Friday’s debut of Marvel Studios’ Black Widow feels momentous for multiple reasons. It’s the first movie released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in over two years, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the film and the rest of Marvel’s 2020 releases to be delayed significantly. It’s also the culmination of a decades-long campaign from fans, who publicly championed the idea of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff getting her own solo adventure — a luxury that had already been afforded to almost all of her counterparts within the original roster of the Avengers. It also (as the movie’s marketing has showcased) is set to be a story about sisterhood, introducing female characters like Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Melina (Rachel Weisz), and other agents who have been through the Red Room. As fans gear up to watch Black Widow in theaters and on Disney+ this weekend, there’s something about the movie’s focus on female relationships that feels unprecedented in the context of the larger MCU — but it doesn’t have to be. While the MCU might not have always put its female characters (and the dynamics between them) in the spotlight, there’s no reason why the franchise couldn’t make up for that in the future.
On a surface level, it might be easy to argue that the MCU has had a better (or at least, better than expected) track record with its female relationships, especially when looking at the existing movies within the context of the Bechdel Test. Popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel Test judges a piece of media on three basic criteria — if it features two named female characters, if those two characters talk to each other, and if their conversation covers something other than a man. According to the official Bechdel Test website, fifteen of the MCU’s twenty-three movies pass that test in some capacity, while eight movies do not. The movies that fail the test come from a lot of different points in the MCU, from earlier films like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk to newer entries like Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Far From Home. At the time of this writing, all three of the MCU’s Disney+ TV shows — WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and WandaVision — have also passed the test at one point or another.
Yes, it’s admirable that a franchise as big as the MCU has a pretty positive performance with something like the Bechdel Test — but at the same time, the test is supposed to be seen as the bare minimum a film can do in terms of positive female representation. When you look at the actual substance of female characters interacting in the MCU, there’s still a lot left to be desired. Even a lot of the films that pass the basic criteria with flying colors still leave a lot of their female relationships underbaked — Hope Van Dyne’s (Evangeline Lilly) quest to reunite with her long-lost mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), takes a backseat to the third act of Ant-Man and the Wasp, and the meaningful sister dynamic between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) across the Guardians of the Galaxy movies was flipped on its head by the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Even one of the newer (and heavily celebrated) female relationships in the MCU — the bond between Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and Maria Rambeau (Lashanna Lynch) in Captain Marvel — arguably ultimately existed to serve Carol’s origin story, and was essentially put on the back burner once she flew off to space to help the Skrulls for a few decades.
Don’t get me wrong — there have absolutely been some significant moments between female characters in the MCU, but more often than not, they end up amounting to crumbs that serve the larger (and usually male-dominated) story. This makes some of the franchise’s attempt at female ensemble moments — particularly the “She’s not alone” sequence in Infinity War and the “She’s got help” sequence in Endgame — come across as slightly hollow. Both are well-executed action sequences and play out in a way that is undeniably empowering for a lot of viewers (myself included, as I definitely got goosebumps watching the scenes on the big screen for the first time), but once you stop and think about them, it can get a little frustrating. Most of the women in the Endgame sequence haven’t actually talked to each other onscreen, and some (namely 2014 Gamora) probably don’t know the names of the other heroines they’re fighting alongside.
While the scene was a showcase of the compelling, multifaceted female characters that Marvel had introduced over the past three phases of the MCU, it also shined a glaring spotlight on the fact that we haven’t gotten to see a lot of those female characters interact with each other. Comics (especially ensemble titles like The Avengers) have proved that there are so many different ways for female characters to bond with each other — as friends, as family, as adversaries, and as lovers. But by and large, it’s been up to MCU fans themselves to determine how those bonds exist within the franchise — nowhere has that become more apparent than the fan-favorite “ValCarol” ship between Carol Danvers and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), which Marvel itself is going to acknowledge in the upcoming Ms. Marvel Disney+ series, but builds on a relationship between two characters who have yet to speak to each other onscreen.
Luckily, if there ever was a place for the MCU to make positive leaps in terms of showcasing female relationships of all kinds, it’s the next few years of “Phase 4” movies and TV shows. In addition to Black Widow, multiple upcoming movies feature several women among their ensemble cast, including Eternals and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Thor: Love and Thunder will not only finally turn Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) into The Mighty Thor, but is expected to see Valkyrie searching for a “queen” to rule alongside her in New Asgard, which could be a huge leap in terms of LGBTQ+ relationships in the franchise. There’s also The Marvels, which is set to team Carol Danvers with Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), bringing the MCU’s first female-fronted ensemble to life onscreen. On the Disney+ side, we also have series like She-Hulk, which has a predominantly female cast and crew, and other female-fronted series like Ms. Marvel and Ironheart. While there’s definitely a lot that the MCU can still do in terms of meaningful female relationships, there is no shortage of opportunities for them to make that leap.
Black Widow is set to be released in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9th.