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The evolution of the Marvel woman superhero

BY Victoria Luxford

22nd Aug 2022 Film & TV

The evolution of the Marvel woman superhero

The future is female in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We break down how women came to dominate the superhero film franchise

This month sees the arrival of the Disney+ TV series She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, which connects a new character, Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) to original Avenger, Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

The show is part of the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and is the latest chapter in a revolution happening within the world’s biggest movie franchise.

Prior to the 2020s, the MCU had a weakness greater than any supervillain or intergalactic weapon.

None of the franchise’s first 20 films had a solo female lead, with popular characters like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) either part of the ensemble or supporting characters in male heroes’ movies.

Female-fronted films make progress

Elizabeth Olsen dressed in red leather leotard and headdress in Wandavision The Scarlet Witch gets her own film in 2021's Wandavision, which explores the villain's origin story. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All rights reserved. 

That glass ceiling was broken in 2019 with the arrival of Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, but we had to wait until the MCU’s fourth “phase” in order to see the kind of representation fans had been asking for, and female leads began to evolve the Universe in ways we hadn’t seen before.

Global events meant that those beginnings were stuttered, but familiar faces have begun to get the platform they richly deserved.

The first quarter of 2021 gave Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and Black Widow their own starring roles, with the surreal grief fantasy Wandavision and the action-packed Black Widow prequel.

"Doctor Strange’s task was to assist new hero America Chavez to realise her power"

It was a farewell for the latter, who sacrificed herself to save the world in Avengers: Endgame; while for Wanda it was an interesting evolution that led to her becoming the vengeful but sympathetic villain of Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness.

While the film was led by Benedict Cumberbatch, the story very much focused on Wanda’s desire to tear the fabric of the universe apart in order to deal with her grief, while Doctor Strange’s task was to assist new hero America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) to realise her power.

A new era for Marvel women

Iman Vellani plays Kamala Khan in Marvel's Ms MarvelKamala Khan became Marvel's first Muslim woman superhero in 2022's Ms MarvelPhoto courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Chavez would not be the only female teenager to introduce themselves to the MCU, as July’s Ms Marvel saw 16-year-old Avengers fan Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) gain superpowers that would emulate her heroes.

As the first Latin American and Muslim heroes respectively, both characters would bring some much-needed representation to the famed franchise.

Last month, Thor made his return in Thor: Love and Thunder, but the title didn’t just refer to Chris Hemsworth’s character.

Oscar winner Natalie Portman was Thor’s love interest Jane Foster for the first two movies, before disappearing from the MCU as the franchise expanded.

The actor returned to the films for the first time since 2013’s Thor: The Dark World (bar a brief Avengers cameo) not just to assist Thor, but to take on his mantle as The God of Thunder.

"As the first Latin American and Muslim heroes respectively, both characters would bring some much-needed representation"

Love and Thunder sees Foster become Mighty Thor, a hero with similar powers to the original and who fights with him on a level footing.

It's a prime example of the meteoric shift in the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe is presenting itself after reaching a milestone with Avengers: Endgame.

That film saw the departure of many of the original Avengers, leaving space for a new team of heroes that represented a wider section of society.

Rather than simply refill the Avengers with characters who looked and sounded like the ones that came before, Marvel were aware that reinvention was the only way to move forward with a series that had become the most successful movie franchise of all time.

Representation in the age of streaming

It was also a chance to reflect the worldwide audience that had made the films so successful.

This chance matters because the way we consume culture is changing, with the audience having more of a voice regarding what they watch.

The 19-year-old Vellani echoes her character in that she grew up with the Avengers, having been only five years old when the original Iron Man was released. As she entered the MCU herself, it dawned on her the impact she was having.

“I realised that all my heroes were middle-aged white dudes,” Vellani said in an interview with Sirius XM, “which is great, they’re fine, I love Robert Downey Jr. But I didn’t have any role models in my life that looked like me." 

The success of previous breakthroughs like Captain Marvel and Black Panther (both grossing over $1bn each) showed the appetite for something new, and Marvel have responded across their many platforms.

"The success of Captain Marvel and Black Panther (both grossing over $1bn each) showed the appetite for something new"

She-Hulk will introduce a romantic comedy twist on the superhero formula, as Jennifer attempts to juggle life, work, and love in her larger, greener form, in a series with female audiences in mind.

Meanwhile, further ground will be broken with Iron Heart, introducing the MCU’s first Black female lead in Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a brilliant young scientist who develops armour likened to the Iron Man suit.

This shift in the type of hero we see taking Marvel into the future is both a natural progression for the audience watching it, and reflective of the many opportunities that are now available to tell stories.

When the MCU first arrived, streaming services had not yet taken the entertainment world by storm. Now, 14 years later, what started as a one film per year endeavour has grown to three movies and three original series in 2022.

With that much screentime available, there is room for everyone to not only be entertained, but to look up and see a hero that feels like them.

She-Hulk: Attorney At Law is on Disney+ now

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