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.
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
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
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
Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)
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
Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell)
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?