Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

The Sidelining of MCU Moms

Scarlet Witch
Hi, I’m a MCU Mom and I’m Evil.

As much as I’ve loved the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has always had its share of issues, primarily the focus on only one type of hero–white, straight, and male. As the MCU grew, it seemed that was changing, bringing in characters like Black Panther and Captain Marvel and spotlighting characters such as Sam Wilson and the Black Widows. But with the latest round of MCU movies, one problem has become quite clear: the treatment of MCU moms.

In short, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is utterly disinterested in the mother/child relationship. MCU moms that do have roles in the MCU are slotted in as dead, evil, or sidelined and their relationships with their offspring unexamined.

There are one or two exceptions to this but the pattern is absolutely clear.

Instead, the MCU is focused on father/child relationships. These male relationships are prioritized in the MCU storytelling. There are reasons for this but, first, let’s take a look at how mothers have been treated.

The MCU Heroes With Daddy Issues

Woo boy, let’s take a look at the raging issues the first wave of Marvel cinematic heroes have with their fathers.
First up, Tony Stark. Howard Stark is a hero but he sure managed to impart some problems to his son. Tony’s past is largely shaped by his complicated, angry, and frustrating relationship with his father, the original genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. That’s why in Avengers: Endgame, Tony reconciles with Howard, and that relationship gains closure. Two different actors have portrayed Howard Stark. But his MCU mom, Maria Stark? A non-entity. The biggest thing we know about her is that The Winter Soldier murdered her.

morgan stark and happy hogan
The MCU is more interested in showing Happy with Morgan than Pepper.

The MCU also showcases Tony as a father, with his daughter, Morgan, and with his mentor relationship with Peter Parker. However, we see little of Morgan’s relationship with her mother. Even at the end of Endgame, Morgan’s comfort comes from her father’s friend, Happy, standing in as another father figure, and not her mother, Pepper.

MCU moms
Hi, I’m a MCU Mom and I’m dead.

Wait, you say, Thor’s mother has been shown. Sure. Frigga was classically fridged to motivate her sons to act in Thor: The Dark World. When she re-appears in Avengers: Endgame, all we discover about her is that she always loved her son and supports him. Why is Frigga used in this movie and not Thor’s father, Odin? Because the other Thor movies have explored and provided closure for those father/son issues already. Thor explores Odin’s supposed favoritism for Thor over Loki. The Dark World has the brothers pushing back against Odin, and the third, Thor: Ragnarök allows the sons a chance to speak to their father before he disappears into whatever post-life gods go to. We know some of Odin’s backstory, his wars, his hidden elder daughter, and his secrets. All we know about Frigga is she has an illusion power and she loves her family.

We know nothing of Steve Rogers’ mother or father, so that’s a wash, but we do know she’s dead. Hawkeye seemingly has no parents either but there is a mother in his life: his wife, Laura. But her relationship with her family isn’t explored either. She’s one of the supportive blank slates again. The MCU spends all its time on Hawkeye’s father/child relationships, with his own children, and with Kate Bishop in the Hawkeye television show. Oh, and Laura and the kids are fridged temporarily, gone during the blip so Hawkeye can turn murderous. So far, his family members are props, not people, and that includes their matriarch, despite the hints of her origin in Hawkeye. (Kate Bishop’s mother is alive but see below.)

Queen Ramonda
Hi, I’m a MCU Mom and I’m only here to be supportive.

Queen Ramonda in Black Panther is portrayed by the legendary Angela Bassett. The movie focused on T’Challa’s relationship with his late father, uncle, and male cousin. I love this movie, it’s my #1 MCU movie but its’ one flaw is that Ramonda is given little to do. It’s T’Challa’s relationship with his father that shapes him in this story. We remain ignorant as to how his mother influenced him. T’Chaka is the active character. We see nothing of Ramonda’s past life or who she is. (The trailer for the next Black Panther movie features Ramonda, so that is promising.)

Hell, even the villains have Daddy Issues.

