The Sharon Carter Problem: How Marvel Keeps Failing Female Characters
Marvel movies are, by and large, not romances.
And that’s okay. When I go to the theater to see a superhero movie, I don’t need to see anyone falling in love. If a romance can be played well within the confines of a rich and compelling superhero story, I’m not going to complain—I’m a sucker for a great romance—but it’s not needed.
One of the most satisfying things for me about the Iron Man franchise was the incredible slow burn of the romance between Tony and Pepper—something that wasn’t fulfilled until the end of Iron Man 2. It goes against the grain of the typical action movie romance that often throws together two near-strangers in a situation where their relationship rapidly—often unbelievably—escalates over the two hours of screentime.
Those action movie romances often feel like an afterthought, and do no favors to the female characters of the romantic duos (since, let’s face it, these are nearly always heterosexual pairs). We’ve definitely seen Marvel fall into that trap on multiple occasions over the course of their cinematic history.
The romance between Hope and Scott in Ant-Man seems like a tacked-on afterthought that shows barely any development over the course of the film, and might have been better off left to develop in later installations. And Hope’s mother, Janet, who is the only founding member of the Avengers in their comic line-up to not receive her own movie, is reduced to a plot device who appears for under a minute and never even shows her face onscreen.
The “romantic” scene between Peter and Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy seems shoehorned in and really does no service to a story where the power of friendship takes front and center.
Betty Ross from The Incredible Hulk was unceremoniously erased from the timeline when Ed Norton left the role of Bruce Banner, and it’s hard not to read that choice as an inherent understanding on Marvel’s part that women are disposable and inextricably linked to their male romantic counterparts.
And many fans were upset with the treatment of the new romance between Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff, which seemed to be developed off-screen between films with little explanation.
Even secondary characters like Darcy Lewis seem fated to a weak onscreen romance. She suddenly kisses Ian, the intern, in Thor: The Dark World after no suggestion of development in that direction over the course of the film.
But while it’s rare to see a romance in the MCU that works, one of the few exceptions is the tragic love story of Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve and Peggy’s doomed love affair captured so many people’s hearts that Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter was brought back as a lead in her own eponymous television show.
Fans love Steve and Peggy: love the way the characters complement each other, love their fairly chaste, bittersweet romance, love the chemistry between Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell that sells every single one of their longing glances. So topping that, in giving Steve a new love interest, was always going to be hard. I definitely didn’t envy anyone working on Civil War the task of trying to create a convincing and compelling new romance for Steve.
Choosing Sharon Carter, of all of Steve’s romantic interests, has an added dimension of complexity: Sharon is Peggy’s niece. In the comics, Sharon is originally Peggy’s sister, but later was adjusted to be Peggy’s niece in order to make up for the gap created by Marvel’s telescoping timelines that necessitated Peggy’s experience as a resistance fighter in France during World War II. Sharon Carter in the MCU films is Peggy’s grand-niece.
Of course the idea of Steve dating a younger relative of Peggy’s bothers quite a lot of people: for many women in particular, it smacks of the misogynistic trope of a man trading in a woman for a “new model,” and some people question the power dynamic between them, when Sharon very much idolized her great aunt. For many comics readers, the relationship between Steve and Sharon has always been troubling because of this dynamic—one exacerbated by the fact that Steve essentially stalks Sharon because he’s infatuated with this young woman who looks almost identical to his lost love:
(It’s important to note that Peggy never existed in the 1940s incarnation of Captain America. She was only created here specifically to create a dynamic between Steve and Sharon where Steve was convinced that he was being given a second chance at love by meeting a nearly-identical woman. This is a common trope in 1960s Marvel: Hank Pym notes upon meeting Janet Van Dyne for the first time that she is identical to his dead wife. And I’m not even going to get into Madelyne Pryor, who came somewhat later)
Fortunately, the MCU has mitigated that issue a little bit by casting Peggy as a brunette and Sharon as a blonde, and creating an introduction for Steve and Sharon that couldn’t be farther from the original comic book story: in the MCU, Sharon is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent assigned to protect Steve without his knowledge. Their interactions in Captain America: The Winter Soldier are adversarial at best, even if they are on the same team, as Steve doesn’t forgive her deception, even when he knows she was doing her job. Sharon has a couple of really great moments in Winter Soldier, particularly when she stands up against Rumlow.
This is a huge improvement over not just Sharon’s introduction, but also Steve’s and Sharon’s subsequent relationship—a relationship that veers into outright emotionally abusive territory in its comics life. Early stories with Steve and Sharon include such gems as the time Steve stormed out of their first date because Sharon turned down his proposal of marriage (never mind he had never bothered to ask for her name) and the time that Steve went behind Sharon’s back to ask Nick Fury to remove her from the field because he decided her job as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent was too dangerous. Later, he emotionally blackmails her into promising that she won’t work in the field anymore, and when she reneges on that promise to save Steve’s life, he walks out on her and accuses her of being a liar.
Real classy, Steve. Though it’s certainly one of those cases where, as a reader, you can tell that we’re intended to see it as a fraught but exciting romance, when in fact, it just makes Steve seem like a jerk.
These aspects of Steve’s and Sharon’s relationship were a big reason why I—and many other fans—were hesitant about seeing a romantic relationship develop between the two characters in the MCU. But that wasn’t a reason to discount it wholesale, and certainly not a reason to ignore Sharon’s very important role in Captain America canon, which is far more rich and complex.
