We've known for a while that Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the astrophysicist who also happened to be Thor's love interest in the God of Thunder's first two movies, was not appearing in Thor: Ragnarok. At first, Marvel's answer was simply that most of the movie wouldn't take place on Earth, where humans like Jane Foster tend to be found. The new answer is... less satisfying.
Image: Thor: The Dark World, Marvel/Disney
Natalie Portman exiting the Marvel universe isn't surprising since, as we've noted before, rumours said she wasn't happy with how things went down on Thor: The Dark World, particularly the way director Patty Jenkins left the project. Plus, she's an Oscar winner whose other big science fiction franchise was the Star Wars prequels. She's busy, she isn't in love with this work, and she's probably done with franchises. This all makes sense.
As a result, Thor and Jane have broken up prior to Ragnarok, according to Entertainment Weekly, which isn't a huge surprise. First of all, it was hinted that they were having problems back in Avengers: Age of Ultron. And that's probably a better solution than pretending she's hanging out off-screen somewhere in Ragnarok.
That said: This was the exact same way Marvel dealt with Gwyneth Paltrow's absence from Age of Ultron, with another off-screen break-up with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Dumping of two of its heroes' major love interests in this way indicates that Marvel considers many of its female leads rather disposable, which isn't great.
But even that we could have handled. Then Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige made it worse when he advertised the new addition Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) as Thor's love interest in Ragnarok in an EW interview:
"We wanted Thor to encounter somebody that was near his equal and that his relationship with Jane may have evolved in unexpected ways in between The Dark World and Ragnarok and we wanted to pit him against a character who was much more his equal and in many ways his superior," says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. "Valkyrie is trying to not embrace any sort of Asgardian heritage that she has. Thor thinks maybe that will create a bond between them and, on the contrary, she wants to forget it all entirely."
Valkyrie is more "equal" to Thor than Foster was? She was an astrophysicist who did mind-boggling science. Her different skill set was one of the reasons they worked so well together on-screen. Equating "punching things as hard as a male character" with equality is reductive — also because it presents the women as existing only in contrast to each other and within their relationship to Thor. It's disappointing because there is no reason that Marvel needed to explain it this way.
On the plus side, I'm pretty sure Feige's gaffe was unintentional because Marvel's universe is packed with scientist-heroes. But there are still absolutely better ways to frame Natalie Portman and Jane Foster's absence. Feige could have pointed out the new dynamic that could be explored with Thor having a relationship with someone with interests and a history more similar to his own. That's certainly interesting and doesn't belittle Foster in the process.
In terms of Marvel live-action entertainment's gaffes, this is hardly the most egregious one. So instead of shaming Marvel, I hope they consider this... constructive criticism. You can do better! It isn't as hard as you may think!