Why Are Marvel's Powerful Women in the Past?

Hayley Atwell in ABC's Agent Carter, Brie Larson in Captain Marvel and Michelle Pfeiffer in Ant-Man and the Wasp-Publicity Stills-Split-H 2019
ABC; Photofest; Marvel Studios
'Captain Marvel,' 'Agent Carter' and the upcoming 'Black Widow' movie are all prequels.

It started with a tweet that was, as such things often are, somewhere between an observation and a throwaway piece of snark. “Considering both Agent Carter and Captain Marvel are prequels to the rest of the Marvel movies,” I wrote Wednesday, “the story of the MCU turns out to be one where the kick-ass capable women are replaced by a whole bunch of self-obsessed men.”

The responses to the tweet fell into three categories, for the most part: agreement; those complaining that the men weren’t self-obsessed and, anyway, Captain America predated both (technically untrue, as Peggy Carter was present and fully capable when Steve Rogers got transformed from 98-pound weakling into America’s favorite soldier, but that’s really neither here nor there); and, perhaps most interestingly, people adding other examples of powerful women who had been replaced by men in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Janet Van Dyne, the Ancient One — or otherwise just removed from the universe altogether, leaving a void, as in the case of Glenn Close’s Nova Prime.

What started as a half-formed comment about the odd coincidence that both Agent Carter and Captain Marvel — two of the three existing Marvel Cinematic Universe projects that center around a solo female lead (Netflix series Jessica Jones being the third) — were set in the past became something else: the realization that, accidentally or otherwise, the MCU has a strange history of sidelining strong female characters.

If another example is needed, consider that Black Widow — arguably the most capable of all characters in the MCU, with the exception of Nick Fury — is only now getting a solo project after playing second fiddle for almost a decade (and, yes, it’ll be set in the past).

It’s easy to speculate what could be behind this trend: The majority of Marvel’s character base is male, and that’s certainly true when it comes to the company’s A-list — and its B-list, arguably. Outside of Captain Marvel and Black Widow — and, importantly, the X-Men franchise, which was off-limits to Marvel Studios, but had most of Marvel’s most interesting women — there were few female headliners at the company, which meant that if Marvel Studios was going to concentrate on known and successful properties in comics when selecting movie projects, the lineup was likely to be mostly male.

Bringing in female supporting characters is a way to try to even up the gender imbalance, such as the strong women of Black Panther or Evangeline Lilly's The Wasp becoming a co-headliner in Ant-Man and the Wasp. In other instances, giving supporting characters mentor roles and/or positions of power can be, in many cases, another method for trying to address accusations of gender imbalance. There are problems with this approach. Firstly, the traditional superhero origin story sees the protagonist either surpass or replace their mentor figure and those around him — almost always him — as they come into their full power. And, secondly, when that’s happening repeatedly and it means that women are continually being pushed into the background by men, even if it’s not intended to be a running theme, it’s a problem.

In theory, something like Captain Marvel is constructed to address the problem: It’s a story about a woman coming into her power, after all, and one where she proves to be an inspiration to Nick Fury and is set up to save the day in Avengers: Endgame as the most powerful hero in the MCU. After that, hopefully, she can exist in the present, because that's what Marvel needs: more Jessica Jones-esque projects, stories set today that feature unapologetic women who make their own space in the MCU. The potential of Captain Marvel as both a hero and a movie property is definitely present in the new pic, but it might take a sequel — or Endgame — for it to be properly fulfilled.