** The following contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame. **
The interesting thing about engaging in superhero stories with a six-year-old boy is that he has not yet fully conceptualized the gender dynamics that are often at play.
My son began watching movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe late and out of order, as one does when said universe pre-dates him by half a decade. His first experiences with the superhero genre were with movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel. Most of these were released in the last five years, and all of them included empowered female heroes. Only later did he fill in the gaps with the older staples of the MCU: movies that also included women, but that existed in a drastically different cultural moment, and, which accordingly, cast women under a different gaze.
The result has been fascinating. For example, my son has never had any qualms about choosing heroes like Black Widow or Gamora in his imaginative play; he perceives them as valuable, contributing members of the team and is eager to not only include them, but to emulate them. On the other hand, he once lamented that he did not own anything tight enough to properly dress as Black Widow. And he insists, keenly observant as he is, that anyone who play-acts Black Widow must sashay his or her hips—“like in the movie.” During the latest and final installment of the 22-movie franchise, my son noticed but could not grasp two of the movie’s most powerful and telling moments.
The first came during the final showdown between the Avengers and Thanos. The team had successfully obtained the infinity stones from various moments in time, a victory that Black Widow paid for with her life. Her sacrifice leaves the audience hyper aware that this is a high stakes war, one in which anyone might die. In fact, in the theater my son and I watched from, the tension was palpable—not only were viewers aware that another hero could die, they felt certain that at least one would.
So, when Captain Marvel arrives to carry Tony Stark’s makeshift infinity gauntlet to Ant-Man’s van, Spider-Man gestures to the unfolding chaos and says, “I don’t know how you’re going to get through all that.” And for a moment, the audience agrees.
I don’t think a heavy-handed scene in which the women of the MCU are haphazardly thrown together is reason enough on its own to cheer, but I am encouraged by the possibility that Marvel recognizes a deficiency.
Instead, we were handed the second most telling moment, when Okoye (of Black Panther) appears to assure Spider-Man (and the audience): “Don’t worry, she’s got help.” Captain Marvel is quickly joined by all of the other female heavy-hitters of the MCU: Scarlett Witch, Gamora, Pepper Potts, Shuri, the Wasp, and more surround Captain Marvel to lead her into battle.
Around me, movie-goers throughout the theater audibly gasped; a few actually cheered. Next to me, my six-year-old son lifted his noise-canceling headphones and asked, “What?” What had he missed? Why was this moment eliciting such a reaction?
It was difficult to explain. How could I condense the gender dynamics of 11 years and 22 movies into a phrase my six-year-old boy would understand? How could I explain that, for most of my life, I’d lived a limiting gender dynamic I could keenly feel but did not have the vocabulary to express until recently?
“They’re excited that Captain Marvel has help,” I told him, which was technically true, but missed the larger point. He shrugged, put his headphones back on, and continued watching the movie.
The scene was a powerful moment for me, albeit heavy-handed. It was clearly an attempt at branding—perhaps a response to the years of criticism Marvel has received regarding their treatment of female characters.
In a recent article for the Washington Post, Monica Hess highlighted a few of the more suspect moments in the MCU over the last 21 movies. For example, in Iron Man I, Tony Stark playfully remarks that he could have Pepper Potts fired if it would make her less uncomfortable dancing with him in public. While this moment certainly serves as an opportunity to establish Tony’s narcissism, it carries a distinctly more uncomfortable undertone in 2019 than it did in 2008. The onset of the Me Too Movement has heightened our awareness of men who leverage power over women for sex. Threatening to fire your subordinate so that you might more easily sleep with her is no longer palatable as a forgivable character flaw; we are certainly no longer okay with framing it as the springboard for a healthy relationship. Hess also points to a moment in Iron Man II where, now an item, both Pepper and Tony struggle to hire Black Widow; Tony is motivated to do so because of her good looks, and Pepper is reticent for the same reason.
But the more obvious flaws with the MCU’s treatment of its female characters lie not in these moments, but in the character arcs writers have drawn out over the last 11 years. While the introduction of Black Widow’s character to the MCU signaled increased female representation, Black Widow, like many other female characters, mostly served as a plot device at best and an object of sexual appeal at worse—a character we invest in peripherally, but one who is more likely to motivate other characters than to be featured on her own.
This criticism has been loud and persistent for years, and it is almost surely one of the reasons Marvel gave us a scene like the one above: Captain Marvel, surrounded by other empowered women in the MCU, completing an integral leg in the mission to save the world. Perhaps this is the cynic in me, but the more I thought about this scene, the more it felt like pandering.
This cynicism was drawn out further when my son tapped me on the shoulder during Tony Stark’s funeral: “Is the funeral for Black Widow, too?”
“No,” I told him.
“Why not?” he astutely asked. When I didn’t answer, he once again shrugged and returned to the screen.
When I got home, I googled “why didn’t Black Widow get a funeral?” While I found that my son and I were not the only ones bothered by this omission, I didn’t find any satisfactory answers. In the last week I have read quotes from the movie’s directors implying that Black Widow didn’t get a funeral because she wasn’t a public figure. However, while Tony was, his funeral was an intimate gathering of family and friends, a decision that, as K. B. Hoyle points out, completed the narcissist’s character arc in a satisfying way.
No, Tony’s funeral was not important because it was grandiose; it was important because it was not. It was important because it served as a way to unite 21 films with a single strand. Iron Man’s character arc was the thing that began the MCU in 2008, and, as K. B. Hoyle also points out, it is fitting that its closure is the thing that acts as the denouement of the entire franchise.
That is the most satisfying answer I have found to my son’s insightful question: Why didn’t Black Widow get a funeral?
Because when this franchise started in 2008, it started as a movie about men. Perhaps, though, scenes like the one with Captain Marvel are representing a change. In the last 11 years we, as a culture, have engaged in conversations about women’s place in the world—conversations that have sometimes sparked the flames of positive change, and sometimes smoldered into the lukewarm ashes that moral pandering leaves. I do not yet know which direction Marvel intends to move, but I am hopeful. I do not believe that Black Widow didn’t receive a funeral because she wasn’t a public figure, but I am heartened to see that she is getting a prequel soon. I don’t think a heavy-handed scene in which the women of the MCU are haphazardly thrown together is reason enough on its own to cheer, but I am encouraged by the possibility that Marvel recognizes a deficiency. I do not think that my son’s willingness to watch a movie with a female hero is proof that we have overcome sexism, but I think it is a step in the right direction.
Miraculously, my six year old did manage to make it through all three hours of Avengers: Endgame, and when we emerged from the dark theater, he sighed and told me, “That was the most terriblest movie ever.”
“Why?” I asked, surprised.
The first reason was that Hulk cut his hair and grew a beard. The second was that Captain America slow-danced with someone, which was, apparently, gross. And the third was that there was not enough Captain Marvel—a remark that indicates an imperfect, but still productive step toward progress.