Over the weekend, I saw Marvel's Ant Man, and, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. It's an incredibly fun movie, full of schemes and adventure that strike a great balance between dramatic and ridiculous. But, like many Marvel movies before it, it has a slight female character problem.
Yes, the movie has multiple named female characters. Yes, one of them is "kickass." And no, it doesn't pass the Bechdel test. But the most significant thing was that it suddenly made clear to me a problem with Marvel movies, and with a lot of movies in general: the only characters that are female are those that have to be female.
At least, those that have to be female from a heteronormative Hollywood perspective.
Ant Man's named female characters are Ant Man's love interest, his ex-wife, his daughter, and Agent Carter.
A superhero has to have a love interest (and preferably one that can do backflips), so Hope Pym appears. His ex-wife has to be female, so she's there, although she'll get less development than her new fiance. His daughter needs to be a girl, because this is a story about him wanting to protect his child, and because it needs parallels between his own fears and Hank Pym's concerns about Hope. And Agent Carter is female because she was Captain America's love interest, once upon a time, and then people liked her so she stuck around.
Everyone who could be male or female is male. The members of Scott's criminal gang. Hank Pym's protege. The cops. The agents of Hydra. The lab guards. The Avenger that Scott fights. Even if you look at the full cast, credited and uncredited on IMDB, it's 90% male, for such gender-reliant roles as "shareholder" and "pedestrian." (I think there might have been a female researcher in the lab who said a line or two? But that's about it).
This is also something of a problem with racial diversity, where there's a lot of minority actors playing criminals, but not so many playing successful scientists and businessmen. But I'll leave those who are much better informed than I am to comment on that.
Ant Man was a particularly blunt example of only including female characters who NEED to be female, but previous Marvel movies have generally stuck to the same idea. Generally speaking, the superheroes are men. Secondary characters who aren't love interests or mothers are men. Occasionally, someone will remember that women exist and cast one as a scientist (as in Age of Ultron) or as the token female warrior in an otherwise all-male group (like in Thor), but otherwise, male is the default, and female needs a reason to exist.
And that reason will, of course, come down to her relationship to the male protagonist.
Ant-Man also seemed to think that it could get away with using old women-erasing tropes by turning them into plot points. Hank Pym was traumatized by the death of his wife, but don't worry! She didn't get fridged, because her absence will now play a large role in her daughter's story. And yes, Hope is overlooked as a potential superhero, despite the fact that she's far more capable than anyone else, and certainly more capable than Scott, but there's a reason for that! Her father's love! He's protecting her, even at the cost of the mission! And he will relent and give her the gift of potential superpowers by the end of the credits.
And meanwhile, although Paul Rudd's Ant Man is quite likeable, there is absolutely no indication of why Hope might fall for him, beyond the fact that she's the only young single female character in the movie, so of course she's going to fall for him.
So. Women are rare creatures in Ant Man, only appearing when absolutely necessary. The women that do appear only do so in relation to our male protagonists, without any compelling narratives of their own. And although the movie had the opportunity to include two female superheroes among this elite "absolutely can't be male so I guess we'll hire a woman" group, it somehow managed to exclude both of them in different ways.
But hey. That Thomas the Tank Engine fight scene was fun, right? Who needs good female characters when you've got that?