Avengers: Endgame was a riot of flashy fights and fan service, with enough humour thrown in to sometimes feel like a great comedy. It was silly and nonsensical, but above all it was entertaining, and when it needed to hit the emotional, dramatic beats it usually nailed them. Yet there was a point in the film where I found myself distracted from the sheer inundation of fun – when it became clear that the many, many powerful heroines of the piece weren’t quite on par with the heroes. They were props, there to support the stories of the guys. Endgame did its women no favours and it’s time we talked about it.
The point that drove this home for me was actually a moment I’ve seen praised by others: Captain Marvel returns from her two-hour hiatus in the film to collect the Infinity Gauntlet from Peter Parker. Sure, he and the audience just saw her destroy Thanos’ ship in a heartbeat, but he still asks how she’ll get through an entire army to deliver the gauntlet to where it needs to be.
We then get a big splashy shot of almost every single woman in the film, chests puffed out heroically and lit by a murky sun through a cloud of debris. There are so many women, and among them are the two most powerful characters in the film not named Thanos.
But it’s just a brief shot, one that feels more like someone meting out a diversity cookie than lifting up a group of characters who almost always take a back seat in both the film’s narrative and its marketing. Ultimately, the women do little more than look cool and buy some time before Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor can do the real work. And there’s a pointed absence from the tableau. The original woman Avenger, Black Widow, isn’t there. She died an hour earlier.
The Black Widow Problem
This isn’t the first time Black Widow has been a point of contention. The female founding member of the MCU’s Avengers previously had a storyline that was deeply problematic. In the Joss Whedon-directed Age of Ultron, the character does little more than ferry folks and their things around, and admits she can never truly love or settle down because her deep, dark assassin secret is... she was sterilised in the Black Widow program.
Who would have thought that would end up being one of her meatier moments in the MCU films?
After performing little more than a cameo in Infinity War, Natasha shows up in Endgame as a woman haunted by her failures and desperate to protect what little of humanity remains. While the men of the Avengers have gone off to find themselves, or a family, or a six-pack of beer, she’s hunkered down and built a network of remaining heroes. Which is pretty great! She’s the only Avenger really doing something – and when they decide to get the band back together so they can quantum tunnel their way into the past to save the universe, she’s the one who volunteers to pick up Hawkeye, who has gone full edgelord and is murdering his way through other nations, ostensibly to stop criminals who were randomly lucky enough to survive the end of Infinity War.
Hawkeye winds up being Black Widow’s partner for the time heist, and the two head to Vormir (where last we saw Thanos sacrificing Gamora) to track it down. They soon realise the only way to claim the stone is for one of them to sacrifice that which they love most. One would presume Hawkeye would be all out of sacrifices. That which he loves most is his family...and they all got snapped away in the first two minutes of the movie. In fact, his whole story until this point is that he is a man with nothing left to lose. And you would assume Natasha, who was visibly upset by Hawkeye’s descent into darkness, cares enough about him that he could, maybe, be the thing she loves most.
But the film kills Black Widow instead. The scene plays as if it’s two friends trying to sacrifice themselves so the other doesn’t die, but in an interview with the New York Times, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely make it clear that Natasha really wanted to die because she wanted to see all her Avenger boys happy.
“Her journey, in our minds, had come to an end if she could get the Avengers back,” McFeely said.
“It was melodramatic to have him [Hawkeye] die and not get his family back. And it is only right and proper that she’s done,” Markus added when the NYT broached the subject of the Vormir death race.
These responses only highlight the very massive disservice the film does its women characters. Hawkeye gets to live because he has a family; Natasha, the sterile woman who comes from a bad home, gets to die because her greatest wish is that her found family of hero boys will be happy. She is there to prop him and the other men up. Her character arc amounts to the arc her body makes as it plummets to the ground.
Halfway through Endgame, the founding female member of the Avengers is dead, with zero resolution of any of her stories. Presumably the many unanswered questions of her past will be addressed in her solo movie, but also, presumably, that movie will be a flashback. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.
And it’s made even more bitter when a morose Hawkeye returns to the present alone, and you realise the only two characters who don’t make it out of the past are also the only two female members of the team.
The Nebula Problem
With Black Widow dead halfway through the film, it’s up to Nebula to carry the torch for all women – at least until that diversity cookie moment we already talked about. She is the de facto lead female character of the film. She is also, notably, not mentioned once in McFeely and Markus’s New York Times interview.
