Fallaces Sunt Rerum Species: A Non-Fangirl’s Guide To The Women Of “The Avengers”

I never read comic books as a kid, and up until December, the only Avengers I had ever heard of were John Steed and Mrs. Peel. Last July, though, Mr. Brum dragged me to go see Captain America… and now I’m kind of hooked. A lot of that hooked-ness had to do with Agent Peggy Carter and how badass she was (more on that later). Now that the super-charged Avengers Assemble is on its way to theatres this week, my college decided to show all five pre-films back to back, last Sunday. I watched all of them. It was awesome. 

There are a bunch of women in these films, all riffing on certain well-known comic aspects of femininity. Some come out of it looking better than others. Here, for your reading/viewing pleasure, is a quick who’s who in the five Avenger backstory films.

 

Gweneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Gweneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts

Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)

Iron Man, Iron Man 2

Pepper is Iron Man /Tony Stark’s “secretary,” by which I mean, she does everything for him. Seriously everything. Dude doesn’t even know his own Social Security number. Pepper is who keeps Tony’s company going while he’s tinkering in the basement with his newest inventor toys. She puts his food on the table, does his laundry, gets rid of his one-night stands, rescues him when he gets too drunk or cocky or plain stupid to stay alive, and curates a modern art collection worth $10 mil. No wonder Tony promotes her to CEO. If nothing else, it’s obvious that no one can put up with as much of his bullshit as she does.

Pepper’s reliable and level-headed, but it’s hilarious how flappy she can get. Iron Man is the only superhero film I’ve seen in which a character looks at another and squeals, “Are those bullet holes?” Ultimately, Pepper’s not superhero material herself – she’s not ballsy in that overt, adrenalin-fuelled way – but she’s exactly what every egomaniac with a ridiculous weapon needs as his (or her) right hand.

Badass Feminist Quotient: 7 out of 10 River Songs


 

Liv Tyler as Dr. Elizabeth Ross
Liv Tyler as Dr. Elizabeth Ross

Dr. Elizabeth Ross (Jennifer Connelly/Liv Tyler)

The Incredible Hulk

The film moguls did this thing, see, where they made a movie called Hulk in 2003, with Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly, that nobody liked. So then they made another movie called The Incredible Hulk, with Edward Norton and Liv Tyler. For me, the most incredible thing about the second film is that it made any money at all, because I personally spent money to see the same film five years before, and what am I, stupid? But apparently the reboot or prequel or requel or whatever actually did OK, box-office wise.

Dr Elizabeth Ross (Betty to her friends) is a biochemist working in a lab and, later, a college science department. One way or another, she’s partially responsible for infecting the Hulk with that green stuff that makes him go all smashy, whatever, this isn’t a pseudoscience article. Here’s the thing: Betty is boring. Sure, she’s a biology Ph.D. and that’s pretty cool, but basically the whole reason she’s so important is that whenever the Hulk starts to get ragey, she can calm him down by looking soulfully into his eyes and reminding him of his inner humanity, or something feminine like that. Wouldn’t it just be easier to give her a modified horse tranquilizer dart and a stun gun?

Betty’s other major job is to yell at her dad, a top army brass responsible for the project that infected the Hulk in the first place. Yelling at your dad is… not that cool. (Thinking about it, though – really, name me a film Liv Tyler’s in where she doesn’t fight with her father. Hulk, Armageddon, Lord of the Rings, she’s a professional daughter.)

BFQ: 4 out of 10 River Songs

 


 

Scarlett Johanssen as Black Widow
Scarlett Johanssen as Black Widow

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen)

Iron Man 2

In the words of Kate Beaton, AW YISS. Natasha Romanoff first shows up as Tony Stark’s notary; he insists she have a boxing lesson, and she takes out Jon Favreau by flipping him over with her knees around his neck. (“I want one,” says Tony, that prick, as soon as she’s left.) Fluent in several languages including Russian and Latin, Natasha mostly communicates through the best goddamn poker face you have ever seen. The more frat-boy flirt moves Stark throws at her, the more she stands up straight, breaths through her nose, and shuts him down. Girl has tits of steel.

