From Kat Dennings to Gwyneth Paltrow, Marvel and the Screwball Tradition

I was happy to hear yesterday that Kat Dennings will be back in Thor 2, and that apparently, her role, as a research assistant to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, absent from The Avengers) and Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), will be expanded. While I’ll never give up on wanting female superheroines to get equal billing in the Marvel Universe, at their best, non-powered female characters have already contributed a great deal to the franchise, mostly by injecting a healthy dose of sarcasm into a genre that could easily collapse under its own weight.

I think it’s no mistake that Iron Man‘s been the most fun character in the core lineup so far: he’s skittery, grandiose, and a combination of sophisticated and enormously immature. Alone, he might be hugely irritating, a nerd-bro fantasy. But Pepper Potts’ presence means that Tony Stark’s most ridiculous behavior is constantly being called out as utterly ridiculous. He’s charming in spite of, not because, he is a rude, reckless womanizer. In The Avengers, Gwyneth Paltrow does Barbara Stanwyck proud when Agent Coulson comes to call, as Pepper points out that Tony’s immature attempts to avoid the man aren’t just childish—they act against the interest of Tony’s own curiosity. Part of Tony’s arc in the movie is to the recognition that Pepper saw Coulson’s worth more clearly than he did because she bothered to pay attention and get to know the man. He doesn’t just lose a colleague when Coulson dies—he loses a man who might have been in his friend.

Similarly, in Thor, Darcy was a fabulous reminder of how ridiculous it would actually be to end up babysitting an extremely handsome, exceedingly disconcerted man who wanders around trying to buy pets to ride, smashing coffee mugs, eating all the Pop Tarts, and talking like he stepped out of summer stock. When she zapped Thor with a taser or complained that she was being asked to do an awful lot for six college credits, Darcy punctured the occasionally stifling atmosphere Jane’s literal and metaphoric starry-eyed approach to Thor. Part of what’s fun about superheroes—and an appropriate thing to point out as a way to question their power—is their overwhelming incongruity. I don’t want to see Darcy as a buzz-kill if she and Jane take a jaunt to Asgard in Thor 2, but her sense of the absurd, deployed correctly, is another very funny way to express wonder.

Captain America was, tonally, a very different picture, but one of its most fun moments was Natalie Dormer’s brief turn as a gal in uniform who wants to get at Cap. The Marvel movies have essentially hewed to fairly traditional ideas about their heroes and true love—part of Tony’s hero’s journey is his move away from being a womanizing cad. Dormer’s minx was a reminder that you can tell stories about superheroes as catnip for the ladies, too, and the juxtaposition of her clear desire with Cap’s innocence was something that might be useful in a more extended exploration of Steve Rogers’ integration into modern life. Similarly, I think the two recent attempts at Hulk movies have suffered badly from the big-eyed dewiness of Jennifer Connolly and Liv Tyler’s performances as Betty Ross. If Hulk movies do go into production, it would be a lot of fun to see a Betty who can banter with Bruce, even needle him the way Tony did in The Avengers. It’s awfully dull to have a Hulk who’s simply afraid he’s going to hurt this delicate woman he loves, and it would be more fun to have a woman who’s a foil, whose very engagement with Bruce is a risk for him and an incentive to get himself in check.

I’m bored by movies where women reform men, or act as prizes for low-level good behavior. But at their best, Marvel’s managed to give us women around our heroes who at least nod in the direction of the screwball tradition. The men may have the superpowers, but the women are the ones who are grown all the way up, and seeing around corners without even the benefit of enhanced eyesight.