When The Avengers first premiered, it was a team of five men and one woman. It is 2019, and the final journey of that originating Avengers team has come to a close, the first major arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe concluded.
There are certainly more women on the battlefield now, but are they getting their due?
[Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame]
The MCU has been struggling to add more female superheroes to its roster since it set up shop, and nowhere is this dearth more obvious than the big team-up films. But there are other questions here, too. Questions about who takes responsibility and when and why they do it. Questions about who gets to make decisions and who does the dirty work after the fact. Questions about whose lives are most valuable. And when all was said and done, Avengers: Endgame had no better plans for its female characters than any of the movies before it. In fact, many of them were worse off than they’d ever been, casting a dim light over the entire franchise.
It seems that we’re still in that awkward middle ground where companies and filmmakers understand that women are looking for more representation in stories that once-upon-a-time only showcased men, but they still haven’t figured out what that amounts to. This continues to be true no matter how many righteous haymakers Carol Danvers throws; we’re seeing change, but twenty-two films in, we’re still not much better off. Endgame unfortunately proves this even in the moments when it seems to think it’s doing well in how it handles female characters. To wit, toward the end of the film we’re treated to a moment where every woman on the battlefield pointedly stands together against Thanos, and while it mirrors a similar scene when Black Widow and Okoye defended Scarlet Witch in Infinity War, it smacks of overwrought lip service without substance. All the “see? we get it!” moments in the world don’t make for good storytelling or meaningful character arcs, and by the end of this massive tale, most of the women of the MCU have very little to show for all their hard work and sacrifice.
And so we have to start with Natasha Romanoff.
One of the original boy’s club crew, Natasha has never been given a solo film (the MCU was reported to be correcting this soon, but it will now likely be a prequel?). While some of the overarching plots struggled with how to handle her character, the former spy found her way by growing through each adventure, and being the person most cognizant of the Avengers as a found family. Her role in Captain America: Civil War was particularly painful on that front; while everyone else obsessed over who was wronging who, Natasha’s only true concern throughout the film was in trying to preserve the family and life she’d made for herself on the team. It is taken from her anyway, and she spends a couple years on the run with Steve and company, only to be there when Thanos snaps his fingers and murders half the universe.
In order to fix the mess five years later, the Avengers hatch a time travel plot that will allow them to retrieve the Infinity Stones powering Thanos’s gauntlet in their respective pasts, so that they can use the powers for themselves in the present. Teams are dispatched for each stone, with Natasha and her best friend Clint Barton set to grab the Soul Stone from the planet Vormir. While Nebula might suspect, no one is certain of how the Soul Stone is obtained, and it’s not until Nat and Clint find themselves on the planet that they learn a sacrifice is demanded—the person seeking the stone must trade another soul that they love in order to receive it. Because both Natasha and Clint fit the bill (being best friends for ages), they fight for it, racing each other to the precipice for the sacrifice. As they both hang off the edge of a cliff face and Clint is losing his grip on her, Natasha asks him to let her go. She wrenches herself away and falls to her death, one that cannot be undone when half the universe is snapped back into existence later on in the film.
That Natasha Romanoff is brave and selfless and heroic, no one would argue. But the connotations of her sacrifice speak far louder than the action itself. For one, Natasha lamented to Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron that she could not have children of her own while the Avengers were holed up on Clint’s farm. She is aunt to Clint’s children, and has folded herself into his family without a means to have her own. Clint loses that entire family to the Snap, and it is clearly implied that part of the reason Natasha wishes to sacrifice herself is to make sure that he is returned to them if the Avengers succeed in their plan. Thus, Natasha’s inability to have children renders her—in the eyes of the narrative, and in her own summation—“less valuable” in terms of survival. After she’s gone, Tony Stark asks if she had family they should notify, and it’s pointed out again that the Avengers were the only ones she called family. All of this adds up to make it seem that Natasha’s only true value was in loving the Avengers (and Clint) enough to be willing to take that leap for all of them.
This choice runs foul even further when we remember what it’s meant to contrast: Thanos sacrificing his daughter Gamora to get the Soul Stone in Infinity War. These are supposed to be juxtaposing moments, Gamora’s murder at the hands of her father now running alongside Natasha’s willing suicide, which is even more meaningful for the fact that both she and Clint wanted to be the one to take the fall. Any perceived truth to Thanos’s sacrifice should be completely undone by this version of events… yet it isn’t. If Natasha and Clint’s dueling desire to give their lives had resulted in neither of them having to die—if they had cancelled out the mechanism that released the stone by both being so willing—we would have had a far more potent condemnation of Thanos’s decision. And it needs to be that potent because Gamora’s death is already a circumspect exercise in the previous film, a seeming approval of Thanos’s “love” for a daughter he has only ever abused. Allowing Clint and Natasha to circumvent the process by the power of real love (and the love of a platonic and beautiful friendship between a woman and a man, no less) would have been a far more powerful message against Thanos’s toxic idea of family.
In the end, Natasha Romanoff is mourned but never celebrated. The story has too far to go, and Tony Stark’s epic death undercuts her own. The film ends on his funeral, and hers is never seen, mentioned, or noted. It’s almost as though she never existed at all.
