(Spoilers abound for Thor: The Dark World, Agents of SHIELD, and other assorted Marvel Cinematic Universe canon.)
From left: Rene Russo as Frigga, Jaimie Alexander as Sif, Natalie Portman as Dr. Jane Foster. Image from Screencrush.
Last night, I went with some friends to see the second Thor film, a movie I'd been eagerly anticipating. I was pleasantly surprised by the first one, and had heard nothing but good buzz surrounding the sequel, especially with regard to how the female characters were portrayed. It passes the Bechdel Test! The female characters are so well developed! All the ladies are badasses! I was psyched!
Unfortunately, almost as soon as the film began, I started seeing things that raised my hackles. In the opening scene, Sif's leading a battle. Thor shows up, Sif claims she's got everything under control (which by all appearances, she does), and Thor quips back something to the effect of he wouldn't have to be there if she did. Then a giant rock monster shows up. Sif's response? To bow out of the fight and tell Thor that he's got this one.
Yeah. Real badass.
We actually get very, very little of Sif fighting in this movie. Most of the rest of the time she's standing around looking jealous or holding a weapon, clearly ready to fight but never given the chance. She's not even really talked about as being a fierce warrior, except I think when she's formally introduced to Jane.
Jane herself has a bunch of issues. For starters, she's been pretty much waiting around for Thor for two years, without any sort of contact. New York is brought up, and Thor does have a point in that he was just a bit distracted from, y'know, saving the Earth from an alien invasion led by his brother. But Avengers has a scene between Thor and Coulson where they discuss Jane, before everything hits the proverbial fan. Jane mentions a ton of times that she's kinda sorta been in contact with SHIELD (although she's not too happy about it). Really, dude? You couldn't have had SHIELD pass along any sort of message? Okay, then.
While Jane is shown as being out on a date with someone else (Chris O'Dowd, who is criminally wasted here), she's distracted the entire time, and runs off with Darcy pretty much the instant that she's shown something that reminds her of Thor's arrival. Once he does show up, her personality kind of just...vaporizes. There's also the fact that, much like Pepper in Iron Man 3, she's given this immense power against her will that she really doesn't understand. Unlike Pepper, however, this doesn't make her any sort of threat—she instead becomes a plot device, something to be protected and fought over. She does what she's told to do, and although she's capable of defending herself due to the power, everyone else does it for her.
Then, there's Frigga.
Unlike the other two, Frigga's characterization isn't her problem. She's caring, shrewd, and tough as nails. From what we see of her, she appears to be fairly well-developed.
So what happens to her?
She, of course, gets killed off. To "make it personal" for her husband and sons.
That's right, folks—Frigga gets stuffed in the goddamn fridge.
For those not familiar with the term, coined by comic writer Gail Simone, it refers to the act of building up a character close to the hero (usually a female one, like a wife, girlfriend, or mother), only to have them killed off to provide pathos. It is extremely prevalent in comic books, and the term itself refers to a Green Lantern story where Green Lantern Kyle Rayner comes home to find his girlfriend dead, chopped into pieces and left in his refrigerator by a villain.
I don't think that Cap's cameo was a coincidence, here—all of these tropes belong back in his era, not ours. And the sad thing is, this isn't the first time Marvel's done stuff like this. Black Widow's only slightly more proven as a combatant than Sif is (many of her action scenes are not explicitly shown; only alluded to). Maria Hill gets almost zero screen time, both in The Avengers and in Agents of SHIELD. Pepper Potts is shown numerous times to be able to hold her own, but when she gets power that puts her on the same level as the supers, it's quickly taken away.
The few People of Color in the Marvel Cinematic Universe don't fare much better. In The Dark World alone, Hogun's booted out of the film fairly early, and although Heimdall has a slightly more expanded role here (and gets a pretty badass scene, to boot), the invasion renders him more or less powerless. Malekith's number two, played by a black actor, basically embodies the "Scary Black Man" stereotype. Agents of SHIELD, while doing mostly okay by its female characters, doesn't do very well by its PoC ones. Only one of the protagonists, Melinda May, is explicitly not white. Virtually every other character of color that's introduced is an antagonist, and a number of those don't survive. At least, however, there are multiple characters of color, which is more than I can say about most of the rest of the MCU. Nick Fury and James Rhodes are the only consistent heroic PoCs of the entire canon, and the only that appear in more than one film.
While Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, among others, are slated to get their own respective tie-in series, Scarlet Witch is slated to be in Age of Ultron, and Winter Soldier is adding at least one new female character, the MCU is still very centered on white male characters—a trend that shows few signs of slowing down. Phase 2 is just beginning, so there's time for the problem to be corrected. But I don't know that I'll be holding my breath.
None of this is to say that I dislike the movies in the canon—quite the opposite, in fact. The acting is terrific, the writing, for the most part, is well done, and everything seems to come together like a well oiled machine. But a veneer of perfection only serves to make the flaws more glaring.