For those of you worried about the fate of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might not get a chance to thrive on ABC, I think this is news that can make you relax. Marvel’s apparently developing a period drama based on Peggy Carter, exploring what happens to her career as a secret agent after Captain America puts himself in the deep freeze for the good of the free world. I don’t disagree with Deadline that “A Marvel action series with a female lead would fit right into ABC’s wheelhouse of female-skewing dramas with a strong lead and would be a throwback to such network series as Alias.” But the news isn’t doing as much for me as I might expect, if only because it’s part of a larger trend in the Marvel universe: even as women get more screen time, it seems like men get to keep all the powers, and all the super-suits.
Let’s run through the main characters in the Marvel universe, shall we? We’ve got Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), a S.H.I.E.L.D. official, who thus far mostly exists to ask Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury questions, and in the pilot for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows up to provide a little bit of handy exposition and foreshadowing (and to be part of a weirdly sexist exchange with Agent Coulson) before scampering back to the set of How I Met Your Mother. Black Widow has impressive fighting and espionage abilities, but she isn’t gifted with actual powers. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is Tony Stark’s girlfriend, and she has superpowers forced on her temporarily, before having them excised to save her life. Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is awesome, but a civilian without powers, and her niece, Sharon Carter, is in the same position. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is a gifted astronomer with the capability to believe the extraordinary, but that’s fully within the range of human capacity. Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), Jane’s assistant, has awesome powers of sass, but she’s always been a sideshow. And who knows if Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) is even going to show up anywhere in the Hulk storyline that exists in this particular Marvel continuity. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduces a bunch of new female characters, but it leads in its first episode with–you guessed it, yet another man with superpowers, and the accompanying dudely grapplings with his newfound capacities as a result.
To a certain extent, I appreciate that there are women in the Marvel franchise at all. It would be awfully easy for the movies and television show to become a genial, smash-y boys club with an adolescent sense that girls aren’t really allowed or necessary to the storytelling involved. But it’s not actually enough to have a world where men are from Asgard or the lab, and women are merely mundane homo sapiens.
The thing that’s exciting from a character perspective about acquiring powers isn’t just what the character who’s gifted with super-strength or a super-suit can do: it’s what going through that kind of seismic change to your body does to your mind. One of the reasons origin stories are so popular, even as their creative sheen has been rubbed off by directors who assume that all origin stories have the same emotional beats, is that the process of becoming someone very different all at once is a genuinely fascinating one. Acquiring a superpower can be like getting hit by a car, or falling suddenly and seriously in love, or having a child. It upends your sense of self, and radically reorders your priorities and your orientation to the world around you. Marvel’s movies have tended to argue that acquiring superpowers is generally an event that brings out the best in a person, which is why it’s a shame that they haven’t greenlit a Hulk movie that might explore in more nuance what it’s like to be transformed in a way that makes some of your worst attributes a dominant part of your personality.
It’s true that discovering that there are people with superpowers is no small thing to go through either, and one of the things that’s interesting about the way that Marvel’s handled its female characters is that it’s made them audience proxies, adjusting to a new world and the behavior of exceptionally powerful men within it. But it strikes me as more than time that a female character got to go through the same process of having her world upended and figuring out what she makes of her new self, and what she wants to do with the powers she’s been given.
That would be a radical thing to put on screen. Giving a man extraordinary physical power and the ability to compel people around him brings him more in line with masculine ideals: it means a geek can finally be of use to the Army he admires, a lay-about tech geek can finally live up to the expectation that he be responsible, or a Greek god can fit into a small American town fairly easily. But giving a woman that kind of capacity could be unsettling for some characters–and for some audiences. “Strong is the new skinny” ad campaigns aside, extraordinary physical strength is often something that can get a woman labeled gender non-conforming. And giving a woman the same authority to clear a neighborhood, to wreck up New York without worrying about the consequences, or to smash a male supervillain to bits would upset a whole lot of traditional hierarchies. These are, of course, hierarchies that get upset in comics all the time, to great effect. She-Hulk dispatches Tony Stark with great aplomb in their first meeting, and I’ve got a print of the Amanda Conner cover of the lady in green and purple beating Iron Man at arm wrestling on my desk at work. And it would add a nice new dimension to Marvel’s current roster to add a woman who has equivalent capacities to any of the men on the team. It’s fun to watch Bruce Banner and Tony Stark snipe at each other, or Tony and Steve work out their differing sense of obligation and masculinity. But given Joss Whedon’s track record in playing with how men handle an exceptionally powerful woman, it would expand the conversation about superpowers and who holds them and how they use them to make the ability to fly, smash, or whip a shield across a forest an equal-opportunity experience.
And even more important than that, giving us a female character with superpowers and exploring her origin story would give us time inside a woman’s head as she deals with her radically altered self. What does it suddenly mean to be more powerful than the person you’re having sex with? How about suddenly having the ability to lay an extremely decisive smackdown on a street harasser, a rotten boss, or an abusive husband? What does it mean to have a very different sex drive or sense of confidence when you’re in one incarnation than you did in your previous, purely human body? Do you use your powers if it means that people are freaked out by you and think you’re unlikable or an aggressive bitch? What if people want your human self more than they want your superpowers? These are all dramatically rich questions, and it would be incredibly good for superhero storytelling on the big screen and on television to inject them into a conversation that, at present, has somewhat diminishing returns.
For far too long, superpowers have been treated like they’re an incredibly useful tool for exploring masculinity. That’s lead to some tremendously entertaining movies, and to some strong insights about what it means to be suddenly responsible for a lot of other people. But the point of superpowers, when they’re given to good people, is that they open you up to limitless wonder, that they take you places in the world and in the universe as a whole that you never could have gone otherwise, that they make you a better person than you might have been otherwise. Treating superpowers as if they’re for boys and supporting roles as if they’re the girls’ auxiliary is antithetical to that idea. It’s time to let a woman suit up, and not just so the camera can linger on her ass during an interrogation, but because it’s her time for her to fly, and for us to love going on the ride from inside her head.