Captain Marvel, and the Rising Trend of Superheroine Films

Women make up roughly half of the world’s population. According to the United States Census Bureau, 50.8% of the world’s population was female in 2010 (Howden & Meyer), which if some of you might recall, was the year that the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, was halfway through its Phase 1 with the release of Iron Man 2. While nothing spectacular in and of itself, it’s certainly one of the lower-tier MCU films, it did introduce the franchise’s first major recurring female character; Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. the Black Widow. Played by Scarlett Johannsson, Romanoff has appeared in every Avengers film to date, including the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, as well as being one of the most recurring characters throughout the other films having debuted in one of the Iron Man movies and been of one of the primary co-stars in two Captain America films. So why has it taken over eight years later for a Black Widow solo-film to even be announced?

There are a few cynical takes you can make from this. Romanoff doesn’t have any superpowers so why should she have her own movie? Her backstory is significantly darker than other MCU characters so how do you make that appealing to wide audiences? If we already know her origins, why do we need to giver her an origin story film? So on and so forth, all of which have relatively easy answers, the chiefest among all of them being “Marvel Studios is confident enough it might make money now.”

How have her taser shooter’s not become a toy? I can think of one reason…

However, there is another glaring possibility as to why the movie has been tossed around in pre-production limbo for so long – it stars a woman. Understanding this contextual background, we can now get into the real meat and potatoes of the current post.

The History of Superheroine Representation

Female superheroes have always been a problem, for many reasons. A surprising amount of them were only created because they had a male counterpart and it would be profitable to widen the brand recognition, such as with Supergirl and Batgirl. Others like Spider-Woman and She-Hulk were created solely for the purpose of copyrighting the character names, just so Marvel wouldn’t have to deal with copycats of their already established male characters. All of these characters earned their own proper development over time, though not nearly as much as their male counterparts, and because of that there is still that underlying implication that they wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for a man existing first.

In comics there are also the ensemble superhero groups and their typical token female, such as the original X-Men with Jean Grey and later Storm, and the Fantastic Four with the Invisible Woman. While the females were original unto themselves, they were dependent on their team for relevancy and even then they were often a lover or sister to someone else on the team, both of which are true in the case of the Invisible Woman.

Some of this could have been seen as a result of Fredric Wertham, his book “Seduction of the Innocent,” and the Comics Code Authority, an entity designed to make all comic books “appropriate for children,” in the 1950s. These things not only lead comic books to be dominated by the superhero-driven companies like Marvel and DC or the wholesome Archie Comics because of the CCA’s criteria preventing the sales of the mystery, horror, romance and speculative fiction genres, but it also meant that minorities and women began to be underrepresented in the genre due to the restrictions. While some earlier comic book women were portrayed and seen as sexual pin-ups, they were still allowed to represent strong women who could solve their own problems, whether it be with guile, intellect or a strong right-hook. With the CCA, romance and thriller comics, which had a fairly large amount of female-led stories, eventually died out and the women in superhero mediums had to be weakened and de-sexualized in order to fit the new criteria. The criteria in the CCA involved maintaining a respect for the institutions of marriage and the traditional family. (Comic book code of 1954) While that might not sound like women were weakened because of the CCA, ‘family values’ could be interpreted as the submission of women to men as an ideal family value in the ‘50s, which is why the woman is usually weaker than every other man in the room. Interpreting the code was based on the judge in charge of it at the time, and his say was absolute. This is also why comic books had limited representation of African-Americans and other minorities at the time, because another criteria stated “Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible,” (Comic book code of 1954) and while meaning racist caricatures were frowned upon, so was representing race as a political topic at all. Considering the Civil Rights Movement was going on at the time, being black was inherently a criticism of white people, or it at least was by the judge who deemed an astronaut of the far future just being black as inappropriate and eventually seeing the company that ran the story out of business.

The context here being “A black man making decisions based on other people’s bigotry, how offensive!”

Due to the arbitrary upholding of the CCA, superheroines that existed before its implementation were minimized and, in some cases, outright forgotten. There were a few that returned in later comic series, but again had to be secondary to every other male character, which meant every other character, and didn’t start to develop again until after the CCA lost its influence.

With one extremely notable exception.

Are you Superman? Did it include the soap opera poses?

Wonder Woman’s persistent popularity as a comic book character is fascinating in that regard, as she was virtually the only woman to come out of the CCA’s restrictions to still have her own title and her recognizability. This is especially odd since Wonder Woman was one of Fredric Wertham’s biggest targets, saying she had an “extremely sadistic hatred of all males in a framework which is plainly Lesbian” (Lasar) One could argue that it was because she was a main target, like Superman and Batman, that she remained well-known, but the point is that Wonder Woman was THE female superhero for the longest time.

Which was why it was kind of baffling that she never got the same treatment as Batman or Superman did, who had film serials, television shows, film adaptations and their own cartoon series by the end of the millennium, whereas Wonder Woman only got a television series from 1975 to 1979, starring the incomparable Linda Carter.