We arrive at Carol Danvers, the first female Marvel superhero to headline a film (it only took a decade…). Carol is brilliant throughout Endgame, but she’s also underused because she’s not been given any time at all to acclimate to the group setting. This is not her farewell tour, so she only shows up in special bursts, powered by fists of space-energy and little else. The same is true of Okoye, who Marvel rightfully gave top billing to, but never the screen time to match. Wanda Maximoff also shows up briefly to flex her extraordinarily powerful magic muscles, but her only stake in the film is being pissed with Thanos for killing her boyfriend Vision. All her fury gets her nowhere, which is hardly surprising because these films have never known what to do with someone as powerful as the Scarlet Witch is meant to be. She’s always getting sidelined because dealing with her true skillset would make most of the other combatants seem superfluous. (Also hardly surprising is that her new upcoming television series with Vision is going to be set in the 1950s… about as far from the central action of the MCU as you can get.)
Gamora and Nebula are pulled through the wringer and then some in Endgame, the former already dead and brought back from her past, the latter forced to confront an earlier and far crueler version of herself that she eventually murders. (And because the film seems to have no interest in creating any succinct rules around their time travel plot, it is completely unclear as to how that should affect Nebula going forward.) Both Nebula and Gamora are extremely important to the plot of Endgame, with Nebula’s appearance in the past accidentally notifying Thanos as to the Avengers’ plans, and Gamora’s decision to trust the future version of her sister being integral to the success of said plans. But the film seems to forget them once things get heated up; one brief re-meet of Peter Quill and Gamora disappears to who knows where, with Nebula left behind to hitch a ride again with the Guardians. We have no idea if the two said a proper goodbye to one another, or how they are both feeling now that they have to relearn their relationship all over again. The movie doesn’t seem concerned about that—but it does seem very concerned over Quill’s desire to track Gamora down.
Then there’s Valkyrie, who has been in charge of New Asgard since Thor went into a spiral of depression and binge-drinking. Though the film treats the God of Thunder terribly, Valkyrie doesn’t come out of the situation any better, as she works herself to the bone to keep the ship running for the sake of the Asgardian people. By the end, Thor abdicates the throne in her favor, noting that she has already been doing the job for him, and that she’s an excellent leader. These things are true, but Valkyrie also expressed a hatred of Asgardian monarchy when Thor met her first. And more to the point, no matter how good Val is at steering their people, she is essentially being made to shoulder Thor’s burden simply because he has decided he can’t handle it anymore. Rather than offering to help her set up a new form of government, or see that the transition of power goes smoothly, he just up and leaves all of his responsibilities on her plate.
Even the final romantic nod of the entire series can ring hollow: While we’re supposed to be happy for Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter finally getting their dance on at the end of this, it’s hard not to be a little insulted over all the film is choosing to ignore in that tender moment. It is unclear if any of Peggy’s former trials will come to pass with Steve Rogers back in her life, and the idea of all of her adventures—in her own series Agent Carter and beyond—being overwritten for a life in a cute suburb with her man is frankly just as depressing as them losing one another. Peggy Carter claims to know her value, but in this moment, it’s hard to tell if the MCU knows it, or if they ever cared about it at all. Love is truly grand, but shoehorning Peggy in there for a kiss when we get no time with her at all feels like a particular kind of cheat.
But there’s worse, even after all of that. Perhaps the most depressing lot is handed over to Pepper Potts and her daughter Morgan. It’s clear that the audience is supposed to feel happy (or at least contented) for Tony Stark, even in his death—he finally defeated Thanos, the guy who has been haunting his dreams and giving him anxiety attacks since the Battle of New York, and in the interim he got five solid years with his wife and his daughter before giving his life in service of the entire universe. He has the chance to fight alongside his wife in a suit of armor he created especially for her, and as he dies, Pepper promises that she and their daughter will be okay despite his absence. “You can rest now,” she tells him, and he takes her at her word.
This is one of fiction’s favorite noble ends, and it often sees a woman and a child who have to move on without a father and partner. And while it is great that Tony got to have some time with his daughter, she’s barely five years old, which means that her memory of him is bound to get fuzzy as she gets older. She is cheated out of that relationship while Pepper is left alone, after spending years panicked for Tony’s safety and well-being. It is the ending that Iron Man perhaps deserves, but it is not the ending that his family deserves, and there’s no way around that plain truth. But we’re conditioned to accept this as good and heroic tragedy, full of sorrow and therefore meaningful, rather than asking why these are always the people who pay the price for that heroism.
So while the Marvel Studios franchise films continue to add and promote new female heroes, while they insist that they will keep an eye toward diversity in the future, it’s hard to believe that we will be seeing much better from the majority of these stories any time soon. Women should get to work the center stage of these narratives, and more importantly, they should not bear the brunt of men’s choices and give up their own freedoms and stories in their favor. Thanos may have time traveled to try and retake the universe, but the real villain of Avengers: Endgame often felt like men absconding from their commitments and leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces.