Marvel Studios has evolved a lot over the years in regards to its women, both in front of and behind the camera, but has killed off too many of its original female heroes.
What started as a franchise with rumored infamous rules about the permitted roles of women (namely, no female leads and no female villains) and no female directors in sight has turned into one with women at the forefront of many projects - like Black Widow, WandaVision and Hawkeye.
That being said, there’s one thing some Marvel fans have taken notice of that’s not-so-great in terms of the studio’s optics when it comes to its female characters. The early years of the MCU had relatively few of them, but the ones that were present made an impact on audiences and some quickly became fan favorites.
Nowadays there are exponentially more female leads in the franchise, but many still view those from the MCU’s first several years with a certain reverence. That’s why it’s so disappointing that virtually all of the major ones have been killed off, a statistic that has been added to with the recent premiere of Secret Invasion.
1.) Peggy Carter
Peggy Carter’s first MCU appearance is in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, a time when women in the MCU were permitted to be little more than love interests (or in the case of Black Widow, a femme fatale type). Basically, they were there to be “eye candy” and revolve around the male characters.
While Peggy does fall under the category of “love interest to the male lead”, it’s clear from the get-go she has more to offer than this. Much like Steve Rogers, the film’s story also sees her working to prove herself in a world that easily dismisses her, and she is shown taking part in some of the action alongside him.
In later projects, she had plenty of adventures and achievements of her own in the time between The First Avenger and when the main action of the MCU picks up, including the founding of SHIELD. Peggy was even the first female MCU character to get a project of her own in the television series Agent Carter, though this was an ABC production and not a Marvel Studios one.
After being shown to be dealing with memory loss in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Peggy passes away offscreen in Captain America: Civil War. This could technically be considered fridging (a sexist trope that sees female characters killed to motivate the male protagonist) since her death is the catalyst for Steve’s actions in the movie and not to serve an arc of her own.
However, this isn’t one that most fans would bat an eye at as Peggy is shown to have been very old at the time and having lived a long, happy life. But In the context of how many other early MCU women have been killed off since then it’s hard not to include it on the list.
Gamora first appeared in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy and while she can be considered the deuteragonist of the movie, she is still a love interest to the protagonist, Peter Quill, is the only female member of the Guardians in the movie, and her stoic, no-nonsense personality falls in line with those of most of the other MCU ladies up to that point.
The sequel (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) strengthens the arc Gamora has with her sister Nebula, which continues into Avengers: Infinity War when she agrees to show their adoptive father Thanos the location of the Soul Stone in order to spare Nebula from being tortured by him.
This is where Gamora ends up meeting her unfortunate end. When Red Skull reveals that sacrificing what one loves most is the only way to obtain the Soul Stone, Thanos throws Gamora off the Vormir cliff to her death.
While it can be argued that this is Gamora sacrificing herself for her sister, its real purpose in the story is to contribute to Peter’s arc as well as reveal more about Thanos as a character, which is what makes this another example of a woman being fridged in the MCU. She notably was also considered to possibly be killed off in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 before it was decided that she would meet her end in Infinity War.
Gamora, or at least a version of her, does come back in Avengers: Endgame and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and doesn’t die again, thankfully, but she’s also not quite the same character who was killed off in Infinity War and her death is still disappointing for many Marvel fans.
3.) Black Widow
Black Widow was the first female superhero in the MCU. After a tough upbringing being trained to be an assassin in the infamous Red Room, she made friends with Clint Barton and the two of them eventually joined the roster of the original six Avengers shortly after her first on-screen appearance in 2010’s Iron Man 2.
By Avengers: Endgame, Natasha Romanoff sees the team as her family and is still especially close with Clint. That’s why when the duo is sent to Vormir circa 2014 to obtain the Soul Stone, both are more than willing to throw themselves off the cliff to their deaths so as to spare the other person.
Ultimately, Natasha is the one to succeed in her sacrifice, giving Hawkeye the Soul Stone which eventually leads to a major victory for the Avengers at the end of the movie.
Unlike the previously mentioned deaths, Natasha’s death is not an example of fridging because it serves her own arc; even after all her heroic actions over the years, she feels she has still not wiped out the “red in her ledger” and she believes sacrificing herself will help with that in addition to saving her dearest friend and those who Thanos snapped away in Infinity War.
4.) Scarlet Witch
Compared to the previous women on this list, Scarlet Witch has a complicated history within the MCU. After appearing in a credits scene of 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she started out as a villain, helping Ultron take down the Avengers in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but ended up switching sides and joining the team by the film’s end. She then gets in trouble with the public after accidentally causing harm to innocent civilians in Captain America: Civil War.
By the end of Avengers: Endgame Wanda is incredibly lonely, having lost both her brother and lover - the latter by her own hand, only for it not to matter anyway - and no longer part of the disbanded Avengers team.
Her actions from this point on are dubious at best, as she kidnaps and enslaves a town to enact her personal life fantasies in WandaVision, then gets corrupted by the Darkhold between the end of that show and the start of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, causing her to attempt to steal the life and children of her Variant from an alternate dimension.
At the end of the movie, she is crushed by rocks and seemingly killed (even though many believe her to have simply used her magic to disappear). Even though this one is debatable as to whether or not the character actually died, it’s clear the filmmakers wanted the audience to believe her to be dead, so it counts for the list.
Wanda’s behavior during the Multiverse Saga has caused plenty of controversy in regard to the portrayal of women and specifically mental health, but her supposed death is indicative of another large problem the MCU has with its women in general.
5.) Maria Hill
Maria Hill is by far the least prominent character on this list, but it is her death that reignited the conversation surrounding just how many of the MCU’s foundational female figures have been killed off from the franchise.
She started as a SHIELD agent in 2012’s The Avengers, and while she wasn’t a member of the titular team, her presence as a woman working to help them was welcome at a time the MCU was quite male-dominated.
From there, Maria popped up from time to time but never had a role as prominent as she did in The Avengers until over a decade later in Secret Invasion. Many fans were excited to hopefully learn more about the character and perhaps even see her have an arc of her own for once, but those dreams were dashed when she was murdered by a Skrull posing as Nick Fury at the end of the series premiere.
And any hopes that she was simply a Skrull herself all but disappeared when the credits listed actor Cobie Smulders as a “Special Guest Star”, implying Episode 1 would be her only appearance in the series.
This is a classic case of fridging, as Maria’s only role in the series was to warn Fury about potential trouble ahead and subsequently be proven right by being killed a little later on. Her death serves as a catalyst for Fury’s personal investment in the conflict and doesn’t serve an arc for herself at all.
Maria Hill being the “last woman standing” of sorts in regards to the early MCU makes her death all the more difficult to swallow, and shows that even though the MCU has made many strides in its female representation, it still has some blind spots.
All of these movies and series can be streamed now on Disney+.