This post is about major plot beats from the last several Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, including Thor: Love and Thunder. I wait until the end of the first paragraph to drop the newest relevant detail, but prepare, beware, behold!
How it all ends…!
We’ll eventually find out whether the mixed reviews and softer word-of-mouth, at least compared to most MCU movies, for Thor: Love and Thunder will affect Taika Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s MCU fourquel in terms of the domestic and global box office. For now, a fourth Thor opening 17% higher than the third Thor would be a huge win for any other major franchise. That it opened on par with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($146 million in 2017) and yet finds itself on the defensive shows how inflated the expectations have become for MCU sequels. For now, I want to talk about how Thor: Love and Thunder ends. Yes, I’m stalling to drop this spoiler at the end of the paragraph rather than at the beginning, but the film ends with the death of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, who succumbs to cancer and perishes in Thor’s arms.
In a vacuum, in terms of the story and themes of this latest MCU adventure, such a plot turn plays fair. As we discover early on, Jane has been diagnosed with “stage four” cancer (breast cancer in the comics, but I digress). She quickly stumbles upon the notion that the magic/science of Asgaard may be able to save her, so she ends on at New Asgaard only to discover that the reconstituted Mjölnir finds her worthy and imbues her with essentially “Thor powers.” Dr. Jane Foster fights alongside Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Valkyrie (Tess Thompson). Alas, and this is all source-faithful, using the hammer and cosplaying as Thor also weakens Jane’s ability to fight off the cancer that is swiftly ending her life. Despite promises to give up the power until a long-term health solution can be found, she races to the climactic rescue, helps save the day, and gets a suitably dramatic death scene.
Marvel has been on a murder spree with its female heroes.
Again, in a vacuum, that’s fine. Honestly, once we got word of the film’s McGuffin granting a single wish to whoever discovered it, I figured that Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher would realize the error of his vengeful ways and use his dying wish to heal Foster. Still, they refreshingly played a different card (which I will not reveal). That the film took Jane’s arc to its natural conclusion makes the movie better than it otherwise would have been. Whatever my issues with the picture (poor pacing, scattered action, making Thor a himbo to the point of cringe-inducing incompetence, etc.), the finale works. Heck, the climax is among the film’s best elements, including the epilogue that playfully explains the film’s subtitle. However, when taken as one of many MCU flicks sans that vacuum, it’s yet another recent example of the Marvel machine killing off their earliest female heroes.
Gwynneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts debuted in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man back in 2008 and has stuck around at least through Avengers: Endgame, during which (ironically?) her husband (Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark) sacrificed himself to stop Thanos. Otherwise, most of the early Marvel female leads are now dead. Captain America: Civil War began with the death of an elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Avengers: Infinity War saw Thanos (Josh Brolin) tossing his adopted daughter (Zoe Saldana’s Gamora) off a cliff to get “the soul stone.” A year later, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tossed herself off that same mountain to help her teammates obtain that same stone. We discovered during the events of Disney+’s WandaVision that Captain Marvel co-star Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) had died of cancer during the five-year “blip” period between Infinity and Endgame. Then, Rambeau would die in an alternate universe via Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Marvel’s Phase One and Phase Two heroines are mostly dead.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness let Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) go full-Scarlet Witch and then dropped a building on her. And now Thor: Love and Thunder climaxes with Jane Foster ascending to Valhalla. Again, all these plots make valid narrative and emotional sense regarding the stories being told. I still take genuine issue with Thanos murdering his daughter “out of love” to make him more complex/sympathetic, but I digress. However, as Phase Four reaches its halfway point, the female leads of Thor (Jane), Captain America (Peggy), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Natasha), Guardians of the Galaxy (Gamora) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (Wanda) are all dead. In terms of being introduced in the oldest MCU movie, the most senior surviving heroine is Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Pym, introduced in the Phase Two epilogue Ant-Man in July of 2015. Even Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May (introduced in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming) is dead.
Carol Danvers better watch her butt in Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels, which allegedly teams Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel with Iman Vellani’s Kamela Khan and Teyonah Parris’ Monica Rambeau. The Wasp may be on borrowed time in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The only reason the Black Panther female co-stars (Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett) are (most likely) safe is that, sadly, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa won’t be appearing. How disconcerting you find this is likely in relation to your emotional connection to the MCU being a more inclusive, female-friendly franchise. Marvel has been selling the notion of a more diverse MCU at least since Civil War (co-starring Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter, who went rogue on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). Online MCU fandom has paid much lip service to the notion that Marvel is a safer home than its rivals for “strong female characters.”
Amid pushes for inclusivity, female heroes are still expendable.
Some of that is Disney and/or Marvel filmmakers throwing out soundbites about how the latest MCU movie is the more progressive, inclusive and/or LGBTQIA-friendly movie ever. Meanwhile, especially in terms of non-hetero content, it lags laughably behind fantasy super heroic television like Legends of Tomorrow, Wynona Earp and kid-targeted toons like She-Ra or She-Ra and The Princesses of Power and Steven Universe. Some of that is the media itself proclaiming (for example) Disney’s first explicitly gay character for years (Beauty and the Beast, Cruella, Jungle Cruise, etc.) sans much in the way of actual official studio commentary. Still, there was a real effort after Isaac Perlmutter was ousted from his hands-on role (with Kevin Feige answering directly to Disney as of 2015) to make movies and shows starring “not a white guy” protagonists. Diversity has been a selling point for Phase Four, if only because it automatically made the next batch of films less redundant.
I am not automatically arguing that this is actively harmful, intentional or malicious. Nonetheless, in the most recent run of MCU movies, starting first with Civil War and kicking into overdrive with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the various female heroes, especially the ones who have been around longer, have been getting bumped off to an alarming degree. In a vacuum, it makes sense that elderly Peggy Carter would succumb to dementia, Thanos would murder Gamora or the Scarlet Witch would break bad and perish at the end (with a grand death befitting a great baddie). But taken all as one, the MCU has become the most dangerous franchise around for female heroes and major female supporting characters. That Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Christine Palmer made it through Doctor Strange 2 now feels miraculous. Maybe fans of more inclusive fantasy entertainment should look elsewhere. Fair or not, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become almost gleefully unapologetic lady killers.