Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen discuss ‘Avengers’ heroines’ move to front lines

April 30, 2015 | 5:00 a.m.
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" actresses Elizabeth Olsen and Scarlett Johansson are photographed at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif. on April 11, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” actresses Elizabeth Olsen and Scarlett Johansson are photographed at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif. on April 11, 2015. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Elizabeth Olsen is doing more than bringing the Marvel Comics character Scarlet Witch to the big screen in Friday’s tentpole film “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” She’s also doubling the number of women on the Avengers roster.

“It’s really cool, and I don’t take it for granted,” said Olsen, 26, a self-professed fan of the comic book film franchise.

Previously, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, was the sole female member of the muscle-bound team of super-studs, comprising Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. With four Marvel movies under her utility belt and a fifth (“Captain America: Civil War”) slated to begin filming next week, Johansson, 30, is a veteran of the flourishing Marvel Cinematic Universe. And she’s eager to welcome more women to the franchise.

“For so long, female superheroes have been mistreated, and I think women’s roles in general are often oversimplified and generic and saccharine,” said Johansson earlier this month at the Walt Disney Studio lot in Burbank.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Entertainment)

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (Jay Maidment / Marvel Entertainment)

Her Black Widow stands apart as a highly skilled assassin with evolving motivations and an understated confidence. Even Widow’s action scenes are nuanced; she uses traditional gender roles to her advantage, unafraid to let a man think he has the upper hand, though the audience always knows better.

“I’ve finally been able to be a part of creating this character that is really multifaceted, and it’s fallen into what is generally a kind of male-dominated genre,” Johansson said. “To finally be sharing that with somebody else, and certainly with Lizzie, is a wonderful thing and a step in the right direction.”

Olsen’s character — Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch — is similarly complex, an Eastern European orphan who volunteers to be “enhanced” so she can seek revenge for the death of her parents. Her superhuman abilities, including telekinesis and mind manipulation, make her more powerful than any of the individual Avengers.

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Entertainment)

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (Jay Maidment / Marvel Entertainment)

These more prominent roles for women in the Marvel films are emblematic of a burgeoning movement of women stepping out of the ensemble and into the spotlight in genre entertainment. DC is finally giving its leading lady her own film with “Wonder Woman,” starring Gal Gadot, in 2017. Marvel has its own female-headlined “Captain Marvel” slated for the following year. Warner Bros. has a “Supergirl” television series in the works. And “Rogue One,” next year’s “Star Wars” spinoff film, will star Felicity Jones as its main protagonist.

“You want to level the playing field a little bit,” said “Age of Ultron” director Joss Whedon. “It’s not like I’m counting, but we are. We count. When you get enough so that you stop counting, then we’ve accomplished something.”

The fact that the number of female leads in “Age of Ultron” can be counted on two fingers is only one indicator that Marvel, and superhero films at large, still have a ways to go.

“Ultron” costars Evans and Renner recently came under fire (and later apologized) for calling Johansson’s character a “slut” and a “whore” during an interview promoting the film. And Black Widow is frequently left out of merchandise, including toys and apparel, that features the rest of the Avengers team.

“I see it as a vestigial remnant of this kind of sexist sort of mindset,” Johansson said about the marketing. “It’s certainly nice that people are noticing and talking about it, whereas before it would just kind of be like, ‘Well, you know, it’s long pajamas and they’re for boys, so of course it’s all the guys on them.’ It’s a conversation that people are having — ‘Where’s all the girls? We want more. We want to see females in this genre who are not the stick in the mud or the damsel in distress or the girlfriend waiting by the window. We want to see characters who reflect the environment that we’re a part of.’”

