Captain America: Civil War proved that Marvel can get women right, if only they would try.
An official statement from Marvel recently claimed, “Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life.” This statement, while plainly laughable, reveals either a hugely deluded outlook, or a cold calculating business sense — probably a little of both.
Regardless, there is no doubt that Marvel has a diversity problem. As a studio they are so desperate to preserve their almost uniformly white cast that they will happily whitewash any character at this point, and despite frequent criticism of their lack of gender diversity, they continue to push their only female-helmed film back, and back again.
It can be hard out here for a Marvel fan. There’s still no Black Widow movie, we have to wait until 2018 for Black Panther, and the recent Doctor Strange nonsense did nothing to assuage any of our fears that Marvel may in fact never get this right.
All of this to say: their lack of representation and diversity can be so disheartening — even for a committed and devoted fan — that when they do get it right, it feels so, so good. And wow did Captain America: Civil War do right by its female characters.
The third Cap installment, helmed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors Anthony and Joe Russo and with a screenplay by Marvel stalwarts Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, sees friend pitted against friend in the most highly personal conflict we have seen in a superhero film to date. And while the central focus is the friction between Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Bucky Barnes, the moments with the (admittedly outrageously outnumbered) female characters truly shine.
This article contains spoilers for Captain America: Civil War.
Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff
Let’s turn our attention to the long-suffering Natasha Romanoff. A Black Widow movie remains on my wishlist of dream news stories; I want this so badly I created a button for last year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Until I can have two and a half hours of Black Widow kicking ass, and dealing with the trauma of the Red Room, and Natasha hanging out and talking shit at Steve’s place, and taking Wanda to get her hair done (Nat’s look changes every film, let’s not pretend she doesn’t care about it), at least I’ve had Captain America: The Winter Soldier-era Natasha to keep me company. Now, her Captain America: Civil War iteration can happily join that list.
The context of Natasha’s role is critical in any assessment of her Civil War portrayal. The last time we saw her, in Avengers: Age of Ulton, she was an ineffectual character reduced to a plot device that was used to further Bruce Banner’s man pain. In effect, Joss Whedon did everything he could to destroy the character development we got from the Russos in Winter Soldier.
I was grateful for the exclusion of Bruce Banner from Civil War, not least because it meant we would no longer have to deal with the “I’m a monster” angst that inexplicably appeared in the second Avengers installment. Aside from the downright offensive implication that Natasha’s inability to have children made her somehow monstrous, the reducing of her character to a prop in Banner’s romantic storyline made me want to Hulk out and destroy every screen where Avengers: Age of Ultron was playing.
After writing about my many issues with Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was told that my desire to want Black Widow to be a kick-ass, bad-ass lady was somehow betraying generations of feminists. While also exposing the fact that they clearly didn’t read the article (hi, yes, I see you), this critique completely missed the point. Of course Black Widow should be kicking ass, that is the entire point of the character (or of having a superhero alter ego at all).
But Black Widow and Natasha are two very separate cases (reread my wishlist for what I want to see in a Black Widow movie and you’ll see what I mean). While Black Widow has to be tough in any situation, Natasha has the freedom to be more emotional. The Russos clearly agree with me on this; whilst it is Black Widow who is willing to take on Hawkeye in the big battle, it is Natasha who — having seen Steve’s emotional turmoil in Winter Soldier and therefore understanding his bond with Bucky in a way Tony is unable to comprehend — in the end, lets the pair escape.
Although her chemistry with Black Panther sparked off the screen, the decision to allow Natasha’s Civil War arc to be one of platonic, not romantic love, ensured that she was depicted as a whole character, complete with her own agency. The problem with her Age of Ultron story was not that she was involved in a romantic arc (hamfisted as it was), but that she was only involved in a romantic arc. In comparison, even from her short amount of screen time in Civil War, we understood the turmoil this situation has put her in. Winter Soldier established her deep friendship with Steve, but in Civil War she was pulled in a different direction, undermining the new family she had built for herself.
Her aptitude for flexibility, once used to play both sides for ultimately self-serving purposes, is utilized in Civil War to demonstrate the power of compromise. Nat is able to side with Tony and simultaneously honor her friendship with Steve, offering him emotional support at a time when he needs it, even as they are lining up on opposing sides of the battlefield. Her emotions are depicted as a strength, and an equal strength to her ability to take down anyone in her path.
When she changes her mind — a move that could in less capable hands be attributed to the stereotypical overemotional reaction of a female character — she is instead shown to be completely justified. All of the characters around her see the line drawn between them as an insurmountable barrier, yet Nat adeptly navigates her way back and forth between sides, offering a potential third path, if only Steve and Tony hadn’t been too stubborn to see it.
After suffering through her character assassination in Avenger: Age of Ultron, what pleased me most in Civil War was seeing that her decisions were entirely her own. Even more importantly, her decisions mattered. No longer a plot device, it took the very specific actions of her very specific character for the film to function at all.
