Op-Ed: Marvel’s Female Fans Could Save the MCU, If Only It Would Let Them

in Marvel, Updates

brie larson serious and smiling

Credit: ITM

The official The Marvels trailer dropped on July 21, and some of the old anticipation for Marvel films has resurfaced all over social media.

MCU hype hasn’t been as loud in recent years—due in part to the pandemic, the close of the narrative arc that Avengers: Endgame brought to its “golden age,” and the fatigue some felt with the flurry of TV releases from the studio—so it was nice to see long-time and new fans alike excited about the film.

But despite the love the official trailer is getting, it’s still hard to wash away the foul taste of the nasty comments the teaser got back in April.

Akin to the review bombs that Captain Marvel (2019) suffered from even before its release, I scowled as I scrolled through comments the teaser received from an outpouring of pre-MCU-comic-book-days male fans complaining about the “woke feminist propaganda” that Marvel was now “slinging in people’s faces.”

It didn’t help that it so closely resembled the hate Brie Larson got for headlining the film as one of the strongest Marvel superheroes—as a woman. Male fans complained back then about how the MCU didn’t stick with Mar-Vell, the white male hero they were expecting, and instead went with Carol Danvers even if the title of “Captain Marvel” was a moniker many heroes worthy of the title took on (much like Captain America).

Related: Women Can’t Front Superhero Movies, Report Claims

Many of these fans were incensed further by the choice to cover her up and have her stoic and serious in the first few sneak peeks of the film. Instead of being smiley and happy like many male fans thought she *should* be, she was pensive and solemn, like many of her male counterparts before her.

Of course, this was deemed unacceptable by a huge portion of men in the fanbase. It didn’t matter that male superheroes weren’t always bubbly. If Marvel was going to shove some kind of woke progressiveness down their throats, they might as well have their lead actress look grateful for it. This drove so many to photoshop smiles onto her face as some kind of digital offshoot of the entire “you should smile” catcall that women everywhere experience.

And it wasn’t the first time it had happened.

The Ms. Marvel series—wholly a kids’ TV show—suffered a similar onslaught of misplaced and baseless hatred when it came out. The Captain Marvel review bombing was so bad in 2019 that Rotten Tomatoes actually had to change its policy to keep people from leaving reviews before movies premiered. Rotten Tomatoes later reasoned that it would be good for them moving forward, as their old interface would reflect inaccurate depictions of the film’s actual quality and would keep scores from drowning before films were even released.

Despite all these hateful fans trying to tear down women-centered series and films (Captain Marvel went on to become the fifth highest-grossing Marvel film), Marvel Studios said nothing. Brie Larson was the target of sexist mudslinging just because she mentioned that film journalism and film, in general, needed more women representation. The silence that followed from the studio was deafening.

Sadly, Marvel and the predominantly male comic fanboys who preceded the film studio have long left its female fanbase less-than-satisfied, alienated, and disappointed.

I was excited to see what would come of The Marvels and was giddy enough to start writing a comment of support under the video. Unfortunately, after seeing the number of positive comments being downvoted to hell and beyond (and responded to with a particularly venomous set of misogynist slurs and threats), I decided to press backspace and leave a like instead, unwilling to deal with a flurry of being called some fake female bandwagon fan (again).

Shocked Actress Brie Larson in the role of Captain Marvel; Marvel Studios 'Captain Marvel 2' (2023)
Credit: Inside the Magic

When Iron Man came out in 2008, the world held its breath. So did I.

Superhero movies weren’t taking off like they used to, and for Marvel to stake a huge bet on a lesser-known comic book hero was risky. But with Jon Favreau’s charming pace and direction, the novelty of a hero origin people weren’t familiar with, and the stellar performance of one reformed Robert Downey Jr., the landscape had changed.

The world was at Marvel’s feet—and Marvel had given birth to what would become a decades-long, multi-movie, multi-million dollar endeavor. Fans came out in droves to see every movie that Marvel released. Their slates attracted millions of fans all over the world–men and women alike.

I was at the fringes of teenhood when Iron Man came out. I’d only lightly dabbled in comic books in the past (mostly because they weren’t that accessible where I live in the Philippines—at least, not in avenues I was familiar with as a middle-class teenage girl), so I didn’t know much about Tony Stark. Still, its comedy and modernity, paired with age-old lessons on responsibility, roped me in–I’d always been a sucker for earnestness, and despite being limited at the time, the superhero genre often had an abundance of it. I became a huge fan and was locked in for Marvel’s next release.

