The movie has everything you might possible dream of in an action-adventure blockbuster: superheroes! Viking Gods! Aliens! Nuclear weapons! Car chases and gunfights and exploding helicopters! Invisible flying military bases! New York City landmarks! Samuel L. Jackson with an eyepatch! Throw in some pirates and ninjas, and it would tick every box on the list of requirements for the coolest movie ever. But, unfortunately, "coolest movie ever" also seems to mean "(almost) all guys, all the time."
Understandable, perhaps, given the source material and people's expectations of the superhero genre, but when Joss Whedon, self-declared dedicated feminist and promoter of kickass female characters, is at the story's helm, it's disappointing to see that old stereotypes aren't tossed aside.
To be fair to the movie, there are a few strong, capable female characters in positions of power and influence. The Avengers do include one woman, Black Widow, and S.H.I.E.L.D has a prominent military-esque agent played by How I Met Your Mother's Cobie Smulders. Other women appear in the background of the military operation, and I think one of the Big Faces of Power On the Screen is a woman as well. But, apart from fleeing civilians, I think that sums it up.
My main problem with the movie was that the only female superhero, Black Widow, doesn't fit in with the others. She isn't really a superhero. She's a cool character, a fighter with almost unbelievable flexibility and skill, but in the end, she's only human, and she stands out as weak compared to her male allies, almost all of whom have super strength and other beyond-human powers. Although she has a highly developed skill set, and the movie gives her a few chances to show off her awesomeness, she, along with Hawk-Eye, is pretty much the weak link in the group. No man is as strong as Captain America or as green and psychotic as the Hulk, so why can't a woman get in on that science-experiment-gone-awry action too?
In fact, Black Widow repeatedly finds herself in the "damsel in distress" role in the movie, despite supposedly being on equal Avengers footing with the others. She has scenes where she flees, terrified and helpless, from The Hulk. She is saved from falling debris by Captain America's shield. Although she plays a big role in the whole "world saving" thing, pretty much every other Avenger (or even a non-Avenger character) could have done so instead.
Black Widow is badass, no denying it, but the abilities that she does have also play off negative stereotypes of women, fears men are jokingly supposed to have about the fairer sex. Her outfits are always tightly fitted and sexy. She's sneaky and she's manipulative. She puts on shows of emotion to trick her enemies into giving her information. Playing with their sexist expectations of women? Perhaps. But as she does so, she plays into another.
As a character in her own right, Black Widow has plenty of recommend her. But as the sole female protagonist in this movie, and one who definitely gets second footing to most of the men, she presents many problems. Perhaps the inclusion of more than one female Avenger, and ones that can hold their own around Iron Man and the Hulk, would help the situation. The Avengers, in this incarnation, had 6 members. There must be room for more than one woman in that group. Even though the source material didn't give the writers a ton to work with, there surely must be some more female superheroes in the Marvel canon that could be pulled in to help. Regardless of the source material, when Joss Whedon is the writer and director, you expect a greater effort than this.