What better way to celebrate Women's History Month than taking a deep dive into the franchise that gave us some of the most complex leading ladies of the modern era? There really isn't one, which is why CBS Interactive, which TV Guide is a part of, teamed up to give Marvel fans an in-depth look at women dominating the extended Marvel universe from cinema to TV to comics and more.
TV Guide checked in on the future of Marvel and talked to all the reigning teen queens of TV. From Runaways to Cloak and Dagger to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Marvel Rising, Marvel's next generation of heroes are tackling problems bigger than their silver screen counterparts: navigating not only their newfound powers but also wild emotional roller coaster that is being a young adult. Everyone from Chloe Bennet to Olivia Holt dished on what it really takes to be a superhero and why playing a Marvel teen means so much to them.
"As we get older, we sort of have a harder time believing in ourselves and what we can achieve," said Olivia Holt, one half of Cloak and Dagger, when asked what drew her to the role. "But when we're younger, we still sort of hold on to it and have a tighter grasp as to what we believe in."
Tandy, as played by Holt, is a teen superhero unlike any we've seen on screen before. Growing up in a broken home in a poor, post-Katrina New Orleans, she isn't just dealing with normal teenage upheavals, but also being the primary caretaker of her household as her mom tries to overcome addiction. When we meet her, petty crime is her game, and she's squatting in an abandoned building, and no one in her life is guaranteed to show up when she needs them. "Tandy is constantly in survival mode. She can be a very cynical -- because life took from her, and she wants to take it back," said Holt, "but deep down she thinks fiercely in hope."
It's this spark of untarnished hope that Holt loves playing; to her, this is the most important takeaway for the next generation of Marvel and its fans: "We used to be these playful, intelligent, fun kids who feel invincible in some sort of way. For me, that was something that sort of came back when I booked this gig, this sense of feeling like I can conquer anything in my life."
"When I was a kid, I really desperately wanted to be blonde hair, blue eyes, from California," said Chloe Bennet, who plays Daisy (formerly known as Skye) on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Bennet, who stole hearts as the budding superhero Quake, admits that even with seven years of dominating the Marvel TV universe with multiple live-action and animated projects, she still feels like a fish out of water.
"I wish that I had a show like this when I was younger," Bennet admitted. "To think of myself living on the south side of Chicago, being half-Chinese surrounded by all my brothers and playing pretend in the alley... To think of the fact that now I can become a superhero..." she trailed off, needing a minute to grapple with how far she's really come. Without anyone who looked like her in pop culture, Bennet said she understands how important seeing often-ignored minorities do things they're not "supposed" to do -- like becoming a leading lady, or fighting off alien invasions -- really is.
That's why she tackles her Marvel role with the same sense of responsibility her character often takes on. "I was just trying to pay my rent," Bennet said, describing her initial audition process. "But then it was like, 'Oh God. Oh, I'm playing a superhero. And it's one of the first Asian superheroes. Oh God, that's a responsibility that I'm kind of taking that on the same way that she had to take on her powers.'" It's a parallel journey that's made her character such a standout in Marvel. Bennet, like Daisy, might not be ready to solely shoulder this massive responsibility of representation, but she loves going into work every day and trying to.
"That's a superhero. When you have to step up to the plate when you're not ready," she said. "When you try your best and maybe don't succeed in certain aspects, and continue to try."
"Everybody wants to be a superhero growing up," said Sofia Wylie, the voice of the indomitable Riri Williams (aka Ironheart) in Marvel Rising. But as fans of Riri know, she's no ordinary teen superhero. The genius level 15-year-old college student built her own weaponized flying armor -- one so brilliant and beautiful that it caught the eye of villains all over the world.
"She doesn't have these amazing supernatural powers; she's just a regular girl that is so strong and independent and determined, and that is why she's a hero," said Wylie. "That is great representation because it shows that you don't have to be this far-out, far-off superhero to really be that in a story. You can be a superhero by just being yourself."
Wylie says it's an honor to represent Team Normies in the Marvel TV Universe, particularly as a young, talented, black woman playing a young, talented, black woman. "I've gotten so many amazing, heart-warming direct messages from fans saying how they tried out for the basketball team because of Riri and how they felt like they could do it because she did that. It made them more comfortable in their skin because they saw someone who looked like them on television."
She added, "It's really incredible. It's just like I have this big, huge family all across the world, and my fans...it's so weird saying fans...we're learning and growing together."
"When I was researching Karolina I was like, OK, this is a character that could really mean something to people," said Virginia Gardner, who plays the effervescent alien Karolina Dean on Marvel's Runaways. Gardner didn't want to play just any old superhero in an age where there's a new one around every corner, but lucky for her, Runaways stars a group of friends (and also frenemies) who aren't just picking up a superhero mantle; they're also trying to navigate their sense of identity after finding out their parents are literally the villains of the story.
