What Does It Mean to Be a Woman in the MCU?

There has been debate online whether Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’s treatment of Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch, is an accurate continuation of her character arc from WandaVision. In the comics, it is known that Scarlet Witch teeters between anti-hero and villain, and Wanda even started out as a bad guy in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Wanda becoming a villain is not necessarily a surprise, and not a complete deviation from her character in WandaVision, but the swiftness of it happening and the reason for her turn is something to consider. 

Solo screenwriter Michael Waldron hinges Wanda’s entire motivation on her desire to reunite with her children in another universe. The end credit scene in WandaVision shows Wanda studying the Darkhold when she hears her children yelling “Mom!” Instead of giving her a complex set of emotions and motivations such as feeling abandoned by her fellow Avengers, depression from losing her parents, brother, and Vision, or fear of the Darkhold and her new powers, Multiverse of Madness undercuts the depth of her character by connecting her only to motherhood. The timing of this could not be worse at a societal level considering the leak of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, effectively forcing women to be mothers and taking away autonomy. While this is simply a coincidence, it is hard to ignore while watching the movie, not to mention the film premiered on Mother’s Day weekend.

Marvel movies are intrinsically part of the culture today. Many children and adults look to them as inspiration, escape, and as a reflection of who they are or want to be. As I watched Multiverse of Madness from the perspective of someone who has loved Wanda since her first appearance in the MCU, this evaluation of Scarlet Witch has led me to these questions: What does it mean to be a woman in the MCU? What have the stories we’ve been told about these women saying to the viewer? 

Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, has been the biggest female presence throughout the MCU. Everyone knows her character has a tragic backstory that is specifically related to her being a woman, which is adapted accurately in the MCU. Dreykov specifically targets and trains girls to become killers because there is an excess of unwanted girls in the world. While there is interesting commentary there, her backstory is unchangeable, so her initial trauma and the story of Black Widow (the movie) is not the problem at hand. How she is written when she is with S.H.I.E.L.D., and as an Avenger, is a whole other issue. When she is first introduced in Iron Man 2, she is clearly over-sexualized. In Avengers: Age of Ultron there is a controversial scene with Bruce Banner where she calls herself a monster for her inability to have children. In all actuality, she was forcibly sterilized in the Red Room by the KGB, but Joss Whedon does not try to differentiate between the two. Finally, in Avengers: Endgame she sacrifices herself for Hawkeye to get the Soul Stone. This is not necessarily out of character as she desperately wants to bring back everybody who was dusted, but what is the difference between herself and Hawkeye? Despite not going on a murderous rampage post-snap, she does not have a relationship or biological family and Hawkeye does, so she is the easier loss in the eyes of many. She does not get a happy ending, and she does not receive a proper funeral within Avengers: Endgame either, despite being an original Avenger just like Iron Man. Scarlett Johansson does a great job, but Black Widow was not given the care and attention like her fellow Avengers, which she rightfully deserved. Now that she is dead, she does not have a chance to get a Black Widow sequel to expand her character. 

There are several other female characters that are not treated with the utmost care either. Gamora is killed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, dragged back by her abuser, when he sacrifices her to get the Soul Stone. Hope Van Dyne is sidelined for the thinnest of reasons in Ant-Man, Hank caring too much about her, despite knowing how to fight and being familiar with the suit already. For two movies, Academy Award winner Natalie Portman was a girl obsessed with Thor first and scientist second. Although, her wrongs will hopefully be righted soon as she becomes The Mighty Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder. While some of these examples may be logical within the timeline of the MCU, it is still telling when every main female character has something somewhat problematic in their story.

In a clear effort to change the status quo, 2019’s Captain Marvel serves exactly what they think everyone wants from female characters on a plate. The trailers marketed the “shero” narrative about as hard as it could, while simultaneously praising itself for being the first Marvel film directed by a woman (actually co-directed). Although I like the film, it’s easy to see why many might be critical of it. The whole film is formulated around the fact that Captain Marvel is a woman rather than a story where the lead happens to be a woman, and the dialogue is completely obvious in its intentions. It is the poster child for what people think is “female empowerment.” 

The treatment of Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, and Captain Marvel speaks for itself. Marvel has done a better job of showing more women onscreen as the MCU has continued, which is always the first step. Now that it has reached Phase Four, there should be progress on how women are written. Currently, Marvel is saying that being a woman in the MCU makes them subservient to their gender stereotypes, and that the stories are written around the fact they are women. Wanda’s arc in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness would have been much different if it had been co-written or at least read over by a female writer. These superheroes, or villains, should first and foremost be characters, with their gender an added dimension. Marvel must stop relying on the obvious story choice the gender dictates, like Wanda and motherhood in Multiverse of Madness. They need to start showing that these characters are well-rounded people, reflecting the women who sit in the theater and support the them.

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