then cool, but I’m still not impressed.
I love these ladies, some of them are insanely cool and unique and to critique the way in which they are being used is not a put-down on the characters or actresses but 100% a critique of Marvel Studios themselves. Captain Marvel as one film in 10 years hasn’t solved all of the studio’s problems, and their sudden urge to issue in change because of the backlash they have faced is nothing short of embarrassing. Directors, writers and studio heads need to change first before we will see true representation that feels genuine and from the heart.
“When, for once, there is an epic team-up moment with all female characters, it feels good”
There is nothing better than that one shot in Avengers Assemble when we finally see the team together for the first time. That moment was undoubtedly epic, except for one detail: there was only one female character on screen. In Endgame, Captain Marvel is a super powerful heroine who is sidelined for most of the movie, and it is so perfect when she takes Stark’s Infinity Gauntlet from Spidey. When I heard “she’s got help”, I assumed I would see Quill, Drax, Wong – whoever wasn’t busy. So, it filled my heart to see every female character the MCU has to offer coming to her aid. But on second glance, these women are other halves – sidekicks and secondary characters, only Captain Marvel has her own movie. As empowering as it is for that first few seconds, it is also a reminder that we do not yet have the protagonists we need.
“I hope that this moment signals a new future for the MCU, one where women are put forward both in front of and behind the camera”
The experience of watching the all-girl line-up marching into battle was one of very mixed emotions. Whilst I can’t and won’t deny that it gave me serious chills – I love women, okay – the moment was inescapably tinged with disappointment for more than one reason. The MCU doesn’t have a great track record with its female characters; across a ten-year franchise timeline, most significant roles for women have only been introduced in the last few films (think Carol, Valkyrie, Okoye, and Hope). Not only that, but this long-awaited girl power moment was glaringly missing our first female hero of the MCU: Natasha Romanoff. Her shock death to further the goals of her team left her the only original Avenger not to make it to the final battle. So, whilst I can’t pretend that this scene won’t have little girls on the edge of their seats with excitement in cinemas across the world, the problem of superficial feminism goes far deeper than they are likely to comprehend.
“The women seem to have been used to show the diversity in Marvel’s storytelling without truly respecting their individual stories”
Some criticism for this shot has come from the fact that Black Widow, the only female original Avenger, and her sacrifice are not mentioned in any way. Secondly, the scene itself seems forced, as it does not continue naturally from preceding and succeeding events. Whilst Natasha and Nebula’s stories following the snap are followed with some depth, with the latter’s role being integral to the climax of the story, the other survivors are merely given throwaway lines and no significant role in the plot. Okoye’s life was drastically changed by the death of her beloved king as well as of half of Wakanda, which she has pledged her life to. Valkyrie, who has a complicated relationship with Asgard, has helped build New Asgard whilst also supporting Thor. Carol Danvers has suddenly been thrust into a world that she has not been in for over 20 years and has just learnt her close friend, Nick Fury, has been murdered along with half the universe. All these women come with interesting and complicated stories and should not have just been used for a quick shot that showed Marvel does have some diversity among its characters.
“The scene is great for young girls as an empowering on-screen representation, but it’s all in the moment”
The “girl power” scene in Avengers: Endgame — if one could call it an entire scene — is exploitative and bulky. Most of these characters don’t know each other, so it inherently becomes incongruous to the storyline. Even after the establishing girl power shot, the fight choreography is dull and short. We deserve better. These scenes should be used as stepping stones for stronger characterisations and women-led ensembles. It’s fun and pointless but, as the MCU has proved, could be more worthwhile and meaningful. If the characters were given a chance to meet one another — even in Endgame; Okoye, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, and Nebula could have had at least a bit of interaction — the significance could have been stronger, and led to a thrilling fight scene led by the powerful, women Avengers.
“I think the issue arises in its isolation; aside from this scene we don’t see a huge amount of female interactions in the film, making this feel more like a token team-up for Girl Power™”
In the moment, seeing all these incredible women rally together and protect Peter Parker was empowering to watch. I particularly loved seeing The Wasp and Valkyrie on her Pegasus appear among them, and seeing them as a collective, we can appreciate how far MCU women have come. However, I can’t forget how long Black Widow was a minority for and how disappointingly her storyline unfolded. Despite the damage done with Whedon’s out-of-character “childlessness makes me a monster” angst in Age of Ultron, I expected better considering the long-awaited announcement of her film.
I appreciate that Endgame brilliantly marked the conclusions of Captain America and Iron Man’s arcs. I thought their tales were told emotionally and carefully so I hope this new generation of diverse characters will have the same treatment in the future. Optimistically, I hope scenes like this set up a precedence for more, spring-boarding collaborations and solo films like Captain Marvel to make the most of the rich potential within all these women.
“There is nothing worse than being told you’re not allowed to enjoy something, and I won’t be made to feel like a ‘bad feminist’”
It’s easy to roll your eyes at this scene, to think it’s forced ‘corporate feminism’. But to do so would be to ignore its audience. No ten-year-old is going to look at a dozen badass women superheroes and think, ‘wow, crumbs much?’. They’re going to be gasping in awe at these characters they can go and be on the playground at school. They’re going to be drawing pictures of the amazing women they just saw defeat Thanos. And, in ten years time when they’re analysing films like we are now, yes they’ll see the faults, the problematic writing, and how they could have done better for the women of the universe – but at least they had female heroes. Because we sure didn’t, at least not like this.
We can acknowledge and criticise this scene but still enjoy it. Yes, Marvel can and must do better, but let’s not let that take away the fun. Because you’re lying if you say you didn’t get goosebumps.
So, what do we ultimately think?
It’s a difficult situation because it’s something new. The shot only feels obvious because it stands out, and it only stands out because it’s so different in comparison to the countless majority-male versions we have had in the previous MCU entries.
The truth is, it has good intentions, and I don’t want to hate any sort of shot which may inspire young girls or even women of any age. I still felt the same awe at these characters showing off their strength that I did a year ago and I think representation should be encouraged even if this shot is just a starting point. It’s possible to love something for what it is whilst at the same time asking for more.
People are always going to disagree, and if we are honest, Marvel has never had the best female representation. In fact, where it is strongest is in the spin-off TV show Agents of Shield. Maybe the MCU is just playing catch up, and with movies like Captain Marvel and potentially some more female-led projects in the works, they are certainly on their way.
By Georgia Carroll
Georgia Carroll is a Broadcast Journalism student from the University of Leeds, currently living and studying in Wellington, New Zealand. She is a proud Mancunian who loves radio, film and pretty much anything sci-fi or 80s. You can find her on twitter @georgiacarroll_
Categories: Feminist Criticism