"Being able to play one of Marvel's first openly gay superheroes has been a really cool thing, and the fans' reaction I've gotten from that has been really incredible," said Gardner referencing the hottest ship to hit Marvel since Avengers dropped (shout out to Steve/Tony fans). "Right off the bat, Lyrica [Okano who plays Nico] and I were hounding the showrunners from the very beginning, like, 'When are Nico and Karolina gonna finally be together, and can we please explore that relationship!'"
Explore that relationship they did, and with amazing results. "I've had a lot of people tell me that they've come out to their friends and family because of my character on the show and because of Nico and Karolina's relationship. The amount of people that have said that my character has helped them open up to their friends or their family or really come to terms with who they are has been really rewarding for me," said Gardner. "Growing up, we didn't have those kinds of role models that were around my age range...and now you have this whole group of high schoolers becoming that kind of a role model. It feels more relatable that we're not perfect superheroes."
"That's what our show represents -- not only a bunch of different cultures because it's needed, obviously of course -- but it's also representing just the ideas and the mentality of the youth and how our strengths are so neglected sometimes in the face of adults," said Allegra Acosta who plays the inhumanly strong and youngest member of the Runaways, Molly Hernandez. While Molly is often babied by the older team members, she's also, in a lot of ways, the most capable of all of them.
"Molly's super street-smart," said Acosta. "She wants to save the world because it's taken so much from her. Her innate superhero instincts come from the fact that she's a natural-born leader and a natural-born fighter." The adopted teen lost her biological family in a fire and her adoptive family through betrayal, and is in constant contention with her chosen family as the baby of the bunch. But to Acosta, the best thing about playing Molly is that she never lets other people hold her back, and she relies on empathy, not her super strength, to overcome.
"Even though she's gotten in trouble, or is kind of babied in a way this season, she knows what to say to get the rest of the team to feel what she's feeling. She has maturity... a kind of way she talks to adults to get them to listen to her," said Acosta. "She's not whining, she's easing into the conversation that leads to the outcome that she wants because she wants to get things done instead of falling behind with all the more problems that they have."
She added, "It just shows how powerful young women are creating their own choices and own their space and their ground."
"Every day when I go into work, it just feels like I'm doing something meaningful," said Lyrica Okano, who plays Nico Minoru, the latest in a long line of dark wizards. "Yes, I am an actor, and I am playing pretend for a living, but being on this show means so much to me, because it means that potentially there's little girls and boys out there with characters in their favorite TV shows or in their favorite movies to connect to, to relate to."
Okano speaks from experience. "As a teenager, I had issues with how I looked and being able to face the day just solely being myself. I spent hours doing my makeup in the morning because that was my only way of keeping any kind of control in my life. I created this mask for myself to leave the house, which Nico does as well," said Okano. These aesthetic parallels make it easy for Okano to slip into to role, but the juiciest parts for her are emotional ones.
"She's totally honest about who she is. She has flaws. That's what makes a great superhero, someone who is able to use his or her weakness to their advantage, make it their strength," said Okano. "Us kids, we're all a mess. I hope people can look at her and think 'Oh, I'm not wrong or crazy. I'm not alone.'"
"A lot of the female characters I grew up with were either perfect or shrewd; totally shrill and naggy or the absolute perfect feminist badass lady, you know," said Ariela Barer who plays Gert, a smart, saavy teenager with a telepathic connection to a dinosaur genetically engineered to respond to her commands. "I mean, it is nice to have the perfect badass feminist character to look up to, but I do feel like something that was missing was a character who could grow with me so then I could see that it was OK to make mistakes and learn from them."
As Gert, Barer gets to embody the character she needed as a teen. "I really appreciated that about Gert. Especially in Season 1, she was a feminist who was trying her best, but she was still plagued by her own insecurities and anxiety, and it did get in her way," said Barer. "Her own insecurities and anxieties are really hard to navigate. But because of the Runaways, she could see that she's not alone in that, and she can be there for other women. In Season 2, she does figure out how to navigate her own problems while also being here for other people."
It's a journey ubiquitous to young women everywhere despite how little it's discussed. "We're the generation of the underdog," said Barer of both the younger generation of Marvel heroes and their non-powered legions of fans. "We're people whose figures of authority turn out to be unreliable, and we're fighting to take the power back even though we have nothing."
She feels honored to be able to tell even a part of that grand story. "Someone came up to me at L.A. Comic Con, and they started just crying when we met. It was the first time that had ever happened to me. I never had anyone cry meeting me," said Barer. "I had such an emotional reaction that what I did translated and really impacted people. It is weird because I do think Gert has impacted me equally, so I don't feel like they're crying to me, it's we're like crying together."