This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
Avengers: Endgame takes its fan-service duties seriously. As the culmination of an 11-year, 22-film cycle, this season finale of a film has to resolve countless storylines and character arcs, but it also takes frequent breathers to feature, say, Captain America fighting an earlier version of himself, the Hulk taking selfies with fans, and a wastrel Thor issuing threats through a headset while playing Fortnite with his fellow Ragnarok survivors. And yet there’s one bit of fan service that couldn’t land more gracelessly if it were tossed off the cliff on Vormir. During the final showdown with Thanos for the fate of the universe, Captain Marvel, Valkyrie, Okoye, the Wasp, and several other female characters get in formation, presumably for audiences to rally around Marvel’s commitment to gender equality and women’s representation. Instead, the scene immediately revealed itself as the apotheosis of the studio’s expectation that fans of female superheroes be satisfied with scraps, while courting woke points for its supposed forward thinking.
Let the record speak for itself: Marvel put out 20 movies with male protagonists, many of them brain-meltingly similar to one another, before releasing its first built around a female superbeing. That 2019 movie, Captain Marvel, was also the first Marvel movie with a female director in co-helmer Anna Boden and only the second with female screenwriters in Boden and Geneva Robertson-Dworet. Maleness isn’t a disqualifier for writing women well, of course, but even the most dynamic female supporting characters in the Marvel canon—such as Thor: Ragnarok’s Valkyrie and Black Panther’s Okoye and Shuri—are relegated to secondary arcs and largely pop off the screens because of the charisma of the actresses embodying them. Many of the other Marvel superheroines have been mired in controversies: Black Widow calling herself a “monster” for her inability to conceive children (after a forced sterilization) in Age of Ultron, Mantis being called ugly in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the Wasp having to wait the duration of an entire movie before getting to suit up and size down (at which point she was immediately Snaptured). Then there’s the depressing fact that so many female characters primarily exist to scold or discourage, their most notable superpower consisting of constantly looking like they’re wagging their fingers while not physically performing that action. Humor and valor are the currencies of the Marvel movies. Too often, the women are left in arrears.
Endgame is no exception. Tony Stark quips, Captain America checks out his own ass, Thor channels the Big Lebowski, and even the Hulk finds the Buddhist bro within. Hawkeye broods, but he’s ultimately rewarded for his quest with the movie’s yawn-inspiring vision of bliss: heterosexual domesticity. Black Widow, in contrast, seems to hit all the female obligations of superhero tales: to be no fun, yearn romantically, then die, arguably so a man can find happiness. In the rare moments when the female heroes who have been afforded a non-sourpuss personality in other movies show up—Captain Marvel, Valkyrie, Okoye, Shuri—they don’t get to show it. Gamora, Scarlet Witch, and the Wasp may not have a sense of humor—a lack that is frankly the most dehumanizing trait a writer can give a character—but at least they’ve got backstories as superpowered beings. The presupposition that we’re supposed to salute fifth-billed characters like Mantis and Pepper Potts just for showing up demonstrates how deep Marvel had to dig to come up with these ostensible triumphs of feminism.
Then there’s the ways Endgame fails its two biggest female characters, Black Widow and Nebula, by not bothering to fully develop their emotional journeys. Black Widow’s readiness to give up on life is hardly established, and on Planet Vormir, she’s on the verge of getting back what she’s desired all along—a family—before killing herself. Even more insultingly, the only continuous Avenger who still hasn’t gotten her own movie—though one’s been promised for years and may yet happen—gets a fraction of the mourning that Tony Stark enjoys. Iron Man gets a funeral, with slow pans across the gathered grievers. Black Widow gets a single mention. Her disappearance from the movie couldn’t have been more abrupt if Scarlett Johansson had magically vanished from the set midway through shooting.
But the greater affront might be the Marvel movies’ ongoing treatment of Nebula, whose tale of grisly, lifelong abuse by her father is seldom given the gravity it deserves. We feel Nebula’s physical pain in Endgame, as she’s pried apart once again by Thanos to serve his own agenda. But the Guardians of the Galaxy movies have tended to villainize her for not getting over her brainwashing fast enough, and now Endgame, which finds her rehabilitated, dares not acknowledge the full horror of a woman forced to kill a stunted, not-yet-ready-to-heal version of herself to save her sibling. In fact, Endgame’s pat appeal to sisterhood, which unites Nebula and Gamora, is symptomatic of its overall treatment of female characters as walking applause lines first and people (or space aliens) second. The fans are ready to clap for their female favorites, but Marvel should try giving them something to cheer for first.