Note: This article discusses major plot points of Avengers: Endgame.
The final battle in Avengers: Endgame is full of moments designed to make audiences cheer, many of them involving Captain America and an unexpected weapon choice. One such moment is a big, showy salute to the female lineup of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, is tasked with carrying the Infinity Gauntlet from one end of the battlefield to the other. When it’s suggested that she’ll need some backup, it arrives in the form of a splash-page ready formation of the women of the MCU: Scarlet Witch, Valkyrie, Okoye, Mantis, Shuri, Hope van Dyne, Gamora, Nebula, and even Pepper Potts in her own Iron Man suit. These women have already had their big heroic entrances alongside the rest of the returning Avengers, so this is a separate bald-faced attempt to create some explicit “girl power!” imagery. It misses the mark so badly it could only come from a studio that made 20 movies before it got to one with a female lead and then acted like we should all be grateful for its trailblazing feminism.
Part of what makes the moment so clunky is that it sacrifices all sense of internal logic in favor of simplistic iconography. (Look, I’m all for female solidarity, but if the fate of the universe relies on me successfully carrying a gauntlet across a field, I’d frankly much rather have Thor by my side than Mantis.) But to understand the bigger problem with the battlefield “Salute To Women,” it’s helpful to compare it to an earlier scene in which Tony, Steve, Bruce, Thor, Hawkeye, Rocket, Ant-Man, and Rhodey—all characters who have been major presences throughout the entire film—stand around a lab debating which one of them is best suited for a dangerous Infinity Stone-related task. That’s the MCU in a nutshell: When 10 women are briefly onscreen together it’s a Big Moment. When eight men have extended scenes together it’s just business as usual.
The first time I raised an eyebrow at Endgame (a film I very much enjoyed, by the way) was when it quickly became clear that despite their prominent placement on the film’s poster, Okoye and Carol Danvers weren’t actually going to be major players in the plot. They’re ostensibly off doing good elsewhere, as is Valkyrie, another female character who survived Thanos’ snap only to be sidelined here. According to Daily Mail’s timings, Carol has 15 minutes of screentime in this three-hour movie. Valkyrie has eight and Okoye has six. It’s not an inherently bad choice to downplay these newer heroes in order to focus on characters who’ve been in the MCU longer. But if you make a choice that results in there being just two women in your core group of heroes, maybe don’t also pat yourself on the back about your universe’s impressive female representation.
Which is not to say that Endgame does terribly by the female characters it does choose to focus on. In much the same way Infinity War transformed Gamora’s hints of potential into an impressively nuanced character, Endgame does the same with Nebula, who emerges as the film’s MVP. (Karen Gillan deserves a ton of credit for the work she’s done in transforming a one-note villain into something wholly original.) Thanks to some time-travel shenanigans, Endgame also gets to return to the rich emotional territory of Nebula and Gamora’s complex sisterhood, which ensures there’s at least one semi-central woman of color in the movie (albeit one who’s literally painted green) and a couple of scenes that pass the Bechdel test. Of course, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the many, many scenes that feature men talking to one another, but it’s still better than some other MCU movies have managed to do.
It’s fun to see Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter in cameo appearances, which help break up the mostly male-centric portions of the film. Gwyneth Paltrow gets a crucial emotional moment that proves that the smartest choice the MCU ever made was casting an Oscar-winning dramatic actress as its zippy female lead 11 years ago. I was also genuinely very moved by the way Endgame reclaims the legacy of Thor’s mom, Frigga, the definition of an intriguingly sketched MCU female character who never got her due. Given how often superhero movies leave the inspirational speeches to father figures, it’s quietly revolutionary to see Frigga be the one to motivate her son’s heroism.
As for Black Widow, the MCU’s original female superhero, well, it’s something of a mixed bag. Everything she gets to do within the film is great, and Scarlett Johansson turns in a characteristically fantastic performance in the role. The problem is she gets about half the screentime she needs in order to effectively build up to the big self-sacrificing arc this movie gives her. Indeed, according to Daily Mail, Black Widow gets the least screentime of any of the six original Avengers—and less than Ant-Man and Rocket Raccoon as well. And this is coming after Infinity War sidelined her even more dramatically.
The single most egregious thing about Endgame is that it’s a film in which two members of the original Avengers lineup die but only one death is treated like a major event worthy of extended onscreen mourning. On rewatch, that’s another thing that makes the battlefield girl power moment feel even more glaringly patronizing. In the world of the MCU, female Avengers matter, just not quite as much as their male counterparts—never mind that Natasha Romanoff has always been the single most consistently loyal, dedicated Avenger of them all, or that she appeared in the MCU before either Thor or Captain America. The film can’t even be bothered to give her a proper funeral. (Black Widow does still have a solo film on the horizon, though the general response to that announcement seems to be “too little, too late.”)
I don’t begrudge anyone who was moved by Endgame’s girl power moment in a way I wasn’t. At the very least, it works as a tribute to the wildly talented real-life women who have spent years elevating thinly written roles through sheer force of will. Infinity War’s final battle actually featured its own nod to female solidarity that I found much more effective, so I’m not inherently opposed to some woman-centric fan service as long as it’s logical and rooted in character. But after years of “about damn time!” and “the future is female!” teases, I’m ready for Marvel to stop making promises about the future and just start delivering on them now—ideally with teams of women who actually talk to each other, not just pose together.