Scarlet Witch / Wanda Maximoff
When speaking of the critical role of women in Civil War, I can’t go past Wanda Maximoff. Civil War might be structured around contested views of Bucky’s Winter Soldier persona, but it is really Scarlet Witch who sits at the heart of the dispute. It is partly because of her powers — too strong and too strange, even for a world that has grown accustomed to 90-year-olds and men in robot suits fighting their battles for them — that the Sokovia Accords are drawn up in the first place.
In addition to establishing her essentially unbeatable powers as Scarlet Witch, Civil War goes to some lengths to show us a Wanda who is attempting to adjust to her new situation in life. She is still suffering some kind of PTSD following the events in Sokovia and doubtless still grieving for her brother, yet has also clearly found her place within the team. Like Natasha, she too is now looking for family. And as Cap so aptly points out, she is also just a kid, attempting to navigate the world.
Although I didn’t like that she required a pep talk from a man in Avengers: Age of Ultron to inspire her to finally act, I appreciate that in Civil War it was this same man — Hawkeye — who came to break her out. Although seemingly trivial, this detail matters. It tells the audience that Clint is there because he and Wanda have a significant relationship and that she listens to him, and him specifically, rather than her needing any old man to tell her what she should be doing and how she should be feeling. She is not a damsel in distress who requires rescuing; she is a friend who needs advice.
And in the end, of course, it was Wanda who saved Clint. She had the tools to break out of her house arrest whenever she wanted; she only needed to be reminded that she had a choice. While Tony and Vision made decisions on her behalf, Clint — and through him, Steve — reminded her that she could choose for herself. She could join them or she could stay, but she couldn’t pretend that she didn’t have options. It is completely understandable that Wanda, still feeling traumatized and guilty about her actions earlier in the film, might be hesitant to act. But when she makes up her mind, it is plain that not even Vision can stand in her way.
More importantly, although the filmmakers began setting up the relationship between Wanda and Vision, she had no qualms about turning her powers on him in order to stand up for what she believed in. Indeed, the relationship was established as being one for Vision to navigate, not Wanda. It was he who had to deal with the emotional fallout of potential romantic entanglements and his out-of-control reactions; Wanda’s storyline, conversely, was one that focused on her becoming more and more comfortable with her powers over the course of the film, rather than any romantic difficulties.
It is yet to be seen how the events of Captain America: Civil War will affect Wanda moving forward. Having just found a new place in the world, Wanda will now assumedly be forced to go underground to avoid the authorities. And further to that, having just begun to deal with her past trauma, I can only imagine what being locked up — again — will have done to her psyche.
Of course, no film is perfect, and that became painfully clear with the return of Sharon Carter, last seen as Agent 13 in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Carter was ostensibly there to give Cap some critical information for his mission, and provide a link to his beloved Peggy Carter.
Let’s be blunt. Carter 2.0 was shoehorned in as the obligatory heterosexual love interest from a studio so paralyzed by their own conservatism that they think having an LGBT hero in the next decade is progress. Sharon was the reminder to the audience that regardless of the film’s overall implication that Steve would rather watch the world burn with countless casualties while simultaneously seeing the Avengers destroyed, than lose Bucky again, this was a “no homo” situation.
As pointed out in a previous article on Hypable, this isn’t a reason to hate on Sharon herself (and certainly not her actress). But in a film that gets so much so right in terms of its female characters, it was disappointing to see a woman used as a prop in our hero’s romantic subplot.
It has been put to me that Sharon did the most she could in her position. However, I can’t see beyond Sharon’s use as a capital letter Love Interest and a token Strong Female Character in the worst sense of the trope — there only to assist the main character, guide him on his journey, be in an impressive fight, kiss him… and then disappear. I want to love Sharon, but there was nothing in Civil War to indicate that there was anything more to her character than to revolve around Steve.
Regardless of my issues with Sharon’s portrayal, the minute Captain America: Civil War ended I was filled with relief. They got it (mostly) right.
It’s worth noting here that aside from a brief interaction (over comms) between Nat and Wanda at the beginning of the film, Civil War fails the Bechdel Test. Although it’s disappointing that Civil War couldn’t manage to hurdle this admittedly low bar, I also don’t believe the test is the only valid measure of a film’s feminist credentials. After all, Natasha and Wanda might have been secondary characters to Steve’s drama, but they were also fully formed characters whose major plot line had nothing to do with romance, one of the key aspects the Bechdel Test aims to address.
Still, being a small part of a larger ensemble film with no hope of a spinoff is not what these female characters deserve. But if this is all we’re going to get, then the way they are depicted matters so much more. Unlike with Spider-Man, or Black Panther, or almost every single one of the male Avengers, there are no solo outings planned for Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, or even Sharon Carter.
When Age of Ultron got Captain America so wrong, I could ignore it in the knowledge that there was an entire film dedicated to him coming soon. These female characters get none of that, and for better or worse that means every scene they are in is much more heavily weighted. With less representation, unfortunately, comes greater responsibility.
When a studio that creates output I love so dearly refuses again and again to honor stories about women, it is hard not to lose faith. I truly understand when people give up, and refuse to watch anymore. But until I can get my Black Widow film, or Captain Marvel arrives — finally — in 2019, I’ll cling to the portrayals of these complicated, conflicted, and wonderful women wherever I can get them.