The last superhero movies I loved were Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. I was drawn to the whimsy and the earnest sincerity of wanting to do the right thing, despite the movies sometimes being criticized as “cheesy.”
What I applauded most, however, was the agency, the choice of doing something bigger because they had the capability for it. It was clear to me that many heroes did what they did because they could, and most of them who could do those things were men. Very few stories came out thoughtfully depicting women with their own agency, much less with heroic capability. It wasn’t as if I didn’t believe that I, or other women around me, couldn’t be or weren’t brave and capable, but it seemed like we had no encouragement to be.

I longed, more than anything, to see that same sort of sentiment and genuine love to do what was right simply for the sake of doing what was right in a female superhero—to tell myself I could aspire to the same capability and that I didn’t have to be relegated to damsel in distress forever.

I had envied all my male classmates in kindergarten who got to put on Spider-Man masks or Superhero capes while I was indiscernible princess # 9 of the day, told I couldn’t save the burning building because I was always the one in it.

I wanted to do the saving.

So when Iron Man 2 (2010) was released just two years later and revealed Scarlett Johansson’s secret agent Natasha Romanoff (who would later become a core member of the world-renowned Avengers), I and other female fans felt we were finally getting the beginnings of a female superhero storyline the industry had been sorely lacking. I loved her power, her ability, and, more than anything, her narrative choices to choose justice and goodness.

However, even when the spotlight had turned to Johansson’s Black Widow in brief moments during male-headlined films, there was still so little we could glean from her. Fan demand for her origin story or an original tale about her rose. Marvel comics enthusiasts who knew of her past were clamoring for a glimpse into her story and how the mysterious Black Widow came about.

It took Marvel 11 long years to finally release a film headlined by a woman—and it was Captain Marvel, a film so famously detested and review-bombed by male fans even before its premiere.

Despite fans asking for Natasha repeatedly, Kevin Feige and other higher-ups at Marvel consistently only responded with tepid promises and were generally wishy-washy about when exactly it would happen and how committed they were. This continued to be a trend for other female-led films.

Black Widow (2021) followed two years after Captain Marvel amidst a global pandemic, with a storyline that shoehorned itself between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). In a way, there were little to no stakes to the film—we all knew Natasha would live, only to meet her death in Avengers: Endgame.

And while the film was still interesting and a breath of fresh Marvel air after cinemas closed due to the pandemic, it was a shared sentiment amongst female Marvel fans across the internet that it was too little, too late.

When Black Widow premiered at the height of the pandemic, I had shed my girlhood altogether.

I was fully an adult, a decade after letting go of my well-loved Barbie dolls, going to see a film I held my breath for. In many ways, I was still that longing, acne-faced kid in the theater. But in even bigger ways, I felt anxious about a storyline I had waited over a decade to see, waiting to know if anyone in big writers’ rooms also believed girls like me could be brave just so we didn’t have to keep conjuring it for ourselves without anyone to look up to.

That longing was quelled a little bit, but somewhere between trading in my math homework for tax ledgers and putting on my big girl shoes, I felt let down by the wait and agreed: It took too long to get here.

scarlett johansson as natasha romanoff (left) and florence pugh as yelena belova (right) black widow on bike
Credit: Marvel Studios

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, to know that a good portion of the hesitation—and even aversion—to creating women-led films stemmed from and was justified by one of the studio’s top dogs: Ike Perlmutter.

In leaked emails to Sony producers in August 2014, Perlmutter voiced his trepidation about a woman headlining a superhero film. This was a few months before the Captain Marvel movie had even been announced.

He questioned how profitable a woman-led film would be, citing examples of others that hadn’t done well at the box office. Missing from his critique were any of their male-led contemporaries and counterparts that bombed just as badly—if not more. Daredevil (2003), Green Lantern (2011), and even Batman v Superman (2016) were utter flops headlined by men, but Perlmutter failed to (or refused to) mention them.

Here’s the email to Michael Lynton, Sony executive, presumably as a follow-up from a phone call they had about potential female superhero films:

Michael,

As we discussed on the phone, below are just a few examples. There are more.

Thanks,

Ike

1. Electra (Marvel) – Very bad idea and the end result was very, very bad. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=elektra.htm

2. Catwoman (WB/DC) – Catwoman was one of the most important female character within the Batman franchise. This film was a disaster. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=catwoman.htm

3. Supergirl – (DC) Supergirl was one of the most important female super hero in Superman franchise. This Movie came out in 1984 and did $14 million total domestic with opening weekend of $5.5 million. Again, another disaster.

