The MCU is the single biggest brand in film entertainment so far this century, following the conquests of Marvel Comics’ greatest heroes through a winding cinematic journey. Throughout its tenure, the franchise and the film industry at large, have evolved dramatically, with films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel being landmark achievements for representation in Hollywood.
This does make the MCU interesting to look at through the lens of the Bechdel test, an examination devised to analyze the female presence in a film by questioning (1) if there are at least two named female characters, (2) if they have a conversation in the film, and (3) if that conversation relates to a topic other than men. Across the MCU’s filmography, there have been eight films which have failed the test despite its collection of strong heroines.
8 ‘Iron Man’ (2008)
The debut of the MCU, Iron Man became an instant hit following billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who, after escaping terrorist captivity, decides to focus on defending the world rather than manufacturing weapons. Given the focus is solely on Stark and the playboy lifestyle he leads, it is perhaps not so surprising that Iron Man fails the Bechdel test.
Aside from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the only other named female character in the film is Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb), the Vanity Fair reporter Stark sleeps with. While her and Pepper do trade insults, the conversation almost immediately turns to Stark and Pepper’s relationship with him. Both of the Iron Man sequels did pass the test with Iron Man 2in particular doing so quite emphatically.
7 ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (2008)
In addition to being one of the MCU’s most forgettable entries, The Incredible Hulk is also the film in the franchise which most egregiously disregards its female lens. It follows Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) after a scientific experiment on gamma radiation goes wrong, causing him to go on the run as tries to develop a cure for his uncontrollable transformations into the Hulk whenever he loses his temper.
While it does have multiple named female characters, it fails to depict any sort of relationship between them and even seems oblivious to the underlying theme in the relationship between Banner and Betty (Liv Tyler). With Betty spending a lot of the film trying to keep Banner calm, so he doesn’t transform into an enraged monster who could kill her, it never acknowledges the strikingly apparent parallel being made to domestic violence.
6 ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (2011)
One of the MCU’s defining origin films, Captain America: The First Avenger follows WWII military reject Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he participates in an experimental program and become the super-soldier Captain America. In addition to being a strong origin film, it also introduced Hayley Atwell’s beloved heroine Peggy Carter to the fold.
As such, the film serves as ample evidence that using the Bechdel test to determine the feminist quality of a film can be misleading. Peggy is the only named female character, so the film technically fails all three elements of the test, but few would deny Carter’s cultural impact as an empowering woman with a complex and defined personality.
5 ‘The Avengers’ (2012)
The first of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ambitious crossover pictures turned out to be a roaring success, one which took the franchise from a loosely connected array of superhero stories to an acclaimed, ongoing narrative that fans could emotionally invest in. Following the newly assembled Avengers initiative, The Avengers follows the superhero squad as they struggle to work together while Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plots to take over the world.
Despite the film featuring Pepper Potts, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) in prominent roles, it never features any of the female characters in conversation with each other. While it is somewhat disappointing that the film fails the Bechdel test, it shouldn’t be overlooked that it did present three terrific example of strong feminine characters in a major Hollywood blockbuster.
4 ‘Ant-Man’ (2015)
After four of the MCU’s six phase one films failed to pass the Bechdel test, the franchise made a clear shift towards more inclusivity and representation as the epic saga continued to expand and evolve. The only phase two film which failed to pass was Ant-Man which followed cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) as he is recruited by a former superhero to use his advanced super suit to prevent a business rival from using his technology for evil.
Imbued with Rudd’s effortless charisma, the film became an enjoyable hit which featured Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Scott’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) among several other major female characters. While Cassie and her mother Maggie (Judy Greer) do converse about an action figure, the dialogue is a thinly veiled subtextual discussion about Scott himself, placing it in an interesting yet vague area as to whether it should pass the test or not.
3 ‘Doctor Strange’ (2016)
Carrying on the MCU’s balance of riveting action and good fun, Doctor Strange was also met with praise for the manner in which it incorporated sorcery into the universe. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins the film as a self-absorbed neurosurgeon who, after a car accident, suffers injuries to his hands which leave him unable to operate. In pursuit of experimental healing methods, he is taken in by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and schooled in the ways of magic.
The film’s wondrous allure made it an enchanting spectacle which earned acclaim for its visual effects and its expansion of the cinematic universe, however its female characters left something to be desired. While the Ancient One was memorable as Strange’s mentor, the same can’t be said of his love interest Dr. Palmer (Rachel McAdams), giving the film a lop-sided feminine presence which ultimately fell well short of passing the Bechdel test.
2 ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ (2017)
Truly a movie which revolutionized the MCU, Thor: Ragnarok became a fan-favourite as it followed Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in his struggles to escape a gladiatorial wasteland and get back to Asgard and save it from Hela’s (Cate Blanchett) wrath. Operating primarily as a comedy with some great action set pieces and a vibrant aesthetic, one of its most striking elements was its vast array of great female characters.
Hela made for one of the franchise’s greatest villains, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) excelled as both a reluctant hero and a comedic breath of fresh air, and Rachel House was afforded plenty of time to showcase her penchant for comedy as Topaz, the enforcer of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Given the sheer amount of female representation on-screen, it is undoubtedly the most surprising of the MCU films to fail the Bechdel test.
1 ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ (2019)
Spider-Man: Far From Home was tasked with ushering in a new era of the MCU while giving fans solace after the events of Avengers: Endgame. For the most part, it walked the complicated tightrope rather well, being somber when it needed to, fun and light when it could, all while focusing on Peter’s (Tom Holland) mission to defend Europe from elemental monsters with help from a mysterious new ally in Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal).
As the second of the MCU’s Spider-Manfilms, it featured plenty of named female characters who are recognized figures in the character’s life, ranging from his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) to his beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). However, it still failed the Bechdel test and even faced some criticism for the manner in which it depicted its female characters as being mere extensions of the men they were associated with.
Iron Man, The Avengers and Thor: Ragnarok are beloved Marvel movies that nevertheless fail the Bechdel Test for female representation. Read More