My friend and I came out of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 convinced that the Infinity Wars movies, and the big Avengers/Guardians crossover therein, were mostly going to consist of Tony Stark and Peter Quill trying to out-Daddy-Issue each other. As well as both having facial hair and a penchant for roguish one-liners, the two heroes have a few things in common, most notably their parental situation: like Tony, Peter Quill has a complicated and at times antagonistic relationship with his father that forms the emotional core of a whole movie, and a sense of wistful mourning for his mother, who was sweet, kind, and only shows up in a few scenes. She’s also dead due to circumstances that were in no way her fault, so they can bond over that as well. At this point, maybe Thor can chime in too, perhaps initiating a group hug, since he also has a complicated relationship with his main-character dad and grieves over his good and nurturing dead mum. Jeez, is Infinity Wars just going to be one big session of father-related angst and mother-related mourning?
Fridge a kind mother and elevate a father to main character status once, Marvel, and that’s shame on you. Fridge a kind mother and elevate a father twice, still shame on you. Do this three times for three different superheroes and it’s officially a pattern. What exactly is going on here, and why does it annoy me so much?
Of course, the Marvel movies aren’t the only perpetrators of this—this situation fits into a much larger pattern that can be found across all of fiction, which perhaps tells you something about society at large’s perception of mothers versus fathers. There is an inherent goodness to most fictional mothers, where fictional fathers tend to have more range. As we’ve pointed out here on LGG before, mothers in pop culture are generally mothers and not much else, whereas fathers in pop culture can be fathers and wizards/assassins/space warriors, and can be generally morally ambiguous, self-motivated characters. It doesn’t take much examination, even if we’re just looking at the MCU, to see that there’s much more of a range of roles and morality spectrum–and much more of an exploration of that spectrum—in heroes’ dads, whereas heroes’ moms are often unarguably sweet, nurturing, and supportive, and not written into any role other than one that is sweet, nurturing, and supportive.
This feeds into perhaps the most recognizable trend to do with mothers in pop culture: their high death rate, sometimes attributed to the disease “Disneyitis” for the studio’s penchant for leaving its protagonists tragically without mothers, be it for angst or just to get her out of the way. If a protagonist’s father is absent from the story, however, it’s far more likely that he left–this, again, remains true for our MCU examples, especially in the case of Peter Quill’s parents. There’s one big idea that leads to this pattern, and it goes hand-in-hand with that perceived inherent goodness equated with motherhood: a mother could never leave her children, so the only way to tragically remove her from the plot is to have her pass away (be that tragically in a hospital bed before the story starts like Mama Quill or via villain-related murder like Thor’s mother Frigga). After all, mothers have a special, unique bond with the babies they carry, do they not? Fathers, apparently, don’t possess this, which leaves them free to wander off… and have more agency and varied character types, apparently.
This is why subplots like in the novel Fangirl, where the main character’s mother is the one who left her children, are so strangely shocking; and why shows like Orphan Black, where the flawed hero is a mother, stand out so much. Consciously or unconsciously, society seems to believe that this inherent maternal purity and unshakeable bond between mother and child exists, reflected in our media with the assumption that this a) prevents mothers from ever abandoning or being mean to their child in the way that an apparently detached man can, and b) prevents them from being bad people.
And here we come back to the MCU, which, whether or not it consciously meant to, is falling into this pattern to a T. Peter’s father Ego is a dynamic, morally grey-to-black character with charisma, layered characterization, personal motivations, backstory, and a relationship with his superhero son that propels and informs the entire core plot of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Peter’s mother, who I’m not sure ever gets a name in the movies, appears for a couple of flashback scenes that serve mostly to demonstrate how the men in her life (Ego and Peter) feel about her, and apart from seeing that she’s a kind and sweet person (and getting a sense of her taste in music) the audience doesn’t know anything about her. Did she have plans? Character motivations? We don’t know. All that’s really important is that she was good, and now she’s dead. She impacts the plot because Peter gets upset about how good and dead she is and this motivates him to fight Ego and save the day.
The same is true for Maria Stark, who we don’t even meet until Captain America: Civil War. (The irony of us learning more about Iron Man’s backstory in a Captain America film shall not be discussed here.) Iron Man 2 has Tony’s complicated relationship with his father Howard Stark at its emotional core, and even though Howard is also dead, it’s pretty clear that he functions as a character in his own right in ways that Maria never gets to (and this is even without considering that we meet Howard in the first Captain America movie, giving him miles of backstory that Maria is never allowed). He has goals, motivations, a mix of flaws and virtues, and enough presence and agency in the movie to actually affect what Tony is doing, despite only speaking to him through old recordings. Maria Stark is… dead, and when we did briefly meet her in Tony’s flashback at the start of Civil War, we saw that she was kind and sweet. That’s really all we know.
