When the titular demigod of Thor: Ragnarok met Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), his awkward attempts at supportive banter accidentally mimic the Marvel's historically lopsided attitude to female characters.
“There’s nothing wrong with women of course, I love women, sometimes a little too much,” stutters the hammer-wielding son of Odin, in the film. “Not in a creepy way, just more of a respectful appreciation, I think it’s great, there’s an elite force of women warriors. It’s about time.”
For all the billions of dollars amassed by Marvel Studios over the past decade, they’re still not entirely sure what their female characters are for. Over here, Black Panther and his female general Okoye (Danai Gurira) make for a fearsome pairing. Over there, the introduction of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to Tony Stark (Robert Downey jnr) makes for a sexual harassment suit.
"It's about damned time," is also the last line spoken by Hope van Dyne (aka the Wasp) in Marvel's 2015 hit, Ant-Man. It's a sentiment echoed by Evangeline Lilly, the Canadian actor who plays Wasp, the first titular female Marvel hero, albeit alongside Paul Rudd as the joint headliner of Ant-Man and the Wasp.
"I was asked by a journalist one time: 'Do you think we're making a mountain out of a molehill?' says Lilly. "And I've honestly asked myself the same question. We've had Scarlet Witch and Black Widow. The women in Black Panther were all fierce and amazing. But the truth is this is Marvel's 20th film. And in 20 films they've never had a female's name in the title. They are such a cultural powerhouse. All over the world. Everybody knows and sees those movies. And we are so susceptible to unconscious messages. You can be as loving and supportive of a woman as you want, but if you put her in the backseat, then that's the message you're putting out there. That's the message that little boys and girls will internalise. So I don't think we're making a mountain put of a molehill. Being a female superhero is extremely important. My hat goes off to the producers at Marvel for coming to that place two or three years before the Me Too and Time's Up conversation."
Marvel does, nonetheless, look to have arrived a little late to the party. A Black Widow stand-alone adventure was first mooted in 2002. Since then any number of new boys have enjoyed solo outings, Iron Man and Thor have racked up trilogies, and Jessica Jones has – according to Netflix's vice-president of product innovation Todd Yellin – become the most popular Marvel superhero on the streaming service.
Meanwhile, DC, Marvel's primary rivals, beat them to the punch with last year's $821.9 million grossing Wonder Woman, with director Patty Jenkins at the helm.
The first female headliner at Marvel is still something to cheer about, insist the film-makers.
"That was the single most exciting thing about being able to do another Ant-Man movie," says Peyton Reed, who directed the original film and Ant-Man and the Wasp. "That's what we had set up in the first film. Hope was clearly the more capable hero but her father had sidelined her because he was being overprotective. I grew up reading those comics, and I always thought of Ant-Man and Wasp as a duo. So to me there was a responsibility on many levels. Evangeline and I worked closely together from the very beginning about all aspects of the character. She had very clear ideas about what she wanted Hope to be. She didn't want to be a male construct. She didn't want a big fight scene with perfect hair and nails."
"I just think it's really cool being in the first movie with a female superhero in the title," says Paul Rudd, who cowrote Ant-Man and its sequel. "I also think that Hope is really better suited for the job than my character. It's the family business for her. She's good at it."
It's the morning after the Parisian premiere of Ant-Man et la Guêpe. In a few hours France will lift the World Cup. Lilly, a lifelong Francophone, is in chipper form. She wasn't expecting any of this. After Lost made her a TV star for six years, she quit acting altogether to focus on motherhood and writing (she's the author of the children's book The Squickerwonkers).
“I really, really hated fame,” she says. “I’m normally a really happy person. But I spent six years doing a show, where for 12 hours a day, six to nine months a year, I was angsty and crying and screaming and running from a smoke monster and blowing up my father. It was nothing but horrible emotions. I am not a trained actor. I don’t have a bag of tricks. I just go there.”
It required a call from Peter Jackson to bring her out of retirement: "I was still bedridden after the birth of my son," she says. "But I really wanted to do it. The Hobbit was my favourite book when I was 13. I fantasised – specifically – about being a woodland elf. And I had just finished the press tour for the third Hobbit film when Marvel called."
Before the current tent-pole season, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was not exactly known for its diversity
The 38-year-old has subsequently maintained an impressive degree of creative control over her Marvel superheroine.
“When I first arrived on the set of the new movie, the stunt team had already been working on the fight scenes,” she says. “And I came in and I watched the mock-ups. And I was horrified. I said, ‘She can’t fight like that. She looks like a dude. What is the point of having a woman superhero if we’re just going to make her into a man?’ I had to go to the producers and I had to make my pitch. And I said: ‘I think you guys are so afraid of creating a sexualised stereotype that degrades women that you’ve gone too far in the other direction. You’re now disrespecting her femininity.’ That was so important to me. I really wanted to honour that she’s a woman. I wanted there to be a clear distinction between the male superhero and the female superhero in the movie. If we can show her being elegant and way more badass than the dude, now we’re on to something. Now the message is that she’s strong because of her femininity, not in spite of it.”
The Wasp won't be a lone trailblazer for long. Late last year, at the press conference for Thor: Ragnarok, Tessa Thompson promised that the future of Marvel movies is female. That seemed a little optimistic at the time. Before the current tent-pole season, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was not exactly known for its diversity.
