The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finally unmasked the Power Broker and — gasp! — it’s none other than Sharon Carter. Fans have suspected this for weeks, but it’s still pretty cool to see a woman revealed as the master villain, given Marvel’s poor history with both female characters and antagonists. Based on Phase 4 so far, the Marvel Cinematic Universe might finally be on track to solve both issues.
At the dawn of the MCU, women were love interests, plain and simple. The films’ depictions of women have mostly held up — an impressive feat for media dating back to 2008 — but the casts were still overwhelmingly male. It was a deliberate move by Marvel brass: a way to point at Natasha or Peggy or Pepper and say “but look, we have great female characters” while still ordering Shane Black to rewrite Iron Man 3 without Maya as the chief antagonist.
And over time there emerged a Villain Problem, now ubiquitous as part of MCU criticism. A handful of MCU baddies are truly great — the fact evidenced no better than by Loki’s repeated resurrections and loopholes, see you on June 11 — but too many out of a 20-plus movie franchise are fine and forgettable if not just plain bad. As it happens, one of the greats is Thor: Ragnarok’s Hela, which means the MCU was batting 1000 from the start with female villains.
If Phase 4 television is any indication, Marvel villains may achieve gender equity yet. WandaVision showed us the possibilities for Wanda as one of the MCU’s most powerful characters, someone whom the movies never had time to focus on and whose pain, anger, and unimaginable power made many (including herself) wonder if she was truly a villain. Kathryn Hahn, already stealing scenes as the nosy neighbor, turned out to be Agatha, a formidable foe with a killer theme song and one of the most charismatic performances — evil or otherwise — in the MCU.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a show mostly about two boys beating up other boys, ended up introducing not one but three compelling female antagonists. Karli, like many of the best villains before her, questioned a world that props up costumed heroes and lets others suffer without aid. Her methods could have improved (as could her dialogue) but her philosophy was always compelling. Julia Louis-Dreyfus made quite the entrance as Val, who may or may not return in Black Widow but will surely return whenever we pick up with John Walker, whether it’s TFATWS Season 2 or that new Captain America movie. Hahn and Louis-Dreyfus happen to be actors who could make almost anything work, and watching them elevate even the most basic Marvel story will be a treat.
In the case of Sharon Carter, Marvel may never have known what to do. She was sidelined after Captain America: The Winter Soldier due to more pressing arcs like Civil War and the unfolding Infinity Saga, but we still know close to nothing about this character other than that she kicks butt and once kissed her uncle. TFATWS didn’t have a clear purpose in bringing her back or necessarily utilize her well throughout its six episodes, but revealing her as the Power Broker and keeping her alive and at large repositions Sharon completely moving forward.
None of this is to say that Marvel has Solved Feminism. As villains, these characters are not just flawed but twisted. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finale also includes Sharon killing Karli, a Black teenager who stood in the way of her agenda, while known murderer John Walker roams free. We’re going to get missteps and questionable arcs. But we might also get some of the best villains the MCU has ever seen.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is now streaming on Disney+.