♪In your satin tights,
Fighting for your rights
And the old Red, White and Blue♪

The other figure we need to talk about before we get into films featuring female superheroes is Carol Danvers, originally called Ms. Marvel, then Binary, then Warbird, and back to Ms. Marvel before finally becoming Captain Marvel. As one can guess from that list of names she’s gone by, Carol Danvers was an extremely inconsistent presence in comic books. Her debut was in 1968, but it wasn’t until 1977 that she manifested superpowers. After some more sporadic appearances, in the early 80s Danvers suffered multiple bad story arcs, one including brainwashing and rape by an extra-dimensional being and another including her powers and memories being stolen for the sake of another woman’s character development. Danvers did get powers similar to a “white hole,” which is an object that constantly shoots out energy and light, as opposed to a black hole that sucks in energy and light, but because of her power level being that high, writers didn’t know what to do with her so decreased her powers. After being redefined as a military hard-ass whose personality was based solely on that stereotype, and having a god-awful costume to boot, she was eventually softened and developed as Captain Marvel in 2012. That is an extremely simplified summary, so please feel free to find out more on your own.

It is important to keep all of this in mind because if women had an extremely difficult time being well-represented in comic books, what about films about comic book women? In recent years, Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019) came out with very good reviews and box office, but they still were met with criticism. While some criticism is warranted, don’t they get some recognition for being far superior to the earlier attempts at a female-led comic book film? I will not be focusing in-depth on those individual films but rather their impacted role on superheroines by and large, as well as looking at a very loose trend of superhero films. This will be followed by an examination of each modern superheroine film’s place in their respective franchise narratives, and then a look on how they were presented by themselves.

The Sins of the Mother

And her last until the CW made a TV series.

The very first feature film to have a female protagonist was Supergirl in 1984. Supergirl tells the story of Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin, who lives with her family in the inter-dimensional Argo City after the destruction of Krypton. When she inadvertently loses the city’s primary power source, she uses a space-pod to go after it, traveling to Earth and becoming Supergirl in the process.

Originally, Supergirl was designed to expand the Superman film franchise which had become popular due to Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978, but had a series of production problems, such as several script rewrites and clashing views with the director and producers, and Warner Brothers deciding not to distribute the film following the financial and critical failure of Superman III. As a result, Supergirl had only a limited release in the UK and an eventual release in the US, via Tri-Star Pictures looking for some potential cash, with 20 minutes cut from it. (“UGO’s World of Superman – Superman Movies: Supergirl”)

Aside from these production and distribution problems, the handling of the story was filled with missteps. Whereas the producers, father-son team Alexander and Ilya Salkind, wanted a straight Superman film that just happened to star a girl, the director, Jeannot Szwarc, wanted a more family friendly fantasy a la The Wizard of Oz. Combine both those ideas with some elements from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and you get Supergirl. Seriously, the camp-tastic bad guy, played by Faye “No wire hangers” Dunaway, is basically what you get when you combine the Wicked Witch of the West with Snow White’s Evil Queen, particularly as her goals of world domination are watered down due to her obsessions with the young and pretty Supergirl and Supergirl’s love interest, a dumb landscaper.

In the original draft of the Supergirl script, said landscaper was Superman, with the plot focusing on how Supergirl would have had to save Superman from the villainess’ clutches, but due to Christopher Reeve bowing out of a cameo early in the production, it was rewritten to be a normal love interest instead, making Kara Zor-El’s story far less epic, as well as disconnected from the Superman franchise.

Finally, it is worth discussing a particular scene in Supergirl that happens within the first twenty minutes of the film. As Kara is searching for the power source, she encounters two truckers who immediately attempt to sexually assault her. “Why are you doing this?” the naïve Kara asks. “It’s just the way we are,” replies one of the truckers. And then Kara promptly beats them up, leading both men to agree to never speak of this event, as if it was the humiliation of being beat up by a girl that was the worst thing to admit to and not the attempted rape. This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the film, and the two characters never show back up again.

Seriously, where did this scene come from?

The fact that this scene was included in what was implicitly a family-friendly fantasy film is utterly baffling, so one can assume that it was included because the film’s writer, director and producers (all male) believed it was empowering for women. Don’t get me wrong here, having the power to prevent being assaulted can be empowering, but the scene is just so badly done and goes nowhere. The two truckers are two-dimensional caricatures of rapists, and their only punishment is being emasculated a little bit. And this is a trend that continues in other later superheroine films.

Trust me, it’s way weirder than even this makes it look.

Tank Girl in 1995 was based on a comic printed in the British magazine Deadline, released over a decade after Supergirl. Tank Girl stars Lori Petty as Rebecca, a free-spirited and wild woman in a post-apocalyptic, drought-ridden Australia.

