Avengers: Infinity War contains more top-tier female characters than any other comic-book movie, almost by default: By bringing together war-ready heroes from across the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, Danai Gurira as Okoye and Letitia Wright as Shuri — the blockbuster stacks the roster.
Still, Infinity War, directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, is a hyper-masculine film. Culminating a 10-year run of vehicles for male heroes, the third installment of the Avengers series finds Earth’s mightiest heroes taking on Thanos, a galactic conqueror who flexes both muscle and ideology. Wielding the incomplete Infinity Gauntlet, his biggest fight scene pits him against Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Drax the Destroyer, Spider-Man and Star-Lord on the distant planet Titan. Nebula and Mantis are there, too, and while momentarily pivotal and splashy, the brooding headbutting between Thanos and Tony Stark ultimately overshadows their actions.
This isn’t necessarily a knock on Infinity War. The MCU grew out of the long tradition of comics catering to boys, and launching the mega-franchise meant leading with its most popular faces. In recent years, the company has taken overt steps to prioritize female heroes in the universe. Gamora became a central figure in Infinity War’s Thanos drama (though her destiny was death). Captain Marvel earned a tease at the end in the post-credits, hyping fans for her introductory movie in March. And eight years after her introduction in Iron Man 2, Black Widow will finally get her own standalone, the first Marvel film to boast a woman as the sole director. (Captain Marvel is co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.)
There’s hope that with new female characters entering the fray with each movie — Okoye, Shuri and Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp being recent fan favorites — there’d even be room for an all-female Avengers movie in the future, an idea teased by Ant-Man and The Wasp director Peyton Reed during his recent press tour.
The looming question is how Marvel’s behind-the-scenes staff will serve those characters. As recently reported by Buzzfeed, Marvel’s visual development team — charged on each movie with designing and redesigning costumes, imagining action set pieces, and drawing from the universe’s rich lore to create paintings that will inspire the producers and director — is spearheaded by five artists, all of whom are men.
Based on the available credits, Avengers: Infinity War did not appear to have any female storyboarders, though several women, working with pre-visualization company Third Floor, had a hand in designing the action sequences. Not to be overlooked are the numerous women involved in production and post-production departments, though key roles in production design, cinematography and editing were held by men. The special-effects company Industrial Light & Magic had a stronger representation of female voices in key roles, with Katherine Farrar Bluff, ILM visual effects producer, and Jeanie King, ILM executive visual effects producer, leading a team with a number of women concept artists, storyboarders, artists, and editors who handled the resulting CG effects.
The involvement of women in creative roles impacts the action on screen. As Jane Wu, former Marvel storyboarder, told me in a recent story on the making of 2010’s The Avengers:
It was easy for me to storyboard someone like Black Widow because ... she’s me. I do martial arts, and I’m one of the very few people in the industry that can choreograph a fight sequence and animate to show you what the fight sequence looks like. You know, when I go on a panel talk, I’m always the only girl there, and they’re confused of who I am, what the pitch, my sequence. They get so confused! So I have to let them know that the most testosterone-driven scenes in Marvel movies are storyboarded by a middle-aged mom.
While MCU president Kevin Feige is often at the center of most Marvel releases, two essential women that are key to shaping the universe are often overlooked: Victoria Alonso, executive vice president of physical production — adored by anyone you talk to at Marvel Studios, in this writer’s experience — and Trinh Tran, who worked her way up as an assistant in the post-production department on Marvel’s early films to her current position as the studio’s director of production and development.
Given the chance to pick Tran’s brain about the making of Infinity War, I asked via e-mail about how the female perspective directly impacted the latest Avengers movie.
“What really stood out in Avengers: Infinity War was Wanda, Widow and Okoye[’s] fight against Proxima,” she wrote back. “We really wanted to shine a spotlight on our female heroes, showing how they are as strong as their male counterparts. This was the best decision we could make for the movie. In a weird way, it shows how our heroes support each other’s unique backgrounds and mirrors Marvel’s work environment — where we are always striving to support women and embrace diversity.”
According to a 2017 report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, women comprised 18 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers who worked on the top 250 highest grossing films domestically, a one-percent increase from 2016. The statistics decline when producer roles are taken out of consideration — the study found 16 percent of editor jobs, three percent of composer jobs and five percent of sound designer jobs were held by women. Numbers for women working in design and special-effects fields are more difficult to parse, though in recent years, Alonso has urged companies involved with those fields to “fill the gap.”
In 2016, at a Hollywood Professional Association’s Women in Post luncheon, Alonso was even more frank about the disparity at Marvel. “We have had gender inequality for some time,” she said, as noted by The Hollywood Reporter. “It wasn’t always talked about .... In the past year, it bubbled up and it’s no longer acceptable to women and some men ... Change is needed and hopefully we can make a balanced Hollywood for the next generation.”
With Avengers 4 on the horizon, and a promise of a long future after the dust settles on the Thanos saga, Marvel more than any studio is in a position to rectify the systemic issues of Hollywood’s gender divide. And not just on Captain Marvel, Black Widow or a potential female-driven Avengers spinoff, but on all the iterations of Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and any heroes we’ve yet to meet. Like what Wu brought to the original Avengers, or the way the Infinity War creative team pushed for a singular female fight moment in a movie chock full of dude, the creative voices steer the movies in exciting new directions that, even 10 years into the MCU, we’ve never seen before.
On screen and off, Marvel Studios seems to be slowly moving in a direction of prioritizing that balanced representation. In her response to Polygon, Tran emphasized the need for such consideration in the broadest terms.
“We are striving for more diversity in the workplace,” Tran wrote. “Films are always stronger when they benefit from having different perspectives and ideas.”
Avengers: Infinity War is now available on Blu-ray and digital platforms.