Best,
Ike

At best, it was ignorance on Perlmutter’s part. At worst, it was a total revulsion towards and rejection of centering women as a refusal to highlight women perspectives rooted in the decades-old tradition of Hollywood misogyny.

Many heavily criticized the email, saying that Perlmutter’s insistence came off as cheap and sexist. Some sources close to the studio also allege that Perlmutter’s entire stint as CEO had been colored by his alleged penny-pinching and disinclination towards women-led films (or treating his female employees well in general), keeping Marvel Studios from releasing women-centered narratives for years.

Note: Ike Perlmutter has been recently let go by Disney as of March 2023.

Sadly, Perlmutter is not the only one who holds to this ideology.

Related: Women Ditch ‘The Marvels,’ Proving “Woke” War Is Nonsense

The film industry has a largely-normalized history of sidelining women-centered film projects. Women-led and women-directed films are often marginalized by male viewers from the get-go, as they already condemn them by virtue of being about and by women. They believe that these films will not align with their interests by default and therefore don’t even consider seeing them, no matter what the subject matter.

The open-mindedness towards film is adopted more by women, but only because general audiences have been convinced that white male heroes and protagonists are the “default” for films in general because they were the only ones allowed to work in movies—or in anything—for a very long time (thanks, patriarchy).

Even male Marvel actors degrade their female co-stars—no matter how unconscious.

In 2015, Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans were in hot water when they jokingly referred to Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff as a “slut” and a “whore” when referencing her romantic (or potentially romantic) subplots throughout the slew of Avengers films.

During an interview, both actors laughed as they called Natasha Romanoff sexist slurs because of how she’d been involved with more than just one male Avenger. And while they intended it to be a harmless joke, the damage those words carried resonated negatively with fans.

scarlett johansson as natasha romanoff aka black widow poster
Credit: Marvel Studios

A blog dedicated to feminist geek content revealed a woman’s alleged experience working in Marvel Studios after Disney acquired them.

She was shocked to learn that Marvel didn’t work as hard to market or cater to their female audience because they believed that Disney already had the female market on lock, so they didn’t have to try as hard.

Disney acquired Marvel and Lucasfilm to tap into a bigger male demographic because they were already cashing in millions with their roster of princesses.

According to this ex-employee, Marvel largely ignores its female demographic because it leaves the heavy lifting to the Disney princesses. Female superhero merch and marketing material are then so unfocused and vague that they become literal afterthoughts to Marvel.

Marvel has had a decade-long problem with its merchandise. And I have felt this ripple into the very little merch we get over here in the Philippines. If, in the western market, female superhero toys and merch are few and far in-between, they’re near non-existent in Southeast Asia.

It’s not in terms of if they can sell—of course, they can—but with how every release has consciously decided to exclude its female superheroes until two or three waves later.

This not only happened with the original six Avengers (Black Widow merch, where?), but even with Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man and the Wasp (when “Wasp” is literally in the title of the film).

Merchandise, figurines, and even simple slogan T-shirts dedicated to female Marvel heroes are few and far between. Black Widow’s movie appearances equal that of Captain America’s and even outnumber The Hulk’s and Hawkeye’s, but she did not get a figurine until The Avengers (2012) came out—in the third wave of figurines released months after the film premiered.

This is not a standalone instance.

Scarlet Witch, after being featured heavily in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is not present in merch either.

The hashtag #WheresGamora trended on Twitter because of how little Gamora, a vital character to the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, was largely erased from merch immediately following the release (and success) of the film.

feed from #WheresGamora
Credit: Twitter

Peggy Carter and the women in Agents of SHIELD are largely minimized and altogether excluded from toys and merch as well. Jane as Thor is also notably missing from a lot of official Marvel releases.

There’s a huge discrepancy when catering to male and female fans, with so many young girls left wondering where their Gamora and Black Widow dolls are after enjoying an MCU film. Even Mark Ruffalo’s daughters asked for the same thing.

While it may not seem like a big deal, it sends a powerful message, especially to young girls: This is not for you. We may have given you a little moment, but this is not for you. Marvel will throw in a woman as some kind of bonus, but it will never be about women.

At least, this is what I felt when I lined up for official merch at a toy convention in 2019 (long after Captain Marvel had premiered) and found only the roster of male heroes—not a single female hero in sight.

