As a movie franchise that recently crossed the $10 billion mark at the box office, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has naturally been a focal point of scrutiny in the ongoing discussion about diversity in Hollywood. While Marvel boss Kevin Feige has paid a lot of lip service to the idea of showcasing heroes of different races and genders, the fact remains that of the 22 MCU films that have been released or announced, only one has a female lead (two, if you count Ant-Man sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp). While the franchise has several notable female characters, they are massively outnumbered by male leads and frequently the most prominent female character in a Marvel movie serves as a love interests for one of those male leads.
That isn't the only controversy that has swirled around the MCU, of course. While Iron Man 3 is one of Marvel's biggest box office hits, it also sparked a firestorm of anger among comic book fans after a plot twist revealed that the big screen version of the Mandarin, a classic villain from the source material, was actually just a sock puppet played by a foolish, drunken, drug-addicted actor called Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), and that the real villain was scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Now Iron Man 3 director and co-writer Shane Black has revealed another change, this one rather depressing: Killian was supposed to be a female character, but was forcibly changed to a male character by studio intervention.
"Stéphanie Szostak’s character was bigger at one point and we reduced it. Rebecca Hall’s character was bigger at one point and we reduced it... All I’ll say is this, on the record: There was an early draft of Iron Man 3 where we had an inkling of a problem. Which is that we had a female character who was the villain in the draft. We had finished the script and we were given a no-holds-barred memo saying that cannot stand and we’ve changed our minds because, after consulting, we’ve decided that toy won’t sell as well if it’s a female.
"So, we had to change the entire script because of toy making. Now, that’s not Feige. That’s Marvel corporate, but now you don’t have that problem anymore... New York called and said, 'That’s money out of our bank.' In the earlier draft, the woman was essentially Killian – and they didn’t want a female Killian, they wanted a male Killian. I liked the idea, like Remington Steele, you think it’s the man but at the end, the woman has been running the whole show. They just said, 'no way.'"
While it's possible that some Marvel fans might have been even more angered by the true mastermind being a female villain (in a twist reminiscent of The Dark Knight Rises), the reasoning behind the decision is rather bizarre (how many people rushed out to buy an Aldrich Killian action figure after seeing Iron Man 3?). It does, however, fit with a noticeable pattern: Gamora and Black Widow have repeatedly been omitted from Marvel merchandising featuring the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, and in one Hasbro toy set that recreated a scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Widow was replaced with Captain America.
It's worth noting that Iron Man 3 was made while Marvel Studios was still under the sway of reclusive Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, who, according to some sources, enforced a gendered approach to Marvel toy lines that led to the aforementioned removal of Gamora and Black Widow. Black says that he doesn't know who, specifically, vetoed a female villain, but "Marvel corporate" and Black's statement that "you don’t have that problem anymore" does seem to point in Perlmutter's direction. He went on:
"If you ever say anything about decisions made at Marvel, I hope you’ll qualify it by saying that Kevin Feige is the guy who gets it right. And I don’t know if it was Ike, I don’t know who it was. They never told me who made the decision, we just got that memo one day and it was about toy sales. That’s all I know."
The revelation will likely only fuel further frustration among Marvel fans who want to see some of their favorite female comic book characters get the spotlight, along with more gender diversity in general. However, with Perlmutter out of the picture, it will be interesting to see how things change within the next few years. After all, Feige recently said that Marvel is "committing" to the idea of a Black Widow solo movie.
Captain America: Civil War is in theaters now. Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming– July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel– March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2– May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.