Typically, mainstream superhero movies are meant to inspire rousing cheers, bursts of adrenaline, and even laughs from moviegoers. This is particularly true of features based on Marvel Comics, whose ranks include memorable crowd-pleasers like the original “Avengers” movie. But that doesn’t mean every scene in a Marvel movie is guaranteed to leave you feeling satisfied or excited. Over multiple years of the franchise, several scenes have downright gone too far.
These scenes inspire the wrong kind of discomfort — the kind stemming not from subverting genre norms or dangling the dramatic possibility of universal annihilation, but from making problematic choices like objectifying actresses or punching down at marginalized populations. Nobody comes to an “X-Men” or “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie for that kind of nonsense.
Unfortunately, though, such scenes still crop up frequently in Marvel films. The superheroes in these movies beat many otherworldly challenges, but even they can’t overcome the overwhelming discomfort stemming from these particularly troublesome moments.
Some MCU superheroes, like Spider-Man or Black Panther, get truly unforgettable introductory scenes that reaffirm their beloved personalities even before we see them in action. Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow, unfortunately, got a far more uncomfortable debut. In “Iron Man 2,” Romanoff enters the story posing as Natalie Rushman, a candidate for Tony Stark’s new assistant position. After she introduces herself, Stark Googles Rothman, and his search brings up scantily-clad modeling photos. He proceeds to zoom in on these images as he and Potts discuss Rushman’s qualifications for the job.
Immediately after the introduction, Romanoff beats Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in a boxing match. Seeing this physical display right after the modeling photos prompts Stark to quip to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), just after Romanoff leaves the room, “I want one.” It’s a squirm-inducing moment that plays off Stark’s unhealthy habit of objectifying every woman he sees, while also reducing Romanoff to being just eye candy for Stark and the audience.
This method of introducing one of the members of the first Avengers line-up proved so thoughtless that even Scarlett Johansson has critiqued the scene. Calling it an example of hyper-sexualization, Johansson also notes that later portrayals of Black Widow have attempted to correct the norms established in this disappointing “Iron Man 2” scene.
Sometimes, superheroes need to take time off from punching villains and saving cats from trees to engage in more intimate affairs with the people they love. After all, even spandex-clad crusaders have a love life. Certain superhero movies, like “Iron Man” or “The Incredible Hulk,” have explored the bedroom lives of their titular superheroes, but none have been as creepy about it as “Howard the Duck.” Sex is a surprisingly common element in this PG-rated film, including Howard’s brief stint working at a sauna full of human beings who can’t keep their hands off each other. The film’s fixation reaches its zenith of discomfort in a scene where the film’s titular fowl gets cozy with a human woman.
The scene itself depicts Beverly (Lea Thompson) and Howard in bed together, with the former character engaging in sensual foreplay with the otherworldly fowl. At one point, Beverly purrs about Howard’s irresistible “animal magnetism,” causing a group of feathers on Howard’s head to stand up. A visual metaphor for erections is not what you normally expect to see in a superhero movie. Though Beverly is meant to be joshing with Howard (to a degree), the close connection between the two characters still makes this an incredibly awkward scene to sit through. It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea for more superhero movies to be conscious of sex, but not like this. Anything but this.
The opening of the original “X-Men” movie established the film franchise as something to be taken seriously. This prologue depicts an adolescent Erik Lehnsherr being separated from his parents at Auschwitz. It’s a brutal sequence that’s become so iconic that the “X-Men” franchise returned to it twice more! The first of these was the prequel “X-Men: First Class,” and the second was the 2016 entry “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the latter of which proved as uncomfortable as the original sequence was impactful.
In “Apocalypse,” the titular blue-skinned baddie takes Lehnsherr (Magneto), alongside his other evil minions, to the wreckage of Auschwitz. Here, Apocalypse hopes to convince Magneto to join his plan to wipe out humanity. What made the presence of Auschwitz work in the original “X-Men” was how grounded in reality it was. Only the image of a young Lehnsherr somehow managing to bend a metal gate with his mind suggested the scene belonged to a sci-fi movie rather than a somber period piece. Going this understated route ensured that the scene didn’t feel exploitative of a real tragedy.
In trying to establish grounding for Lehnsherr’s character development in “Apocalypse,” though, this particular movie falls into that exploitative pothole by depicting blue-skinned Oscar Isaac and Olivia Munn in a skintight blue bathing suit wandering around the ruins of a concentration camp. The dissonance between real-world horrors and the fantastical never gets reconciled, turning this into an uncomfortable callback to a classic and meaningful “X-Men” scene.
Different movie versions of Spider-Man each bring their own interpretations of the web-crawler. The second installment of Marc Webb’s take on the seminal superhero, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” reveals this iteration of the character to be … a stalker.
Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), after remembering a promise he made to the now-deceased George Stacy (Denis Leary), decides to cut girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) out of his dangerous superhero life. But this isn’t the end of Parker’s influence over his ex: He proceeds to watch over an oblivious Gwen while in his Spider-Man disguise. Though Stacy later asks Parker if he’s been stalking her, it’s immediately played off as a cutesy moment, and neither the film nor Stacy make a big fuss out of this possessive behavior.
Parker’s penchant for stalking is emblematic of a lot of problems in this incarnation of “Spider-Man.” Chief among these issues is how the “Amazing Spider-Man” films treat the women in Parker’s life like objects, not people, while Parker behaves in abrasively unpleasant ways. Parker has always been a flawed person prone to mistakes (it’s how Uncle Ben perished, after all), but the best instances of this foible are relatable shortcomings and opportunities for growth, not aggressive acts of stalking.
“Spider-Man 3” has a lot of admirable elements competing against some truly baffling choices. A rushed third act where Venom and Sandman abruptly join forces, for example, reduces both characters to CGI boss villains rather than more fleshed-out individuals. Perhaps the most uncomfortable of the film’s shortcomings, though, comes at the end of a scene where Peter Parker, manipulated by the Venom symbiote to act on his most wicked urges, takes Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) out dancing to make Mary Jane Watson jealous.
This scene ends with Parker slapping Watson, a moment that’s played as deadly serious and the culmination of Parker being out of control and at the whim of his worst impulses. However, “Spider-Man 3” never fully grasps the ramifications of this example of abusive behavior. Even if it’s manipulated by a cosmic goo-creature, it’s too heavy for a light-hearted superhero movie to effectively engage with.
This scene goes too far in establishing just how fueled by anger Parker has become, and it even has adverse ripple effects on the rest of the plot. The fact that Mary Jane Watson eventually becomes a damsel-in-distress for Parker in the climax only adds insult to injury: “Spider-Man 3” just wants to wrap things up with a traditional “Spider-Man” finale while ignoring the extremely disconcerting behavior that’s unquestionably altered its status quo.
Susan Storm has often gotten the short shrift as a character no matter what form the Fantastic Four team takes. So it’s no surprise that this trend extended to both of the Tim Story-directed “Fantastic Four” movies, where the character was played by Jessica Alba. In these features, Storm is primarily on hand to be ogled by the camera rather than treated as a compelling superhero, an issue that’s especially prominent in “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.”
A key example of this comes midway through the movie, where shenanigans involving Susan and Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) swapping powers conclude with Susan sprawled naked on a New York street. The onlookers gawk at Storm before she even realizes what’s happening. Once she does, she immediately turns invisible and asks aloud, “Why does this always happen to me?”
It’s an awkward bit of comedy that’s clumsily executed in terms of timing, but it’s also botched in terms of reducing this character to eye candy for characters and moviegoers to stare at. This immensely uncomfortable “Rise of the Silver Surfer” scene furthers poor Susan Storm’s dismal track record of getting taken advantage of by her media.
In “X-Men: First Class,” Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr recruit a collection of young, outcast mutants to serve as the first group of students they’ll teach and guide. Among these youngsters is Armando Muñoz aka Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a mutant with the ability to adapt to any environment, like growing gills when he’s underwater. It’s an impressive power, and one can imagine this gift would prove useful in “First Class” and its sequels. Unfortunately, Darwin never gets the chance to appear in any follow-ups. Once the “First Class” baddie Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) shows up, Darwin becomes the one member of the group who perishes at his hand.
This moment is already puzzling because it goes against Darwin’s entire powerset. Shouldn’t a mutant who can adapt to anything be able to survive Shaw tossing some kinetic energy down his throat? But it’s extra problematic considering that the only good-guy mutant who bites the dust in “X-Men: First Class” is a Black character, an upsetting development pointed out after the film’s initial theatrical release by outlets like IndieWire. On top of that, the “X-Men” movies as a whole never made much time for Black characters and their perspectives — making the demise of Darwin a truly troubling scene in this prequel.
The inaugural entry in the MCU, “Iron Man,” boasts a view of women that was already retrograde back in 2008. Ladies largely appear in this movie to wear skimpy outfits and entertain Tony Stark. The crass billionaire is in clear need of sensitivity training, a fact made especially evident when Stark makes trans women the butt of a hurtful joke during a visit with his buddy James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard). As Rhodes is giving a speech to new pilots, Stark interrupts to regale everyone with a tale about “the time [Rhodes] guessed wrong. It’s spring break, just remember that. Spring break 1987, that lovely lady, what was his name? Was it Ivan?”
The whole joke evokes a worn-out, toxic bit involving straight, cisgender men having sexual encounters with women and subsequently discovering they’re trans, a gag also seen in projects like “Dude, Where’s My Car?” or “The Hangover: Part II.” One can’t even excuse the line by saying it’s an example of “Iron Man” depicting its protagonist as a flawed person. Not only does the transphobic joke come after Stark returns from the Middle East to improve his life, but the execution of the line makes it apparent the audience is supposed to laugh at it like the new pilots do, not see it as a problem. The MCU has always come up woefully short on LGBTQIA+ representation, but this instance of transphobia is one of the most uncomfortable examples of the trend.