I waited for the crowd to dissipate, watching young boys to older male fans walk away with Thor hammers or Hulk fists. Groups of young men huddled together to marvel at their officially licensed Starlord helmets and Black Panther figurines. I saw Groot and Rocket toys get snatched up. A life-sized replica of Captain America’s shield was gleefully tucked into a car trunk for safekeeping. I watched Ant-Man’s visors clutched lovingly in an older man’s hands.

I walked away with a handful of fanmade stickers being sold at the fringes of the convention, which I placed with an acrylic Scarlet Witch keychain I ordered online and the Etsy-made Black Widow sweaters I got shipped from abroad. In 2021, my friend who lived in the U.S. was kind enough to let me know that there were Black Widow and Gamora T-shirts for sale at Target. This started the lengthy, complicated process of her getting them over here for me as a birthday gift to add to my small pile of licensed merchandise.

Marvel continues to pretend to wave its banner of inclusivity and female superheroes, but the more it continues to overlook and erase the presence of women in T-shirts and merch, the more it feels like receiving crumbs and being told to be grateful for them anyway.

"Avengers: Endgame" breaks box office records
Credit: Marvel

In one of the final scenes of Avengers: Endgame, all the female heroes lined up to pose for a split second in celebration of the women in the MCU and their power. This scene, however, had my friends and me looking at each other in confusion, hands paused in popcorn sleeves, and lips pursed.

While some felt the scene was powerful, others took to social media to express how it felt pandering and like a weak one-up to the tonally similar but more naturally executed scene in Infinity War where Natasha Romanoff, Scarlet Witch, and Okoye came together to eliminate one of Thanos’ children, Proxima Midnight. Some thought it was a nice touch, others felt it was forced. It was pretty polarizing after watching almost three hours of a film that did heavily focus on its male heroes.

It is as if Marel saw the reception to that scene and wanted to cash in and prove that they loved women, like unfurling this banner of loving their female characters all along had been earned when Marvel still proved, time and again, that it either could not or totally refused to center women’s narratives.

It felt like they were washing their hands of the maltreatment of their fans and female stars, all to be forgiven in one shot. This became emblematic of the MCU and their treatment of women—and all the clipped storylines and frustration as a female Marvel fan I’d felt for over a decade came together in one furrow of my brow as the scene played out on my cinema screen.

I knew then, in the dark of the theatre, that even after years of trudging through botched female storyline after botched female storyline, we still had a long way to go.

Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, and Monica Rambeau on 'The Marvels' poster
Credit: Marvel

Being a Marvel fan was difficult growing up. I loved Captain America, I loved Thor, I loved them all. But I could not keep trying to justify changing Thor’s armor into skirts and dresses for me to see myself as powerful. I could not keep turning to fan-made merch for Black Widow dolls because Marvel wouldn’t give them to me.

Despite thriving communities of female fans, despite women’s voices crying out for more throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Marvel still took their trembling steps towards centering female narratives too late. And while I’m told to be grateful they forayed into it at all, it was exhausting as a fan to watch their very public, very questionable blunders as I grew up.

I have high hopes for The Marvels and the other projects that are slated for the future, as now we have emerging female voices, directors, and writers behind them. While they had to step on shaky foundations in order to start being heard, it has become a comfort to know that they are garnering more and more support every day.

I am excited for The Marvels and the other stories we have yet to see play out. I want to watch Yelena thrive. I want to know if Mantis ever found what she was looking for. I want to see Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel kick butt.

To give credit to Marvel, they’re finally learning that to give women voices in their stories, they must let women provide them.

I was a kid when I saw Iron Man for the first time, pining for a woman to look up to in the superhero genre. And when Marvel gave us glimpses of hope to finally see ourselves become powerful onscreen, to finally be included in the conversation of saving the world, they stopped at that for a long time: Just potential, and nothing more.

While we are finally shaking off the initial growing pains of the “new” genre that is films by and for women (a genre that shouldn’t still be new or distinguished the way it is, but alas), it often feels clumsy and awkward to find footing. It is better than what we had before, and surely better than nothing, but it shouldn’t have taken this long or required this much effort—my 13-year-old self wanted to be a hero too, and at 29, I’m still looking for that.

I still hope, in all my unofficial, Etsy-made Black Widow and Scarlet Witch sweaters, that we have so much more to look forward to. The gender gap still needs closing, even if we are no longer “just” damsels in distress. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we are slowly chipping away at it little by little, The Marvels and all.

It has been more than 15 years now, and I am still hoping.

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