In 2016, the casting of Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange as the Ancient One – a character from Marvel comics that is traditionally depicted as Asian – was greeted with no little dismay. Between Iron Man and Thor: Ragnarok, only two people of colour had been credited as a writer or director for a Marvel movie: Hawk Ostby, who wrote for Iron Man and Taika Waititi, who directed Thor: Ragnarok. To date, Nicole Perlman, who cowrote Guardians of the Galaxy, is the only woman with a writing credit.
But things are changing. Last month, at the Producers Guild's 10th annual conference Produced By, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige declared that many future Marvel movies would have female directors. Next year the Oscar-winner Brie Larson will debut as Captain Marvel. She'll be joined by both Evangeline Lily's Wasp, Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie and Emma Fuhrmann's recast Cassie Long (Ant-Man's daughter) in the fourth Avengers film.
Captain Marvel will be codirected by Anna Boden and her partner Ryan Fleck, the film-makers behind Half Nelson and Sugar. Boden will be first woman to direct a film for Marvel Studios. Jac Shaeffer, the female screenwriter behind Olaf's Frozen Adventure, has been tapped to write a stand-alone feature for Black Widow. The studio is also courting film-makers Deniz Gamze Erguven (Mustang), Chloe Zhao (The Rider) and Amma Asante (Belle).
Feige has additionally agreed (in principle) to Thompson's pitch for a film staffed entirely by female superheroes. Brie Larson and Scarlett Johansson have backed the idea of an all-female A-Force movie.
While Feige has been cagey about details pertaining to Phase Four – meaning the films that will follow the fourth and final Avengers instalment – he has confirmed there will be an out LGBTQ character and he has flagged a more feminised future: "I think we're getting to the point soon where we have so many great female characters that those are just our heroes as opposed to when are they all female, all male," he told the press conference for Ant-Man and the Wasp. "It's just the Marvel heroes, more than half of which will be women."
The supervillains are changing, too. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still under house arrest sentence having aided Captain America in Civil War. Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are angry with him for taking their tech to Germany but they do, nonetheless, require his help after making a breakthrough in their search for Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer). He, in turn, requires the occasional dig-out from Hope van Dyne's suited alter-ego, the Wasp, when a new villain, Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) takes an interest in Pym's inventions.
The phenomenal $1.347 billion success of Black Panther is likely to accelerate Marvel's late diversity drive
John-Kamen, from Yorkshire, is Marvel Studios' fourth female antagonist, following on from Hela in Thor: Ragnarok and Elizabeth Debicki's Ayesha in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. Famously, Rebecca Hall's role in Iron Man 3 was reduced due to "merchandising concerns".
"I'm coming right after Cate Blanchett in Thor," says John-Kamen. "So talk about a hard act to follow. It was daunting. There's a pressure to do right by the character and by the Marvel universe. But I loved the character. I was heart-broken for her. She may be the antagonist but she's not a 'Mwah ha ha' evil. I'm very curious to see how the fans react."
Happily fans of the Marvelverse have been rather more positive about the studio's new diversity drive than the toxic minority who are railing against Kathleen Kennedy and Disney for daring to make Star Wars more racially and culturally diverse. Last month, Star Wars actor Kelly Marie Tran – the first woman of colour with a main role in the saga – was forced to quit social media after months of online abuse. There has been more targeted trolling of actors John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. Conversely, super-fans have been overwhelmingly positive about Ant-Man and the Wasp, which managed an A– CinemaScore among American audiences and an $80 million debut weekend.
“I can feel a shift in Hollywood,” says Lilly. “I feel that there are more opportunities for women already. The last time I was in LA I met with four female directors. In one trip. In the rest of my 13-year career, I had never met with a female director.”
She laughs: “It’s crazy, right? But I think there was already something in the air. Even before Me Too and Time’s Up happened.”
Lilly was filming Ant-Man and the Wasp last October when the New York Times and the New Yorker began reporting that dozens of women had accused the American film producer Harvey Weinstein of rape and sexual assault. The actor was surprised by the immediate impact that story had on the industry and even more surprised by the impact it had on her.
“That was a very disempowering time for me,” she says. “I’m supposed to be playing this powerful woman and yet I felt so broken and damaged and vulnerable. Like every woman, I’ve had men touch me in ways that I don’t want to be touched, and I’ve had sexual experiences that are unhealthy. But I wasn’t sexually abused my Harvey Weinstein. And I had to ask myself why this story had such a profound impact on me. I think – and this was the case for a lot of women – that I started to examine all the ways I had adjusted my behaviour to get by in a man’s world.
"What you care about. What you talk about. I had spent a lifetime trying to please men. I tried to be beautiful. I tried to be cool. I tried to be athletic. I tried to roll with the punches. I tried to be a tomboy. I learned the banter. I learned to care about what they cared about. I was a maths honour student. I was the star of the soccer team. Just so I could be in the room where the decisions are made. Because those rooms are full of dudes. The Harvey thing was when I woke up and realised this is kind of rigged. And that was a painful realisation.”
The phenomenal $1.347 billion (and still counting) success of Black Panther is likely to accelerate Marvel's late diversity drive. The Wasp's top billing has also paid off. Over its opening weekend in the US, Ant-Man and the Wasp drew 8.3 million people to cinemas, compared with the 6.9 million who went to see the original in July 2015.
It’s about damned time, as Hope van Dyne has it.
- Ant-Man and the Wasp opens August 2nd