There isn’t a lot of body diversity across the individual films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with everyone from bodyguards to superheroes to scientists looking like uber-muscular models. But there are exceptions, like the “Black Widow” character Alexei Shostakov aka Red Guardian (David Harbour). The surrogate father figure to Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena Romanoff (Florence Pugh), “Black Widow” introduces present-day Shostakov as a middle-aged man who spent a long stint in a Russian prison. During this time, he’s apparently gained a significant amount of weight, a fact that “Black Widow” keeps harping on for the sake of a low-effort gag.
“Black Widow” repeatedly brings up Shostakov’s weight as a punchline, including with an extended scene of him struggling to slip into his old Red Guardian outfit. Such jokes are so ubiquitousniquitous in the film that one even served as the final gag in the initial “Black Widow” teaser. The moments centered on Shostakov’s weight aren’t just uncomfortable, they also undercut one of the central messages of “Black Widow.” A recurring theme in this film is accepting others despite their differences, which even extends to one of the story’s villains, Taskmaster. Unfortunately, the film does not extend this same level of acceptance to fat people. In a franchise with such a limited view of what human bodies can look like, it’s a shame “Black Widow” resorted to uncomfortable and stale jokes like these.
In the climax of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Drax (Dave Bautista) celebrates the fact that he’s finally become friends with his fellow cosmic teammates by listing out how everyone on the team, even “this dumb tree,” is his pal. This extends to Gamora, whom he labels a “green whore,” much to her annoyance. This is a set-up for the next gag, involving Nebula suddenly appearing and insulting Gamora, only for Drax to blast her away because “nobody talks to my friends like that.” (Except him, of course.)
While meant to help establish how close Drax has become to the titular Guardians, there’s no getting around the fact that using the word “whore” as an insult to the only woman among your main characters is degrading to both Gamora and sex workers in general. It’s also a confusing line from the ever-literal Drax who, up to this point, seems like a character whose vocabulary wouldn’t include schoolyard insults.
The “joke” was meant to reference the fact that people had called Gamora a “whore” in the Kyln space prison, and that Drax innocently assumes this is the proper term to use when talking to her. However, in execution, it seems unnecessary and just serves as an uncomfortable distraction during an otherwise exhilarating finale.
When “The New Mutants” protagonist Danielle “Dani” Moonstar (Blu Hunt) arrives at a facility for teenage mutants struggling with their powers, she’s greeted by Illyana Rasputin aka Magik (Anya Taylor-Joy). This Russian mutant proceeds to bombard Moonstar with a barrage of racist insults linked to her Indigenous heritage, including calling her “Standing Rock” and “Pocahontas.”
It’s already staggeringly tone-deaf to have the first Indigenous character headlining a live-action Marvel Comics film adaptation endure such racist behavior onscreen. However, it’s extra baffling since the movie doesn’t seem to have an awareness of how grotesque this behavior is. The arc of the story involves Magik going from being a reclusive person who shuts everyone out (like new recruit Moonstar) to being more open to working with others.
By the end of the movie, Magik is a generic superhero we’re supposed to cheer on blindly, but neither she nor the film ever confront her racist behavior. Surely there is a less toxic way to demonstrate Magik’s baseline demeanor in “The New Mutants” than to inflict racist treatment on Moonstar, who is so much more than a casualty of Magik’s character development. Going this route simply clouds any potential joy in seeing the titular characters of “The New Mutants” finally working together.
In a slow-down scene set at Clint Barton’s barn, Natasha Romanoff attempts to get close to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), only for the latter character to rebuff her advances. As Banner tells her, thanks to his transformations into the Hulk, there’s no way he can have a normal life, including having kids. This is when Romanoff drops a bombshell: She can’t have kids, either. As part of her training to be an assassin in the Red Room, her teachers sterilized her so she couldn’t have children and develop emotional attachments that would compromise her skills as a killer.
“Still think you’re the only monster on the team?” Romanoff then inquires of Banner.
The underlying intent of the scene may have been to show that Romanoff being trained solely to murder people — and violated horrifically in the process — means that Banner isn’t the only one with gruesome parts of his past to deal with. However, in execution, the editing and dialogue here seem to be pointing to Romanoff’s inability to have kids as the part of her personality that makes her a monster.
It’s a clumsily orchestrated scene in many ways, not least writer-director Joss Whedon’s baffling decision to make fertility a crucial part of the backstory of the (at that point) only female Avenger. This all-around uncomfortable scene didn’t enhance Black Widow’s character, but diminished her to her reproductive capacities — and reminded viewers just how badly MCU movies often fumble their handling of women.