Warning: Spoilers ahead. Many events set off the superhero power struggle between Iron Man/Tony Stark and Captain America/Steve Rogers at the center of Captain America: Civil War (opening May 6). But one of them rests on the shoulders of Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). In the Marvel movie, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) come to blows, in part, because of their disagreement over how the Avengers should be governed. Tony, guilty over all the destruction they have caused while saving the world, believes that they need oversight; Steve worries that regulations could infringe on their abilities to do good. Steve’s loyalty to his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), now an outlaw, complicates matters. The rest of the Avengers fall in line behind them — well, except the women. Natasha, not sold on either argument, plays the role of compromiser, just trying to keep things from getting out of hand. While she aligns with Iron Man for the big Avenger-on-Avenger battle, she’s mostly on Team Play Nice, trying to watch out for the boys. Marvel seems to want to put her in a matriarchal role. Avengers: Age of Ultron found her grappling with her infertility as a result of sterilization. Wanda, meanwhile, appears neutral until the Iron Man side wants to keep her pent up, at which point she joins Cap’s forces.
So how does one of the few female Avengers wind up getting placed under house arrest? After a brief flashback prologue, the film drops the audience in Lagos, where the Avengers are trying to stop a villain from getting hold of a bioweapon. The old pros — Cap, Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) — are training Wanda, who joined the team after the events of last summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. As the fight comes to an end, Wanda uses her powers to save Steve Rogers from a bomb’s blast. She succeeds, but accidentally blows up a building, killing civilians. Wanda is bereft, and to add insult to injury, some of her fellow Avengers make her feel like a pariah. Vision (Paul Bettany), who works with Tony Stark, babysits her in the Avengers mansion, and won’t let her leave even for mundane reasons. She bristles at this infantilization. She may be young and green, but she’s one of the most powerful Avengers. She doesn’t rely on any gear or technology to fight. She can control minds and move matter with some flicks of her black nails. (Girl has a great manicure.) Eventually, she even overpowers Vision and goes off to fight with Cap.
Now, let’s compare her story line to Spider-Man’s. When the Avengers are gearing up to have it out, Tony heads to Queens to get ahold of the webslinger (Tom Holland). Talk about untested. Lil’ Peter Parker doesn’t even have a real suit yet. But Tony isn’t worried about Spidey’s ability to control his powers. After establishing a quippy rapport, Tony throws him right into the action. This isn’t a dig on Spider-Man. He’s a chatty fellow who spouts wisdom gleaned from The Empire Strikes Back and is a joy to watch. Still, he gets to swoop in and (sort of) save the day, while Wanda is treated like an outcast. (Spider-Man's appearance here serves to set up Spider-Man: Homecoming, the third reboot of the character in 15 years.) I'm not saying that Civil War is a treatise on gender. In fact, Marvel movies in general aren't all that interested in women, so the issue with the Scarlet Witch seems like an awkward consequence of plotting intended to examine loyalty and the place of superheroes in society. I even wondered whether I was reading too much into Wanda's circumstances. After all, she is dangerous. She causes the loss of innocent lives, people from Black Panther's (Chadwick Boseman) home country of Wakanda. (And, let's not forget, she is introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a villain aligned with Ultron.) But her story line still irked me. Perhaps unintentionally, the film implies that young female power is to be feared, while young male power is to be celebrated. It would have been nice if she were presented as someone we could root for, instead of a volatile burden.
This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!