Marvel Denied Iron Man 3 a Female Villain for a Very Dumb Reason

By  · Published on May 16th, 2016

This doesn’t pair well with Marvel’s slow development of female-led superhero movies.

We’ve been tracking Marvel’s problem with female characters for years. The battle for equality – even for the most successful and at times most progressive studio making superhero movies – has had its ups and downs. Fans have yearned for years (since Iron Man 2, at least) for a solo Black Widow movie. Marvel Studios’ chief Kevin Feige insists to this day that it’s coming. That’s a line we’ve heard before.

Despite recent advances toward diversifying their on-screen universe – from the development of a Captain Marvel movie to a wonderful introduction of Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War – we are constantly reminded that Marvel’s commitment to their cinematic universe more accurately reflecting the demographics of his big mainstream audience hasn’t always been perfect.

Today’s edition of “Marvel’s diversity problem” comes from an Uproxx interview with Iron Man 3 director Shane Black. While doing press for his upcoming film The Nice Guys, Black talked about his original plan for the villain in Iron Man 3:

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.

There’s a lot going on in this statement. For one, it’s a reminder that large corporations like Marvel (and its parent company Disney) make decisions based on marketing data. This is why Doctor Strange pulled back on the Tibetan roots of The Ancient One, because they didn’t want to limit their movie’s reach in China. It’s important to understand that these decisions are being made by non-creatives, because the release of a movie like Iron Man 3 or Doctor Strange is an undertaking that requires an institutional level of support. So it’s not entirely surprising that some higher-up at Marvel (or IM3’s distributor Paramount) looked at data about action figures and thought, “well, male characters do sell better.” They may not have considered the possibilities that if you create an awesome, memorable female character, you could outsell male action figures sheerly on the basis that there’s a dramatically underserved market for female action figures. These suits aren’t exactly the dreamers.

Here’s the worse thing about this whole controversy: they never released an action figure for Aldrich Killian, the film’s villain played by Guy Pearce. The closest they came was the Lego minifigure you see to the left. This is the problem with making marketing-driven story decisions so early in the scripting process. You might end up with a character like Killian who isn’t really interesting enough to warrant an action figure, anyway.

Had Marvel Studios allowed Shane Black and his creative team to place a female villain in Iron Man 3, they may have had a reason to make action figures. Let’s assume that this might have been version of Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen, a woman from Tony Stark’s past whose intelligence rivals his and whose motivation after being spurned by Stark would also be a commentary about his dangerous womanizing – the weaponized charm of his youth ultimately putting the woman he loves (Pepper Potts) in grave danger. This is a more interesting story than what Iron Man 3 ultimately offered. It’s not a bad movie, but let’s imagine it with twist. Interesting, at the very least.

The other funny thing about this – outside of the fact that this decision was ultimately meaningless from a toy standpoint – is that of the toys that were made for Iron Man 3, one of them was this Pepper Pots figure:

The hope is that Marvel Studios continues to reflect on these kinds of situations. The job of the media (us and others) is to continue to bring these things to light and remind them that they don’t have to make silly decisions about action figures based on gender. The people want diverse characters. They want a Black Widow movie, they can’t wait for Black Panther, and there’s nothing wrong with a female villain taking on Iron Man. As someone who recently picked up Radioactive Spider-Gwen and is loving it, I know that Marvel can do better.

Read More: Where Captain America: Civil War Falls Short For Marvel and Women

With Ant-Man and The Wasp and Captain Marvel on their schedule, the future already looks better. But if we keep hearing stories like this, we can’t help but call them out. Not because Marvel is run with some sexist agenda, but because we believe they are better than what they’ve been.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)