Throughout most of the movie you don’t know that she’s really an agent, or “shadow,” for S.H.I.E.L.D., the super-duper syndicate thing run by Samuel L. Jackson in an eyepatch. But when Black Widow shows up, ready to kick ass and take names, it’s a thing of beauty:

“What are you wearing?” Hahaha!

Black Widow’s one of the two Avengers who hasn’t had her own film made yet (the other is Hawkeye, a character closely tied to her). However, there are rumored to be “talks” going on to rectify this egregious oversight. And with Joss Whedon directing and writing Avengers Assemble, you can be sure that she’ll have more than enough screen time.

BFQ: 9.5 out of 10 River Songs

 


 

Natalie Portman as Jane Foster
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster

Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)

Thor

Jane Foster is a grad student in astronomy or astrophysics or something. It’s kind of hard to tell because she rarely talks about science, like, at all. Except for a few shouted directions early on in the film as the Science Van careens around trying to chase stormclouds, and a quick discussion of Einsteinian wormholes, you could be forgiven for thinking she wasn’t a scientist at all. Her sciencey research notebook, which she makes such a big deal about losing, really just exists as a way for Thor to explain his bizarre version of cosmology-cum-Norse legend. Then she falls asleep. How did they get Natalie Portman to make this film?

Weirdly, this is the only film of the five pre-story movies that technically passes the Bechdel test. Jane has an undergrad assistant called Darcy, played by the hilarious Kat Dennings, and they talk about science stuff for about five minutes before the hot guy shows up and they remember what women are supposed to do in superhero films. Blech. There’s also a warrior girl from Thor’s planet called Sif, who, in Norse mythology, is actually his wife, but she isn’t given much to do.

On a side note, holy god is this a dumb movie. Really. My pal Mike made me sit through it because Anthony Hopkins plays Odin, Thor’s father – he must’ve been really well-paid – but it’s just so, so silly, I can barely stand it. And Rene Russo cameos! The day I don’t enjoy a movie with Rene Russo in it is a sad day indeed.

BFQ: 5 out of 10 River Songs

 


 

Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter
Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter

Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell)

Captain America

While all the other pre-Avengers films take place during the present day, Captain America is set during WWII. Our hero’s love interest is therefore a British (!) agent working with the US forces on a super-soldier directive. In her first scene, Peggy Carter drops a new US recruit with one punch for sassing her. It only gets better from there.

She’s a crack shot: in this picture, she’s just killed the driver of a getaway car with one bullet. She regularly stands up to Tommy Lee Jones’ grumpy, sarcastic US general (talk about a show-stealer). At one point, she changes her regulation skirt for a pair of men’s trousers and storms a Nazi bunker with the rest of the guys, machine gun in hand. And yet, more than any of the other women mentioned in this article, you get a real feel for the multi-dimensionality of the character. She’s badass, but the film also allows us to see the side of her that doesn’t depend on being in uniform. She’s not a caricature or a sketch, but – gasp! – a real person.

I liked Captain America the best out of all these five films. Partly it’s because the hero’s backstory is so different to the rest of them; Cap is pretty much the polar opposite of Iron Man, personality-wise. But part of why this film is so good is the really believable and fleshed-out character of Peggy. Just a word of warning: the ending will make you cry.

BFQ: 8 out of 10 River Songs

 


 

So! Part II of this will no doubt follow, after I go see Avengers Assemble twelve times over the weekend. In the meantime, weigh in, P’neers! What are your thoughts on this group of badass and not-so-badass ladies?

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Dr. Song

Dr Song is an archaeologist, in exile from the great state of Maine. Her life motto is "Hold fast." Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dr__song

28 thoughts on “Fallaces Sunt Rerum Species: A Non-Fangirl’s Guide To The Women Of “The Avengers””

  1. I liked Thor fine, but I was probably distracted by the Pretty.

    I haven’t seen the second Ironman yet (I should), nor any of the Hulk movies (ehh….), and I want to see Captain America, especially since a friend of mine’s baby is in it. He’s almost 3 now.