Let’s start with the biggest Daddy of them all: Thanos. Gamora and Nebula are excellent characters, complicated, unique, and, oh, with hardly a mention of their mothers at all. The MCU is only interested in their relationship with Thanos and how it shaped them as daughters of the ultimate villain. In the case of Gamora, how that relationship killed her. There has been an exploration of their sibling rivalry (you know, trying to kill each other) but that is primarily through the lens of their relationship with their father.

Ultron rebels against his two fathers, Tony and Bruce. Kilmonger’s primary familial relationship is with his father. His mother isn’t on-screen. There’s Ego, who killed Peter Quill’s mother, but he gets far more screen-time than his mom. She serves only as Peter’s motivation. Shang-Chi’s father makes bad decisions because of grief but his children come to understand, if not agree with him. On the other hand, Shang-Chi’s mother is killed early in the story while his father gets many vibrant scenes with his adult children.

You see the pattern. And in the most recent MCU movie, Thor: Love & Thunder, even created a dead mother for Jane Foster just so they could give Jane a tragic backstory.

The Dead and Evil MCU Moms Club

Frigga, of course, is the charter member of the Marvel dead mothers club, along with Starlord’s mom. (Do we even remember her name?) Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 explores Peter’s relationships with his biological and adoptive fathers, as one tries to kill him and the other saves him. All Peter’s mother could do was be murdered by his father. Oh, and give Peter a love for mixtapes.

Maria Rambeau of MCU Moms
Hi, I’m awesome but I’m a MCU Mom & I die offscreen from cancer.

Captain Marvel offers us a portrait of a terrific, supportive mother, Maria Rambeau, and her excellent relationship with her daughter, Monica. Maria was even one of the founders of S.W.O.R.D., the Earth agency formed to protect the planet from alien threats. Or so we’re told. We never get to see it because Maria dies of cancer off-screen during the blip to provide angst for Monica in WandaVision. The best thing the MCU could think to do with the Maria/Monica relationship was to cause Monica grief rather than portray the mother/daughter dynamic.

Janet Van Dyne exists solely in the original Ant-Man as a point of grief to explore the fractured relationship between daughter Hope and father Hank. Scott Lang’s ex-wife has a relationship with Cassie but we don’t get to see that: instead, Scott and Cassie’s stepfather work through their issues regarding what fathers should do for their daughters. I love that Ant-Man and the Wasp brought back Janet from the quantum realm. LOVE IT. I love that Hope and Janet received some scenes together. I hate that Janet, with all her power, immediately vanishes in the blip and the focus instead turns to, again, the heroes as fathers.

Aunt May becomes another sacrificial lamb. She realizes her destiny to be killed off and fridged in Spider-Man: No Way Home. In any case, her relationship with Peter was secondary to his relationship with his surrogate father, Tony Stark. Heck, even Eternals has daddy issues, and their mother is murdered. (Note: I am one of the few people who enjoys that movie’s depiction of a dysfunctional family trying to find itself after uncovering the secret that changes everything, but, yeah, it fits the pattern.)

The mother of the Black Widows, Natasha and Yelena, does have a wonderful role in Black Widow, as the morally gray Mom finally joins the side of her daughters against the evil patriarch of the Black Widows. (Thank you, Rachel Weisz.) However, one could hardly say the woman who callously tortures pigs, turns over her daughters for brainwashing, and aides and abets evil is a force for good. She slots in nicely with the evil moms. It’s my hope that when Yelena appears in her own movie or series, this mother/daughter relationship is explored. But I’m not optimistic, given the MCU history, about how the relationship will turn out. After all, Alias Jessica Jones explored a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship with an evil mom only to kill her off at the end.

Kate Bishop’s Hawkeye has a living mom. She’s morally gray, at best. She is at least decent to her daughter. It’s crumbs but I’ll take it.

Then, of course, we have Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, the most well-known ‘mom’ in the DCU. She is evil and crazy.

OH, Wanda, Bad MCU Mom

Wanda became a mother only to quickly lose her children and then go mad with grief-fueled power. I had great hopes for Wanda after WandaVision. That story explores grief in so many realms, exploring the hateful and healthy forms of healing. The follow-up in Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness ruins Wanda’s ending from WandaVision. Wanda cannot get past losing her sons so she becomes a murderous psychopath in order to restore that motherhood.