Nebula is basically the cosmic version of Black Widow: a morally gray assassin who has a lot of red in her ledger who doesn’t return from the time heist. Only, she’s a cyborg. And like Natasha in Age of Ultron, Nebula spends a healthy chunk of Endgame captured by the bad guy and subject to monologues.
As the men build an Infinity Gauntlet and fight over who will wear it, the real Nebula is interrogated and tortured – while her past doppelgänger toddles around in the present day, where none of the men notice that she has a different arm. Perhaps it is a commentary on the failure of all the male heroes to consider the women in their midst, but more likely it was a choice by the filmmakers. Past Nebula needed to make sure her father time travelled to the future so none of the men could notice she had a flesh arm when earlier she had a metal one.
But Nebula wasn’t the only one written out of the narrative so the men could shine.
The Captain Marvel Problem
The Captain Marvel film premiered last month and has already earned over a billion dollars. Like Black Panther, it is something of a phenomenon and Brie Larson has been on a non-stop press tour since well before its premiere. In the majority of press events, she’s been the woman Disney has put forward, both as the new face of the heroines of the franchise and as the new face of the franchise itself. It was safe to assume she was going to play a role in Endgame – though maybe not a huge one, given the need for the film to also be a swan song for a number of older, popular characters. But what the film ends up doing with the character feels like a disservice.
Rather then symbolically taking up the reigns from an established character, or organically being integrated into the team she will be a major part of going forward, the character is slotted into a role awfully similar to Black Widow’s in Age of Ultron: Ferrying shit.
She ferries Tony from space to Earth, ferries Thanos across a cabin so Thor can decapitate him, and then disappears for two-plus hours only to show up and ferry a glove across a battlefield.
Her role in the film boils down to moving things around, revealing her new hair cut, and showing off her ability to shine very brightly. As a character, she is virtually non-existent. Some of that can certainly be due to this film being shot before Captain Marvel. “We shot [Brie Larson] before she shot her movie. She’s saying lines for a character 20 years after her origin story, which no one’s written yet,” McFeely notes. Her backstory didn’t exist yet!
But a lot of it boils down to a choice made by the filmmakers. They chose to not integrate her better into the plot or the team, though these film had been planned for years. “[T]hat’s not the story we’re trying to tell – it’s the original Avengers dealing with loss and coming to a conclusion, and she’s the new, fresh blood,” McFeely said.
Her role is too big to be considered a cameo or Easter egg, but far too small to be satisfying, especially to those who quickly grew attached to her thanks to her solo film. Carol Danvers is so pointless to the story that I found myself questioning why she was even in the movie.
The Cameo Problem
The worst issue of the film is that the women mentioned above...are the primary women of the film. They’re the ones with the most lines and the most narrative focus apart from Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, War Machine, and... Hawkeye.
Danai Gurira’s Okoye, leader of the Dora Milaje, was a breakout character in Black Panther, and she had one of the best lines in Infinity War. Yet she has little more than an extended cameo in Endgame (fellow Black Panther star Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Nakia, didn’t even show up). Same goes for Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, who quietly disappears after the final fight (serving as a point of emotional distress for Peter Quill); Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie; and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts.
But at least they get to speak! The bulk of the women in that cool splash visual of grrrrl power don’t say a word. Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp was the first heroine to actually get her name in the title of a damn film and she has only two or three lines. They’re shoved to the side to make way for the men.
And maybe this would have felt okay if, in the final scenes of the film, we got some sense of the future for these characters. But while we spend time seeing where Bucky and Sam – and even Happy – are headed next, we spend no real time with any of the women. Valkyrie is now a queen of a displaced society of gods in Norway, and Hope van Dyne is apparently in San Francisco with her boyfriend and his now-adult daughter, but if there is still a team of Avengers we have no idea if any women are on it or what their roles will be. We have no clue what is next for Captain Marvel or Scarlet Witch apart from what Disney has announced.
Endgame is filled to the brim with female characters, but the film is content to use them as props, and we have no idea if that will be the same for the franchise going forward – in spite of the fact that the women are some of the biggest and most popular characters left alive. Markus and McFeely’s bald words about Black Widow don’t inspire hope. They thought they did something powerful when the killed her off. They did. Something powerfully stupid.