      1. There’s a scene where he’s carrying a baby (or is there more than one scene like that?). But not having seen the movie yet, I can’t really give context yet.

        Watch, I’m being dumb and have forgotten her telling me it didn’t make it in or something — it was around 2 years ago and my memory is being a bit fuzzy at the moment. But I *do* know Captain America carried him in the scene that they shot.

  2. I would have liked the Thor movie a lot better if either Jane and Thor’s relationship had been epicly scaled back (I’m not buying this forever love in 48 hours bullpuckies), or Darcy and Thor had hooked up instead (as she was the one who actually flirted with him and shit, also he makes a great beefcake straight man for her comedy. The smile for facebook scene, I die.)

    But then the pacing of Thor was so strange in general. I keep expecting to see a director’s cut with shit tons more scenes. Too many characters, not enough time. This is Jane, Jane is a lady scientist. This is Darcy. Darcy is kind of silly. These are Thor’s friends. One of them is good with swords. One of them eats a lot. One of them is an Asian. One of them is a Girl. And that is really all you get about these people.

    1. I’m totally with you on Jane and Thor’s relationship. Apparently, from what I was told, in the comic book, the events of the movie took a LOT longer to happen, so it would have made more sense. But that is probably partly the reason why the movie seemed to be so…awkward.

      1. It’s part of the perils of script-writing I think. “Here is this long involved story. Please tell it in two hours. Be sure to include lots of cool fighting scenes that don’t necessarily advance the plot, because that is what our focus group said they expect from a superhero movie.”

  3. I’m pretty sure if Pepper Potts and Agent Coulson ever joined forces, the two of them could take over the entire world. Literally.

    Peggy is a badass, and I can’t wait to see the new movie. We’ve been watching the Avengers cartoon show on Netflix in the interim, and there are some pretty interesting lady characters in that, too. Well, Wasp anyway.

  4. Ok, I’ve seen Avengers Assemble, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk; totally agree with you on Liv Tyler. God that character was tedious. Natasha gets some pretty kick-ass scenes in Avengers: [spoiler] like when she turns the tables on her interrogators, and when she plays Loki over Hawkeye [/spoiler]. Should I make an effort to see Iron Man 2, anyone?

  5. I really like Tony and Pepper together but Tony needs to step up and clean up after himself.  Or at least memorize his own social security number, which I find ridiculous considering he invented his own suit.

    Couldn’t get through The Incredible Hulk. I ended up going to put clothes in the wash just when the action started. I figured my daughter would let me know what happened.  The first half was just dull I just didn’t care anymore.

    Love Black Widow.  But having her change in the backseat of the car for the boys to drool… moving on…

    I liked Thor a lot. I enjoy the Asgard scenes and anything with Thor/Loki/Odin. The rest, eh. Jane was not interesting at all. And I didn’t like how she instantly fell for Thor either.  She was reduced to some giggly girl when he kissed her hand!  Ugh!  Darcy is great though.

    Really surprised how much I ended up liking Captain America and agree with everything you said about Peggy Carter.  I think she should have a higher score than Black Widow.  She didn’t have to wear skin tight leather to kick ass.

    1. One of the main reasons I didn’t rate Peggy as highly is because she has a couple of interesting hissy fits when Steve expresses interest in other girls. She doesn’t have the emotional disengagement of Black Widow, although you could argue that lots of classic superheroes don’t either.

  6. I haven’t seen all the movies (no The Incredible Hulk or Captain America), but I was generally disappointed with the portrayal of the women in them. Black Canary, at least in Iron Man 2, was the epitome of the “hot woman who is also a badass, and that just makes her hotter” deal.

    Pepper Pots ends up having a breakdown when she’s made CEO because she “just can’t handle it”…even though she was already DOING all that shit before. So, Stark has to swoop in and make it all better.

    And Jane Foster was annoying. Just. Annoying. She hardly ever talks science, she falls for Thor practically instantly, and overall she just doesn’t do much of anything other than create an excuse for Thor to stay. Even though she could have done so much more.

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