Wanda loses her parents, her brother, her lover, and her kids. What does the Wanda in Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness focus on? The loss of her kids and only the loss of her kids. I guess her parents, Pietro, and Vision don’t count as worthy of resurrecting or grieving about. I mean, there’s another Vision, right there in the MCU, and there’s no indication Wanda ever tried to find him or use magic to imbue him with memories of the past Vision. There’s even Natasha, supposedly Wanda’s friend, who could use a resurrection. But she’s not mentioned either.

In the MCU, once someone becomes a mother, they can’t have emotions or experiences related to anything else but their children and exist only for their children. Or they die. Or they’re evil.

Another example from Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness: America Chavez’s mothers are introduced, but only exist as a point of grief while she bonds to her mentor, the male Doctor Strange, creating another father/child dynamic.

As for Thor: Love & Thunder, that’s where I finally threw up my hands. Love & Thunder is also, once again, intensely focused on the father/child dynamic. The villain is a father who lost a child. The resolution of the movie features Thor as a father. Not only does Jane die of cancer but a flashback of Jane’s mother dying of cancer is also inserted.

That’s three mothers and one supporting character dying of cancer in the MCU, if you’re counting, and I am.

I get it. The MCU is either disinterested or hostile to mothers. They want to deal with fathers.

Ms. Marvel, the Ray of Hope for MCU Moms

Ms Marvel family
All the Khans are wonderful.

How much do I love Kamala Khan’s family in the fabulous Ms. Marvel? As equal and opposite as much as I hate the fridging and disinterest in the other mothers. Zenobia Shroff as Muneeba Khan is terrific, not only a wife and mother but one with a vibrant life of many connections. Her relationship with her daughter is warm, loving, and yet parental. We know about Muneeba Khan’s history, we know a little about her childhood, we even know about her relationship to her mother. Ms. Marvel also goes back to the matriarch Aisha, who chooses love, not destruction, and that choice reverberates through the whole story down to Muneeba and Kamala.

I could quibble and point out that Aisha and Najma both have to die to fulfill their role as mothers but that is a quibble, given how wonderful and well-explored the relationship is between Kamala and her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

So Why Does the MCU Hate Moms?

It’s not so much hate as utter disinterest and pre-conceptions about mothers.

Those creating the vast majority of these MCU mother roles obviously aren’t as interested in exploring the mother/child dynamic as they are fascinated by the father/child dynamic. Or else Hank Pym would have been the one lost in the quantum realm or Maria would not have been killed or Maria Stark would exist as more than a name or motivation. Those making the decisions have little to no interest in exploring the dynamics between MCU moms and daughters or MCU moms and sons or even showing MCU Moms as vibrant, interesting people in their own right.

Why did this happen?

When you want to know why something happens or doesn’t happen in a story, the answer is to look at the people behind the story, in this case, the mastermind of the MCU, Kevin Feige. This kind of systemic decision-making on who will feature in stories starts at the top.

Even Entertainment Weekly recognized the problem and called out the people at the top of the MCU recently for its problem with women in general. The issue with mothers is parallel or even a subset of that.

Granted, it’s not just the MCU. It’s the entire film industry. The latest statistics collected by The Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television show the overwhelming majority of the decisions made about whose stories are told are made by white men.

The MCU has become somewhat more inclusive in Phase 4 but it’s not even close enough to make up for the disparity. The choice of what stories are told needs to be made by all kinds of people, not one kind.

Nothing is going to change with the MCU, especially given the latest treatment of women in Thor: Love & Thunder, until the head of the MCU himself sees the need for change. Until then, I’ll spin the wheel to see where moms will land in the next phase: dead, evil, a prop, or non-existent?

11 Comments

    1. Corrina Lawson

      Yes. Hollywood as a whole has historically been uninterested in mothers, save for the 3 categories I mentioned: dead, blank supportive slates, or evil.

      It’s a storytelling trope ingrained in our popular culture. But, by this time, there should be signs of it diminishing. Only Wynonna Earp recently has shown a mom (Wynonna herself, plus her mother) that’s complicated and three-dimensional.

