In an interview at the Guardians of the Galaxy premiere, Joss Whedon got chatting about female characters in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Will the next Avengers movie have an equal gender balance like the various TV shows that made Joss Whedon a household name? The obvious answer is no. But he did have something interesting to say: That there are “four prominent female roles in the center of the movie.” If you haven’t been keeping track, that is one more female character than we were expecting.

As with the first Avengers movie, Black Widow has a major part to play in Age of Ultron, with former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill in what we assume is an important supporting role. The third major female character is Scarlet Witch, who will be introduced alongside her brother Quicksilver.

So, what is that fourth “prominent female role”?

The most likely choices are Peggy Carter from the Captain America movies, Jane Foster from the Thor movies (very unlikely), or Pepper Potts, who had a minor part in The Avengers.

It has already been revealed that Peggy Carter shows up in a 1940s flashback during Age of Ultron, so could this be the fourth “prominent” role Whedon mentioned? If so, that description sounds like a bit of a stretch, because actress Hayley Atwell described her role as a scene Whedon included after they went out drinking one night. Her emotional impact on Captain America’s personal journey is very important, but it’s difficult to believe that she’ll have much screentime.

The difference between three and four female characters may not sound like a big deal, but in The Avengers, there were literally four times as many men as women in the main cast. And this is coming from a franchise that is regularly complimented for its female representation, and is widely beloved by superhero comic fangirls the world over.

Because the Avengers movies have a massive ensemble cast, their publicity appearances tend to look like a chorus line. An unusually male-dominated chorus line, that is. Each film premiere and Comic-Con panel inevitably highlights the very male, very white nature of that cast.

Photo via Wikimedia

In 2012, supporting actress Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill) showed up to a multitude of publicity events as if she was part of the core cast. In truth, her onscreen role was relatively minor. But if she hadn’t been standing in the lineup at premieres, most of those group shots would have consisted of Scarlett Johansson plus eight or nine men.

And so, with Scarlett Johansson on maternity leave last weekend, the lineup for the Avengers: Age of Ultron SDCC panel still only included two women: Cobie Smulders and Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch). They sat amid a very long line of men consisting of the five male Avengers, Samuel L. Jackson, the three new male characters (Quicksilver, Ultron, and the Vision), and producer Kevin Feige.

Any SDCC photo of the Ultron cast inevitably becomes an exercise in where best to place the two actresses so it doesn’t look like a total sausage-fest. Which begs the question, where is this mythical fourth female character? Has the Marvel publicity machine genuinely managed to keep the lid on a major spoiler like an entirely new character? Or was Joss Whedon talking about a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque cameo role, most likely Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter?

If so, we can probably expect Hayley Atwell to be at all the Age of Ultron premieres, bumping up the number women on the red carpet. This will be good news for her fans, and good publicity for the new Agent Carter TV series. But it's still not a very impressive achievement for Marvel Studios, particularly for a film helmed by supposed feminist icon Joss Whedon.

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