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Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, left, Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Chris Hemsworth as Thor, left, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Captain America in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro Maximoff in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, left, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Chris Evans Steve Rogers in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Ultron (voiced by James Spader), left, and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, left, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Iron Man's Hulkbuster suit (Robert Downey Jr.) versus the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), left, and Dr. Cho (Claudia Kim) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, left, and Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment: Marvel)

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Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), left, and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), left, and one of his mercenaries (Bentley Kalu) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Thomas Kretschmann as Baron von Strucker in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), left, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) assemble in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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The heroes of "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," from left: Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Dr. Cho (Claudia Kim), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). (Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

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Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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The villainous Ultron Prime (voiced by James Spader) in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, left, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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From left: Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Chris Evans as Captain America in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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From left: Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Don Cheadle as James "Rhodey" Rhodes in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

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Elizabeth Olsen on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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An actor films on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner are seen on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Director Joss Whedon and star Aaron Taylor-Johnson on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Actors in motion-capture gear on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are seen on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson is seen filming 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' in Pont-Saint-Martin on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix / Getty Images)

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Jeremy Renner is seen filming on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix / Getty Images)

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General view of location of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' in Pont-Saint-Martin in Aosta, Italy, on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

And leveling the playing field is a smart business decision for the movie studios given that the audience for comic book movies is increasingly composed of women.

“We keep the fanbase in mind as we make these movies … and it’s sort of the cliched thought to say, ‘Oh, the fan base is made up primarily of men,’” said Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. “I’ve been going to conventions now for 15 years, and looking at the fans standing alongside the red carpet at premieres. It is more and more and more women every year, and feels at least 50-50 now. I do think women make up as much of our audience now as men, at least when it comes to the people who are going to be in costume or be at the head of a line to get into a panel at Comic-Con.”

The social imperative to better represent and appeal to women falls squarely with the creative sensibilities of writer-director Whedon, an outspoken feminist long known for developing dynamic female characters, not least of which is the eponymous demon-fighting teenaged heroine in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Geneticist Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is one of several female characters new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Jay Maidment / Marvel Entertainment)

Geneticist Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is one of several female characters new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Jay Maidment / Marvel Entertainment)

For “The Avengers,” Whedon added Cobie Smulders’ character Agent Maria Hill as a key operative in intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. to inject some feminine energy into the testosterone-fueled team. “Age of Ultron” adds several new female supporting characters, including a geneticist and bioengineer, a wife and mother and fan-favorite Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who anchored her own ABC television series, “Agent Carter.”

In one scene early in the new film, Stark, depicted earlier in the franchise as a womanizer, engages Thor in a game of girlfriend one-upmanship, comparing not their lady-loves’ looks or charm, but rather their achievements as a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and the head of an international tech company. The scene feels a few steps forward from Stark’s declaration upon meeting Johansson’s character in “Iron Man 2” — “I want one.”

Whedon helped usher Black Widow from the bodacious undercover agent in “Iron Man 2” to a more complex character who longs for a life outside of her violent profession.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in "Iron Man 2." (Marvel Entertainment)

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in “Iron Man 2.” (Marvel Entertainment)

“I’m always looking for pain, because pain usually contains truth and humor,” Whedon said. “Her character is to me the most fascinating, because she’s defined by it in a way that she generally doesn’t show, and when she gets to, it’s very affecting. … I think we went deeper with her than with anybody else.”

Johansson appreciates Whedon’s vision. “Regardless of gender, characters work when they have substance and when they are grounded in something that is visceral and true,” she said. “I loved that she is sort of this reluctant superhero, that she is kind of a mutant in some ways, that she didn’t really choose this path for herself … and these are things that Joss just really absorbed. When I read ‘Avengers 2,’ I was really moved by the fact that he stuck with that.”

“Age of Ultron” also primes Black Widow for a larger leadership role in “Captain America: Civil War” and two Marvel films beyond that. Likewise, the filmmakers have big plans for Olsen’s Scarlet Witch.

Olsen, whose previous credits include the indie darling “Marcy Martha May Marlene” and last year’s “Godzilla,” was the only actress considered for the role.

“The only thing that made me think twice was, ‘Oh my God, am I capable of doing something like this?’” Olsen said. “Even though I’m such a fan of the movies, I’ve never done something that is that imaginative.”

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel Entertainment)

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (Marvel Entertainment)

“Age of Ultron” sees Olsen’s character throwing “hexes” at robotic enemies and tinkering with the superheroes’ minds.

“It just felt playful, like you’re playing make-believe,” Olsen said. “I can imagine myself during recess or before school on the playground being like, ‘I’m Scarlet Witch! Pow!’ To think of little girls being like, ‘I’m powerful and strong and tough!’ — that’s really cool.”

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | @LATHeroComplex

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