The Superhero Subgenre has shown little sign of fatigue. There have been an occasional misstep but by and large these films still perform well. Star Wars films have topped the past two years, but costumed vigilantes still snagged 4 of the top 10 slots last year.
Unfortunately this is an especially poor genre for female representation. As of this writing, none of the major cinematic universes, be it Marvel, DC or X-Men or Spider-Man have released a female led superhero movie.*
There’s a somewhat simple reason for this gender gap: these films are adaptations of 50-80 year old comic books. Therefore if we are going to discuss why the tights ‘n’ capes set is so male driven, we’d have to dig into why their source material has been so male centric for so long and that’s a larger discussion. The short answer would be that action/adventure has had a larger appeal to males. Whether that’s entirely accurate, or if that’s an assumption would be getting further into the weeds than I care to venture at this point in time. Suffice to say that comic books starring women are traditionally few and far between.
On the surface, 2012’s The Avengers looks like a prime example of how to do women wrong. 6 dudes, one woman. But thanks to Joss Whedon, things are much better than they could have been. First of all, he had to fight to even have Black Widow in the picture. Even after being established in Iron Man 2, apparently Whedon had to advocate for her inclusion, remarking that the Helicarrier would feel like a gay cruise without her.
Natasha Romanoff was given relatively little to work with in IM2. She showed up to infiltrate Tony Stark’s circle of influence, keep an eye on him, and help save the day at the end. She had no back story to speak of. No personal struggle to overcome. The two released Avengers films, which had many many more principle characters to work with managed much more backstory and motivation. We don’t know much about her origin, but we know she worked for the other side, and that she’s trying to make up for the unspeakable acts she did. She’s generally cold, and tends to switch personalities so often that even her closest allies aren’t always sure when she’s being genuine. She always left more questions than answers in her wake. And she was never more fun to watch than when she was using her perceived vulnerabilities to her advantage.
Thus we see that the artist who staked his reputation on creating strong female characters did much to flesh out the sole female avenger (sorry Maria Hill, you’re SHIELD). Unfortunately not everyone feels Whedon’s character choices are praiseworthy. In fact, the backlash for Black Widow’s romantic subplot in Age of Ultron was widely criticized. I for one am not ready to sharpen my pitchfork. The pain point is the handful of scenes in Age of Ultron wherein Natasha makes her feelings clear for Bruce Banner. At Avengers tower she practically throws himself at a very reluctant Banner. And again at Hawkeye’s home she advances on him with no ambiguity. The brunt of the criticism seems to be levied at how weak it made Romanoff appear. That Romanoff was still supporting the dudes without being given a full fledged story arc of her own was also a pain point.
I can’t take as harsh as a stance personally. That Natasha laments never being able to have children isn’t disgraceful as some have criticized. It’s an important instinct to want to reproduce, and to never have the ability is understandable and relatable. I don’t think it takes away from her badassery. I think it makes her more well rounded and believable. That she falls for Banner is also understandable. He’s essentially the outlier of the group. He’s the one person who could potentially make her forget her work and her past. And I don’t think her desiring a relationship makes her weak. The idea that women need to be independent to be strong is fallacy. People are strongest when organized in family units. The only hesitation I have for Romanoff’s portrayal in Ultron is that the execution doesn’t feel genuine. I don’t believe Romanoff would assert herself on Banner in quite the way she is depicted in the film. Ultimately this is a small complaint for a character who continues to intrigue.
On one hand, I’m tempted to join the bandwagon of critics of Marvel studios for continuing to starve its fans of female led franchises. On the other hand I’m grateful that the women they do depict are largely excellent in character and motivation.
Ultimately the big budget movies have always been about escapism. And they always will be because most people don’t experience films to challenge themselves or expand their sensibilities. Right now the studios think that the only people that go to films any more are either 13 year old boys or men who have the mindset thereof. And they’ll point to evidence to prove they’re right. So it may be a long time if ever we see a box office with equal gender representation and appeal.
The exceptions to this rule often are rife with other problems. An All-Female Ghostbusters was a marketing disaster wrapped around a mediocre film that needn’t have been conceived.
By now a couple of you are probably screaming at your computers: HEY Mr MormonDadFeminist! Aren’t you forgetting about Walt Disney Studios? Aren’t they releasing female centric films on a regular basis? Right you are, astute film fan. Before we wrap up, let’s visit the land of castles and gowns and happily ever afters.
* Wonder Woman will be the first as of June 2017. Captain Marvel will arrive in the next couple years.