We're still a long way off from a female-led superhero film. There's just no way around it - even if the studios started working on it now, it would be pushing it to get it out by 2015. So instead of focusing on the negative there, let's focus on the positive in the newest Marvel movie, Thor: The Dark World. Featuring not one or two flat female characters, it has four fully formed women who are strong, smart, vulnerable, and real that all have their own personalities and motivations at play. While the film may be about the titular demi-god, it does an excellent job of telling the stories of the women who have shaped and continue to influence his life.
Frigga, played be the regal Rene Russo, barely made a blip in the first Thor film. I honestly can't remember if she even had any lines. Here we see her as the caring mother and wife, yes, but she also has an amazing fight scene and is the catalyst that gets a number of the plot points in motion. We see her influence on her husband Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and at first she's the only one willing to give Loki a second chance. While she's not on the screen for long, her impact is felt throughout. And the moments between her and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) truly standout. There's obviously the funny meeting-the-parents moments, but there's also the key scene where Asgard is in trouble and Thor trusts Frigga to keep Jane safe. And Jane's respect for her is perfectly displayed with just the delivery of a "yes, ma'am." said with the same manner of respect a soldier would say to his commander. It's sadly not an exchange we see enough in cinema.
Speaking of Jane, she continues to be my favorite of the leading ladies in the Marvel cinematic universe. Yes, she's the superhero's love interest but she's also so much more. She's a brilliant astrophysicist and instead of just waiting for Thor to return, she's back out dating and has never given up on her work. Her work is what gets her mixed up in the villain's plot, not the fact that Thor cares about her and wants to exploit his weakness. And even in the face of death, she's endlessly curious and always searching for answers. And (Spoilers!) it's all because of Jane's brilliance that Thor is eventually able to defeat the villain. Her knowledge of science and gravitational fields gives Thor enough time to use his brute strength to delay Malekith just long enough for him to miss his window of opportunity. And then, when she thinks Thor is going to die, she throws her tiny frame on top of him in attempt to save this nearly immortal demi-god from a giant monolith crashing down on him. She's amazing, and throughout all of this she's not invincible and displays real emotions and vulnerability. She's not a super-woman after all, she's got real fears, desires, and hopes mixed in with all this genius.
Jane and Frigga are part of the core storyline, but even the ancillary characters of Sif and Darcy are fully realized. Sif (Jamie Alexander) is a strong warrior woman fighting alongside Thor, but it's hinted at that others and maybe Sif herself were hoping for more that just fighting next to Thor before Jane came in to the picture. Here the film could have very easily devolved into a cat fight over a man, but instead Sif is shown as a true friend, battlefield comrade, and even has a moment with Jane where they seem to size each other and display a mutual respect.
Darcy (Kate Dennings) is still bound to grate on many viewers since she is still mainly the comedic relief and "millennial voice" with references to social media and interning. However, she displays a few good moments with Jane where she seems to actually care about the work. Her relationship with the intern also serves to turn an old trope of using secretaries or female subordinates as lackeys on its head by having him at her beck and call for the job. She's not just spewing the one-liners to lighten the mood now, she's got her own motivations for wanting to be on this team and face down the pending apocalypse.
Thor and Loki may be at the heart of this film, but happily the women are definitely not just window dressing.