Thor’s mother Frigga gets a better deal than both these ladies by actually being a supporting character for a whole movie and a half before she tragically dies in the selfless act of protecting Jane Foster, but… you can still see the same tropes at play. Odin has goals, clear motivations, an active role in the plot, and layers of characterization that make it clear he’s not entirely good or bad and has many flaws, and his complicated relationship with his sons forms the emotional core of the movies, motivating both Thor and Loki. We know more about Frigga than the MCU will probably ever deign to tell us about Maria Stark and Mama Quill, but the point cannot be ignored that the most important things to remember about her are a) she was nice b) she is not alive.
Here are my two big issues with this pattern: even without the gender factor—though let’s not ignore the gender factor—it’s just… kind of lazy to kill an undeveloped character off to create drama, especially when the drama of a hero mourning their sweet mother is ultimately overshadowed by the conflict that hero has with their living, relevant father. What was the point of these three women dying? Mama Quill died so Peter would have no ties to Earth and could be abducted by aliens; Frigga died to ultimately give Thor and Loki something in common so they could begrudgingly team up; and Maria Stark died… I mean… in the context of Civil War, the movie in which she’s introduced, kind of just so Tony could be angry when he found out Bucky assassinated her. This anger is what spurs the final fight scene in Civil War, interestingly enough with an eerily similar “you killed my mom!” line to Peter Quill’s at the climax of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. When you dissect the reasoning, you realize all these deaths are effectively plot points that needed to happen, which makes the undeveloped dead mothers themselves little more than plot devices.
The second issue is that, well, mothers are not always nice. Morally ambiguous mothers exist. Abusive mothers exist. Women who are complex, flawed individuals who don’t always smile and don’t always do the right thing exist, and many of them are mothers. Giving birth does not automatically transform you into a flawless and wonderful person. And while we’re at it, fathers aren’t always conniving and antagonistic! (The MCU provides a tiny bit of a spectrum in this respect by showing that Hawkeye is a good dad, but the trend for how main character heroes interact with their fathers still stands.) You could argue, of course, that the snippets of memory we see of Mama Quill and Maria Stark are just what their grieving boys are hanging onto, and naturally they’d remember their dear old mums in a positive light. Still, though, it reduces the character of the mother to a handful of traits, and this reinforces that they’re really only important as a character because they exist in the heroes’ memories and give them feelings.
I’d be all for it if we were presented first with a hero’s rose-colored memories of his sweet, kind mother, only for the story to later complicate this by showing a different side of her—perhaps one that wasn’t entirely morally agreeable and flawless! I also wouldn’t mind so much if we had one hero’s mother fit this angelic mold and another hero’s mother be presented differently, just so we had some sort of spectrum and not every single introduced mom in the franchise fit the same character type. It hasn’t happened yet, though, and this teeth-grating trend of sweet, angelic mothers effectively being martyred to motivate their heroic sons while they clash against their antagonistic fathers seems stuck fast in the MCU.
Frankly, this is a trope that’s even more troubling in a genre that’s already sadly scarce of women characters. To have all heroes be men is one thing, but this trend in writing heroes’ relationship to their parents further implies that heroes can only have meaningful and interesting conflict with the men who came before them, with women reduced to two-dimensional angels who only impact the plot with their death. Having all important (and that’s in the most loose use of the word) women be pure and sweet Molly Weasley-esque mothers pigeonholes women into a single role and a single character type within this fictional universe, and then kills them off. It’s hardly attempting to create interesting characters or positive, diverse role models.
Maybe write some mothers who aren’t totally pure and good and impact the plot in ways other than dying? Maybe write some fathers that are nice, because that can also happen, and it’s a dizzyingly frustrating thing that the MCU seems to have gendered “helpful and good” as female and “morally grey and self-serving” as male, at least when it comes to relationships within families. I know I opened with it, but the more I think about Stark and Quill bickering over who has the more complicated relationship with their dad, and the same storyline repeating over and over in the rest of the franchise, the more my back teeth ache.
Read more from Alex at her blog, The Afictionado!