Watching Hollywood movies as a woman can sometimes be demoralizing. Too frequently, female characters are one-dimensional, lacking in agency and completely unrepresentative of what we ladies are actually like. Much has been said about the many times our positive qualities have been overlooked by screenwriters, but less attention goes to the negative traits that often go underrepresented in female characters. Put simply, where are all our female villains?
If women are to be seen as equal to men, we must be portrayed as equals on the screen — both as heroes and as villains. When it comes to temperament, female characters tend to be boxed in on either end of the spectrum, with writers afraid of creating characters showing too much heroism (lest they break the stereotype of female docility). However, they're equally wary of writing too much villainy into their characters (women are supposed to be warm, not wicked). But women are just as capable as men, both of the good things and the bad. We can be as intelligent as Tony Stark and as heroic as Captain America— but we can also be as evil as Thanos.
Marvel’s villains have largely been male—just like most bad guys in the movie industry—but there have been some pretty noteworthy female antagonists over the years. Hopefully, as time goes by, more and more wicked women will join Marvel’s ranks, but until then, here are eight of Marvel’s best cinematic female villains.
As the victim of a quantum accident (comic book lingo for “something that gives you superpowers”), Ghost was granted the ability to flicker in and out of existence at a young age. But some superpowers aren’t so super. Although Ghost’s come in hand during fistfights, they made her reliant on quantum energy. Her search for a cure for her condition brings her into conflict with Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Orphaned as a child, deceived by S.H.I.E.L.D. and in constant pain due to her condition, Ava Starr is bitter for a good reason. Being on the verge of death doesn’t exactly bring out the best in people, but when Ant-Man and the Wasp show her kindness, she forgoes villainy and becomes best buds with our heroes. That is until they all fade into dust. Marvel just won’t let us leave a theatre happy this year, will they?
For a long time, beautiful female aliens were usually only included in stories as love interests. But in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the gorgeous, golden Ayesha is anything but a romantic side role. When the Guardians of the Galaxy steal her batteries (no one steals a woman’s batteries), she will not let the slight slide, embarking on a galaxy-spanning quest to wreak vengeance upon them.
From her unapologetic arrogance to her psychopathic tendencies, Ayesha embodies many qualities that society at large might deem “unladylike” (can we just throw that term away already?). Her presence as a villain in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 shows the world that beautiful lady aliens can be just as intent on your destruction as giant purple Titans with colorful rock collections.
6 Proxima Midnight
When she was a child, Thanos decimated Proxima Midnight’s home planet and adopted her into his fold, raising her to be a faithful follower and merciless assassin. Throughout the Infinity War, she exhibits superhuman strength, mastery of combat, and rampant psychopathy as she faces off against the Avengers on Earth.
Like the rest of us, Proxima Midnight is a product of her upbringing. But where our culture teaches us that Starbucks and selfies are a normal part of life, her childhood taught her that murder is just another day at the office. So, although we wouldn't go so far as to say we feel for her, we certainly see how spending a lifetime with the like of Thanos might turn a person sour.
5 Emma Frost
In X-Men: First Class, Emma Frost is one of the main villains, allying herself with Sebastian Shaw and helping him in his quest to squash the human race. She is gifted with telepathy and the ability to turn her flesh into a diamond-hard armor, but even impenetrable skin isn’t enough to deflect the blatant sexism she experiences in the film. Especially when Shaw calls her the most beautiful woman in the world, then promptly implying she should fetch some ice for his drink.
Emma Frost soldiers through the double standards of the 1960s, though, holding her own as one of the most powerful mutants in the film although the odds are stacked against her. She is intelligent and calculating, putting up with the ploys of the boys around her only so long as it suits her. Although her superpowers are impressive, it's her ability to navigate the sexism of the 1960s that impresses us most.
4 Scarlet Witch
Although she is an Avenger now, Scarlet Witch entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a villain. Almost killed by a Stark Industries missile as a child, Wanda Maximoff and her brother wanted vengeance against Tony Stark and allowed themselves to be experimented upon with Loki’s Sceptre in an attempt to gain superpowers.
After they come into their powers, the twins align themselves with Ultron, who shares their distaste for Tony Stark. However, once they realize that he’s…. well, an evil megalomaniac intent on destroying the entire world, they have a change of heart and fight alongside the Avengers.
Driven by rage and a desire for revenge, she indulged her darker inclinations in her youth, but the fact that she was able to come to terms with her anger and not just reconcile with Tony Stark, but fight alongside him, shows the depth of her character.
Although Mystique starts out aligned with the X-Men, the constant pressure to hide her true form and conform to human beauty standards eventually drives her to Magneto’s side. Although most of us don’t have blue skin and yellow eyes, Mystique’s struggle to fit in and feel beautiful is relatable for anyone who’s ever felt like they looked different.
According to the standards of modern society, beauty is unattainable unless you’re tall, thin, and willing to devote hours every morning to coiffing your hair so that it looks stylish, but not as if any time was actually put into it (hair is ever so exhausting). Mystique eventually eschews society’s beauty standards and embraces who she really is — a mutant, and proud. Except for the whole becoming-a-villain thing, Mystiques journey is something to aspire to.
Throughout Guardians of the Galaxy, Nebula is one of the central villains, but in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, we see a different side of her. In the midst of trying to kill Gamora, Nebula starts opening up to her about her past (nothing resolves family issues like attempted murder). She admits that, when Thanos pitted Gamora against her as a child, all she wanted was to feel close to her, yelling, “You were the one who wanted to win, and I just wanted a sister!”
After this revelation, Nebula forgoes some of her darker ambitions (like killing her sister) but is still unwilling to fully embrace the heroism of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Representing the perfect grey character, Nebula is somewhere between a villain and a hero, constantly reckoning with her dark past while trying to wreak vengeance upon Thanos.
In Hollywood, it’s rare to see a female character whose ambition outweighs that of her male counterparts. But in Thor: Ragnarok, Hela’s appetite for power is unmatched by any of the men of Asgard. As Odin’s firstborn, Hela teamed up with her father to conquer the Nine Realms. However, when Odin decided to forgo his violent ways and enter into peace negotiations, Hela would not stand for it, and he was forced to banish her.
But after Odin turns into golden dust and floats away on the Norwegian wind, Hela is released from her imprisonment and returns to lay claim to the throne. Although her character is a bit one-dimensional—she’s an egotistical psychopath seeking power, just like most superhero villains—it’s refreshing to see a woman in this role. She is unashamed of her ambition and goes to great lengths to amass personal power, which is something we just haven’t seen many women do in Hollywood movies. The only reason she fails to conquer the Nine Realms is that a giant flaming demon crashes her party, destroying not just her, but all of Asgard as well.
Just imagine where we’d be if more women were encouraged to pursue their ambitions as if the only thing that could stop them was an enormous fire demon.