The Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to turn 15, and it’s finally slowing down. However, before taking a much-needed hiatus, it will premiere James Gunn’s highly-anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the final send-off for everyone’s favorite cosmic a-holes. The Guardians movies are among the best MCU projects for many reasons, including their abundance of incredible female characters. From Gamora to Nebula and Mantis, Guardians has some of the most complex and well-defined female figures in the ever-expanding MCU.
It’s not like other corners of the MCU don’t have great female characters, but it’s undeniable that the world’s biggest franchise has a problem creating three-dimensional figures, not just female but overall. Luckily, not all is lost, for Marvel has introduced several memorable and layered females throughout its numerous movies and shows. From space warriors to scarlet witches, these characters have considerably elevated the MCU’s profile, becoming fan favorites as well as critical darlings.
Peggy Carter is the first lady of the MCU. More than Pepper or Natasha, Peggy laid the in-universe foundation for everything that made the MCU huge — from creating SHIELD to pointing Captain America in the right direction. Thanks to several minor appearances throughout the years and a memorable, canceled-too-soon series, Peggy cemented her place as one of the MCU’s most prominent female characters.
Huge props should go to Hayley Atwell for being such a team player. Whenever needed, she was there, even if only to deliver a couple of lines in one or two scenes. More importantly, Atwell built a cohesive journey for Peggy with all the tiny bits she received throughout the years, an impressive feat considering the material. Recently, Peggy got the chance to step into the spotlight thanks to What If…? and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, finally getting the praise she should’ve always received.
The Disney+ show Ms. Marvel is among the MCU’s best television efforts, largely thanks to Kamala Khan’s contagious and iridescent energy. Newcomer Iman Vellani deserves all the flowers, delivering an endearing and relatable performance that turned Ms. Marvel into one of the most likable and compelling characters in the massive and ever-changing MCU.
Ms. Marvel is relatable, spunky, and dynamic, arguably the most instantly sympathetic character in the MCU and a breath of fresh air in a franchise that has never stood out for its originality. The MCU needs more Kamala; luckily, audiences won’t have to wait too long to see her on-screen again, for she will play a substantial role in this year’s highly-anticipated event, The Marvels.
2018’s Black Panther introduced Shuri, T’Challa’s highly intelligent younger sister, who was an immediate scene-stealer. Shuri stood out among the MCU’s crowd of geniuses — she was neither a show-off like Tony nor a bumbling klutz like Peter. Instead, Shuri was confident but understated, someone aware of her intelligence but without the need to either undermine or overstate herself.
Following Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing, Shuri leveled up as the protagonist of 2022’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Her storyline finds her grieving her family’s death while grappling with her responsibilities as Wakanda’s sovereign and the new Black Panther. Emotional and raw, Shuri’s journey in the film is among the MCU’s most complex, and Letitia Wright does a beautiful job portraying the character’s anger and grief. Wakanda Forever is far from perfect, but its portrayal of Shuri is brilliant and among the most thoughtful and emotional things the MCU has ever done.
Scarlett Johansson carried the MCU’s female representation duties for years. Her character, deadly super-spy Natasha Romanoff, went through several stages, starting as eye candy in Iron Man 2 and ending as one of the franchise’s most nuanced and three-dimensional characters. Johansson deserves all the praise in the world for being the only woman in a room full of men for years, fighting to keep Natasha real and compelling despite being saddled with ridiculous plots while constantly ogled by the camera.
Through thick and thin, Natasha stayed interesting and engaging. Johansson made the most out of her moments in the sun, building Natasha’s friendship with Steve, shining in many of the MCU’s best fights, and using her ambiguous past to keep her as intriguing as she was alluring. Avengers: Endgame was a good send-off for Natasha, finishing the character’s journey in a suitable albeit anti-climactic fashion. And while Black Widow was less than a stellar showcase for her, it was a much-deserved victory lap for the female character that carried the MCU for years.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Guardians of the Galaxy is the MCU’s best trilogy. James Gunn’s love letter to dysfunctional found families is a bright spot in the darkness, especially with the MCU’s current mediocre state. The Guardians are fun, funny, and always compelling, especially its leading ladies. From the get-go, Zoe Saldaña’s Gamora has been a highlight of the series, the straight man — ehm, woman — to the group’s hectic band of stupid but well-meaning men-children.
Saldaña’s performance is the glue that holds the Guardians together, especially as new and wackier characters join the mix. The actress has kept Gamora grounded throughout the series’ zanier moments, portraying her trauma and heartbreak with expert nuance. Her storyline with Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War is a narrative peak the MCU has yet to match, leading to her much-discussed sacrifice, one of the franchise’s ballsier moves. And while her death was undone by the MCU’s usual antics, Saldaña and Gunn will certainly find a way to give the character a fitting and satisfying ending.
Gamora isn’t the Guardians’ only great female character. Her sister, the troubled and complicated Nebula, is also among the MCU’s best-written and portrayed roles. The ultimate tragic figure in the MCU, Nebula is a deeply traumatized woman haunted by the ghosts of her painful and violent past. Throughout her journey, Nebula pursued vengeance and redemption, ultimately earning it by literally killing her past self while embracing the pain that made her who she is.
It’s a testament to Karen Gillan’s incredible performance that Nebula is such a fascinating and compelling character. Even when hidden beneath layers of make-up, Gillan’s work remains deeply humane and heartbreaking, conveying Nebula’s terror and longing for sympathy and understanding. Few Marvel characters have as much depth as Nebula, and it’s all thanks to Gillan’s stellar performance and Gunn’s uncompromising writing.
It isn’t an overstatement to say the Scarlet Witch is the MCU’s best character. Wanda Maximoff is great in the comics, a tragic and ever-changing figure that has been front and center in many of Marvel’s most important events. However, the MCU makes her even more absorbing, exploring her enormous sense of loss and her constant struggle to handle her overwhelming power.
Elizabeth Olsen delivers an incredible performance as Wanda, especially in WandaVision, the MCU’s best show by far. Exploring grief, acceptance, and trauma, WandaVision was a showcase for Olsen’s acting and a pivotal moment for Wanda’s characterization. And while Multiverse of Madness almost undid all that hard work thanks to some questionable choices, Olsen’s understanding of the character saved her from what could’ve been a trainwreck. It’s unclear when and how the Scarlet Witch will return, but it’s good that she’s taking some time off. Her loyal fans will be eagerly awaiting her glorious return, ready to welcome her as the goddess she is.
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