  1. Edo Bosnar

    This is a really valid criticism of the MCU.
    I have to admit that while I was reading it, the same point you made about the entire film industry, as well as Fraser’s point about Disney films in general, were constantly at the back of my mind. However, the fact is that the MCU was launched in the late ’00s, and given that many other aspects of the Marvel comics universe were modified to suit the needs of the stories they decided to tell (and make them more accessible to general audiences), they could have just as easily made some effort to address the issues you’ve raised here.

    1. Corrina Lawson

      That’s what basically prompted the rant–that things seem to be going not forwards but backwards in the last few years, at least so far as mothers go. The Scarlet Witch’s writing in Multiverse of Madness was just awful, especially in terms of WandaVision. (Which handled Wanda well but, by, Maria Rambeau.)

      I do love Taika Waititi as a filmmaker but that movie killed off 2 female characters, maimed one of them in her brief appearance, and then focused exclusively on the father/child dynamics to mirror the villain/heroes. I love Val too but I can enjoy something and recognize the overall troubling pattern here.

  2. mike loughlin

    Your post got me thinking about the comic book versions of Marvel characters’ mothers, and I realized that I almost never think super-heroes’ mothers. What I could remember about the Avengers:

    Captain America: mother died a long time ago.
    Iron Man: I think his mother’s dead?
    Thor: I don’t know if she’s alive now, but she ruled Asgard for awhile and
    Thor chafed against it. She also sent Loki on secret missions. Shady!
    Hulk: Rebecca Banner was killed by Bruce’s father when Bruce was young.
    Scarlet Witch: Magda died in childbirth.
    Quicksilver: ditto.
    Vision: N/A
    Black Widow: don’t know
    Hawkeye: mother is dead, I think.
    Black Panther: step-mother Ramonda is alive and sometimes the regent
    of Wakanda
    Dr. Strange: mother is dead, I think.
    Spider-Man: mother is dead, Aunt May is one of the only comic book
    maternal figures of significance.
    War Machine: don’t know
    Falcon: don’t know
    Ant-Man: don’t know
    Captain Marvel: don’t know
    Shang-Chi: mother died

    That’s only two mother-figures still alive who play significant roles in their offsprings’ stories. It’s worse when you consider the FF (no living mothers) and X-Men (of the dozens of better-known members, only Rogue, Iceman, maybe Beast, Nightcrawler, Kate Pryde, Rachel Summers sort of, Cannonball, Husk, Wolfsbane sort of, Cypher, & Synch have mothers I remember being alive).

    All of which is to say: yeah, Marvel is terrible with mothers and the film should have done better.

    1. Corrina Lawson

      The simple answer is the narratives, mostly written by men, view mothers a certain way and do not usually think beyond that. Dads can have complicated lives because they’re seen as people first. Mothers are just seen as mothers. It’s not unique to the MCU–mostly what prompted my rant is that we seem to be going backward, rather than forwards with this latest batch.

      DC is really no better. The whole Flashpoint thing revolves around Flash’s mom must always stay dead–and Nora Allen is given zero personality in all this, she’s a prop for the story. This isn’t even a Golden Age invention–this new origin is a modern invention. The Arrow show invented a mom for Oliver, who was terrific, but then she was killed off and, I quote, “we didn’t have anything else we could do with her.” Arrow later focused on Oliver’s relationship with his kids, with Felicity’s relationship with them coming second. And over in “Stargirl,” the mom takes a huge second place to the stepfather–even more, the mom becomes a victim that has to be saved even by her tween son.

      I just want mothers to be treated as people, too, you know? Happy Hogan can be a supporting character with quirks. But all Maria Stark can be is the motivation for her son’s attack on Bucky.

      This all doesn’t make all this entertainment bad–but the pattern is not good.

      1. There was a TV Guide article from the 1990s in which TV moms from various series expressed the same view: Male showrunners wrote them as fantasy figures who never had anything in their lives to distract them from their kids, never lost their temper with kids getting into trouble, etc.

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