Wrack your brains for somewhere the DC Extended Universe has beaten its rival, Marvel, and you will probably land on Wonder Woman. As well as reintroducing female-led superhero movies after Elektra in 2005, it was also the first Hollywood comic book adaptation directed by a woman, in this case Patty Jenkins. And it was just the fourth DCEU film. Meanwhile, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is already 20 films deep and has yet to achieve either.
As Captain Marvel arrives – starring Brie Larson and co-directed by Anna Boden – the MCU has some catching up to do on this front, but that’s not to say Marvel hasn’t given us some badass, courageous, intelligent and confident women on the screen and behind the scenes over the last decade or so. Here are the leading ladies who’ve shone brightest so far.
Gwyneth Paltrow – Pepper Potts
First appearance: Iron Man (2008)
Tony Stark’s assistant-slash-love interest is not the most auspicious starting-point for the Marvel series’ female co-stars, but from the get-go Paltrow made Pepper far more than that. She refuses to put up with Tony’s playboy crap and keeps him in line with a firm hand as much as possible. As the two inevitably fall for each other and get together, she remains his voice of reason, while also rising through the ranks to be a clearly smart and capable CEO of Stark Industries.
Pepper also becomes a hero in her own right. In Iron Man 3, she saves Tony from an attack on his home while wearing his Iron Man armour, and later kills big bad Aldrich Killian after being given the Extremis serum and surviving a seemingly deadly fall into an explosion.
Her absence may have been clumsily explained away in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, but Paltrow’s brief returns in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Infinity War are rumoured to pave the way for Pepper taking on the mantle of iron suit-clad hero Rescue in Endgame.
Scarlett Johansson – Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
First appearance: Iron Man 2 (2010)
It’s easy now to forget that Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff made her MCU bow as a supporting player in Iron Man 2, initially posing as Stark’s new assistant before being revealed as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Tony’s first interactions with “Natalie” are hardly a feminist triumph, as he ogles her and tells Pepper: “I want one.” But before her first scene is out, she’s taken down a patronising Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in a boxing ring to show us her fighting credentials.
Romanoff goes on to become the Avengers’ first and most prominent female member, while also proving a key ally to Captain America and developing a complicated romance with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Glimpses of her traumatic past are revealed in Age of Ultron and after years of fan demands and false starts, it looks like we will finally see a Black Widow solo film in 2020.
Zoe Saldana – Gamora
First appearance: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Green-skinned assassin Gamora represented a breakthrough for Marvel in several ways. She was one of the first alien protagonists; a complicated antihero with big bad Thanos for an adopted dad; and provided a leading role for an actor of colour in Zoe Saldana.
Gamora ultimately helps, well, guard the galaxy from Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and her father. Yet she has some of the most dramatic and difficult relationships in the series, from butting heads with Drax and Peter Quill to a love-hate situation with sister Nebula and, of course, Thanos. Her arc in Infinity War is one of the most compelling and powerful, with her involuntary sacrifice at his hands providing the emotional core.
Nicole Perlman – Screenwriter
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Captain Marvel (2019)
Guardians and Vol. 2 may be considered co-writer and director James Gunn’s babies, but the franchise may not ever have hit the big screen without Nicole Perlman, the first woman to write a Marvel film. Hired back in 2009 as part of a pool of writers invited to “have a go at any character in the vast Marvel Universe”, she chose some of its most obscure.
She was given free licence to select the roster that would ultimately appear (from an ever-changing comics lineup) and reboot Quill’s backstory. Her script was chosen, and while Gunn came on to write in his distinctive flair – and of course direct – the story is essentially Perlman’s. (Although interestingly, Thanos would have been her main villain.) While not brought back for the sequel, Perlman has now returned to the MCU to further increase the girl power of Captain Marvel with a story co-credit.
Evangeline Lilly – Hope van Dyne/The Wasp
First appearance: Ant-Man (2015)
Lilly’s Wasp may have made a smaller impact on the MCU’s overarching saga than other female characters, but she can lay claim to one milestone: the first featured in a title, with 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. After a memorable supporting role as Hope van Dyne in Ant-Man three years earlier, teaching Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang how to punch, Lilly was promoted to genuine co-star status for the sequel.
Her story became even more pivotal too, as Peyton Reed’s film explores not only her rocky relationship with her dad (Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym) but the disappearance of her mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), the original Wasp. Hope, along with her parents, dissolved into dust post-credits after Thanos’ finger snap, but she’s down to make her Avengers debut in Endgame.
Cate Blanchett – Hela
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The MCU’s first proper female villain! Blanchett oozes malice and effortless cool as Thor’s antagonistic sister Hela, the Asgardian goddess of death. Her best moment sees Hela prove her power by not only grabbing Thor’s enchanted hammer Mjölnir but smashing it into pieces with her bare hands.
Her actions have a major bearing on the climactic destruction of Asgard that leads directly into the opening of Infinity War, and the God of Thunder’s quest in that film to forge a new weapon. While Ragnarok proved to be a ‘one and done’ for Blanchett (like plenty of previous Marvel baddies), it was at least a memorable and consequential one.
Danai Gurira – Okoye
First appearance: Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther has quite rightly been recognised as a game-changer for representation of people of colour, not only in the MCU and the superhero genre but blockbuster cinema at large, but it was also a wonderfully feminist movie. While the titular hero is a man, there are several influential women front and centre too. There’s the scientist Shuri (Letitia Wright), the spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and the matriarch Ramonda (Angela Bassett) – but most memorable of them all is Danai Gurira’s warrior Okoye.
As the head of Wakanda’s all-female special forces the Dora Milaje, Okoye is strong, noble, loyal and proud as a woman and an African. Throwing the wig she detests at a male attacker during Black Panther‘s South Korea fight scene is the highlight, symbolically casting aside any false notions of how a woman (and indeed a woman of colour) should look and behave in one swift move.
Brie Larson – Captain Marvel & Anna Boden – Co-Director
Captain Marvel (2019)
And so to the incoming Captain Marvel. A female-centric MCU entry may be a long time coming – 11 years and 21 movies to be exact – but producer and Marvel Studios godhead Kevin Feige is making up for it now. As well as four credited female writers – Perlman, Boden, Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Meg LeFauve – the movie is also based specifically on Kelly Sue DeConnick’s 2012 comics run and has a Best Actress Oscar winner as the star. In fact, Feige has said “with Captain Marvel we said ‘we must hire a woman to direct it’ internally, but also because the entire world has changed.”
Step forward Anna Boden, alongside her regular collaborator Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind), to add that feminine insight that feels so clearly necessary for this project. Boden realises the significance too, saying “I feel incredibly honoured to be given the opportunity. It amazes me that I am the first female director to be doing one of their films, but I just try to tackle it like I would any other job. One of the things that I love is what an amazing collaboration it is between super powerful women and super awesome women.”
Then of course there’s the pressure on Larson, playing Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers. Not only is she carrying the torch for female heroes, viewers are going into the film with the distinct impression that she’s vital to defeating Thanos and saving the half-a-universe that he sent into oblivion. Nick Fury’s final act before turning to dust was activating a pager displaying a certain golden star logo on it and Danvers is being touted as the MCU’s most powerful character yet, quite something following the likes of Thor, Vision and Doctor Strange. DC may have Wonder Woman, but the MCU has a whole gang of wonder women all its own.