Sharon is herself, as mentioned earlier, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and considered one of the best. She has all kinds of cool tricks of the spy trade up her sleeve—including a miniature flamethrower concealed in her gloves, and other elements that seem to have found their way into Agent Carter more than they have into Sharon’s own arsenal. (Which is a smaller disappointment for me: I would love to see more Agent 13 at work with a set of fabulous spy tricks and toys.)
The Sharon of comics eventually dies (a woman in a comic book, dying? So new and inventive!), and then, even later, her death is retconned with a fairly convoluted plot, and after Sharon comes back, there’s quite a bit of tension between them, but eventually, she and Steve spend a short while simply being friends and coworkers. They care deeply about each other, but also know how to push each other’s buttons, and Sharon is a master at challenging Steve’s bullheadedness and lack of self-preservation. It’s during this period that their relationship is at its best: chock full of banter and great character dynamics where Steve and Sharon both act as foils to counter each other even when working together. There’s a real great buddy cop feel to these dynamics.
Of course, that ends with Steve and Sharon dating once again, and once again, Steve’s behavior toward Sharon is questionable, and on the heels of Steve’s apparent death in the days post-Civil War, Sharon is the victim of a plot that is brutal and gratuitous and ultimately unresolved (but which I’m being careful not to spoil further here for those of you who are reading Civil War, as I know a number of fans are right now). She’s been treated better (most of the time) in recent history (though she was temporarily fridged in Remender’s run), but a lot of fans still cringe when you mention Sharon in the context of Civil War.
Since that plot is a major aspect of the post-Civil War comics fallout, at least in the Captain America title, many fans were also worried that the films might go there, and it’s extremely fortunate they didn’t. But it was also disappointing to see how very stripped-down her role was. It’s tough to congratulate a studio on not repeating the mistakes of the outdated romantic ideals of 1960s superhero comics (not exactly a difficult task, folks), when they didn’t really do anything to let Sharon be who she has the potential to be, something we began to see in Winter Soldier, but was not followed-up on in any convincing way in Civil War.
With every Marvel movie, it increasingly feels as if, the moment a female character is written into a romance, the creators drop the ball on major aspects of her personality, her motivations, and her character development outside of that romance. In Civil War, we have a painfully awkward funeral scene where Sharon doesn’t even get her own lines: she gets to speak one of the most powerful lines from the original Civil War comic, but out of the context in which it was originally given (Steve, to Eli Bradley), in a way that made me feel not excited to hear an extremely famous comic book quote repurposed, but as if the creative team behind Civil War had done so little to really figure out who Sharon was that they tried to mitigate it by putting a famous quote in her mouth, rather than thinking about what she could say for herself. This is followed up by an equally awkward confessional scene that doesn’t work because it has none of the bite we see from Sharon in Winter Soldier, and none of the biting back-and-forth between Steve and Sharon that was the strongest part of what little dynamic we’d seen from them. Granted, she’s just lost a family member, but in that moment, we might have had more to make us emotionally invested in her as a person.
It’s also become evident that some scenes between Steve and Sharon were cut from the theatrical release of the film, and as an audience member who was definitely left wanting more in order to feel invested in a relationship between them, I really wish that hadn’t been the case.
This isn’t to say that romances need to be developed onscreen, but the best thing about seeing an onscreen romance is the emotional investment, the tug for us as viewers when we see strong feelings between two characters, and when Marvel has repeatedly left out those aspects of their romances, it reduces women’s roles (because a woman has yet to be the leading character in a Marvel movie) to that old, tired trope of merely being a reward for the male character for a job well-done, and not someone we’re meant to feel for or cheer for in her own right. I left the film feeling as if I would almost have preferred to see the film start with their relationship already in full swing—after all, Natasha told Steve to ask Sharon out two years ago at the end of Winter Soldier. And as we know from Age of Ultron, Steve himself says he’s learned his lesson about waiting. It’s almost more implausible that they haven’t been on a date yet, and we’re not given any explanation for why they haven’t.
I also would have really liked to see the stakes raised between them: to develop a romance properly between two characters, you need to see what happens to them when they’re under significant pressure. When I saw, at the end of Winter Soldier, that Sharon was hired to the CIA, I correctly guessed that she’d be expected to work on bringing in the Winter Soldier. In the context of Civil War, this led to her almost being reduced to a narrative tool: she gets to give Steve necessary information, then disappears for the rest of the film. It might have been far more interesting to pit them against each other, at the beginning of a budding relationship: after all, Sharon saw the devastation of Winter Soldier firsthand, and many of her colleagues were killed. She would have every reason to believe that arresting Bucky, or simply having Bucky in protective custody, even if she believe he wasn’t responsible for his actions, would be the right thing. It would follow nicely from their interactions in Winter Soldier, as well, where we already see the potential for conflict rising between them even as they’re on the same side. It might have been a great contrast to see personal conflicts in a different kind of relationship juxtaposed with Steve’s bigger conflicts at the heart of the film, and would have created an added dimension to Steve’s perspective. It also would have brought forward the best, most interesting aspects of their comic book romance: the way they serve as foils to each other, the way they each act to keep the other’s worst and most extreme qualities in check.
At the end of the day, Sharon’s role in Civil War was ultimately disappointing because she wasn’t allowed to fully reach her potential. It’s hard to get invested in a romance when a film doesn’t deliver emotional moments to bolster that romance, and love interest or no, she should have had a larger role. That this is only the most recent in a number of films where Marvel has failed to allow female characters with great potential to shine in their own right is a deeply troubling phenomenon, and announcements of more female-led films doesn’t necessarily fix the way female characters are used in the male-led ones.