Tank Girl was arguably the best comic book movie starring a female until Wonder Woman in 2017, mostly because of its irreverent style. It’s almost like Deadpool in its story, tone and main character, but Deadpool took a long to get made as it was supposed to be (Rated-R, violent, sex humor, etc.). Even after being made explicitly as an R-Rated film, it still got complaints from people who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, so you can imagine the kind of reaction Tank Girl got back in 1995, with a woman at the forefront to boot. In that regard, Tank Girl was ahead of its time, which is probably why it has its own cult following and has been analyzed for feminist themes.

And did I mention there are mutant kangaroos. That was what was missing in Mad Max’s post-apocalypse.

Aside from its reception, there is also the fact that Tank Girl isn’t a hero, she’s an anti-hero. She’s a character of dubious morality who tends to do good things but not for necessarily good reasons. For example, Rebecca doesn’t oppose the bad guys because they’re evil, she opposes them because she’s anti-authority and was personally harmed by them. At various moments, Tank Girl is shown to be a good person overall, but she clearly has questionable methods. For example, saving another woman from sexual harassment by sexually harassing the woman herself. Tank Girl then comforts the woman by describing how her first sexual experience was with her own father in such a way that it’s unclear whether or not she is joking. There’s also a scene where she disrupts an underage brothel by making the owner sing a Cole Porter song, which is almost exactly like something you’d see in a Looney Tunes cartoon but with human trafficking involved. Handling serious topics in an unserious way can work, but not necessarily here, and it again just furthers the whole sexual assault theme in female-focused narratives.

Yes, she is wearing more than just the gloves. At least I think she is…

Barb Wire from 1996 is basically a gender-flipped Casablanca, only instead of World War II it takes place in a fascist dystopia in 2017. (I’d make a Donald Trump joke here, if everyone hadn’t already done that two years ago.)  The character of Barbara “Barb Wire” Kopetski comes from the Dark Horse comic of the same name, and is played by Baywatch eye candy Pamela Anderson. I recognize how sexist that sounds, but Anderson is not a very good actress, meaning that her performance as the tough and nuanced Barb Wire comes off as petty and bitchy, and its very clear that she was chosen for the role because she was famous for being on Playboy covers.

With that in mind, its kind of hard to judge Anderson’s performance too harshly, but the point still stands that the movie’s story and Barb Wire’s character aren’t very good. Barb Wire is a bounty hunter/bar owner, and for her bounty hunting missions she largely wears skin tight leather outfits or corsets and heels. She’s by far the least moral superheroine film character, as her behavior includes threatening to harm a young girl she’s supposed to be rescuing and screwing over a woman whose trying to inform the public of a bioweapon being developed. This behavior is portrayed as justifiable and necessary for Barb Wire to survive in the horrible world of this dystopian future. At least I think that’s what we’re supposed to think, because, as stated, Anderson’s performance just makes the character come across as selfish and short-sighted.

Ummmmm, am I the only one thinking about why she has a barb wire tattoo AND bracelet on the same arm?

Barb Wire is the only one of these early comic book films starring women to actually have a female co-writer. While there can be a certain amount of feminism in any text, comic book or film, its more about how the material is visually presented that people will remember about it. Tank Girl had a female director, which is fairly obvious from the film’s presentation of the story and characters. Barb Wire, on the other hand, had a male director and so contributed to the male gaze, as it features not only a mostly naked Pamela Anderson but multiple other hardly dressed women in gratuitously long scenes, including one that is also a torture scene that results in the woman’s death. The thread of sexual exploitation marches on…

Sorry about the Spanish, but this is literally the best poster image I could find

Skip forward a few more years to 2004 and we have Catwoman, the result of a very long, troubled production that began by trying to make a spin-off film of Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992). Due to various issues, neither Michelle Pfeiffer nor director Tim Burton returned to the project, so the studio eventually decided to forge ahead, ignoring both the original comic books and good filmmaking in the process. As in previous superheroine films, Catwoman, (now played by Halle Barry) is not a hero and is instead a criminal who just happens to do good when it benefits her. Unlike with Tank Girl or Barb Wire though, the film explicitly states that Catwoman’s arc is about female empowerment, as the woman who explains to Catwoman the recurrence of other Catwomen throughout history says her research was deemed insane by “male academia.” So, the meek Patience (seriously Catwoman’s real name in this film) learns to be more assertive and take what she wants, which happens to involve a lot of assault and theft.

Man, that is just an awful costume.

Catwoman also attempts to find who was responsible for her near death, and it turns out to be a woman who was trying to cover up health issues in her makeup line so she could continue to sell it. Like with Supergirl, the filmmakers just seemed to decide that the bad female in the movie had to be as stereotypically female as possible.

Nothing says strong women like a leather bra and lingerie. ( I WILL NOT say “Cat Fight!”)

Other than that, Catwoman is just by far the worst movie out of these ones, period. The writing, the directing, the cinematography, the editing, the effects, all of it is awful. Whereas Supergirl was haphazard, Tank Girl was bizarre, and Barb Wire was gratuitous, Catwoman was just incompetent. It was nominated for seven awards for the 2005 Golden Raspberry Awards, and won four of them, including Worst Picture, Worst Director and Worst Screenplay. I do however think the Worst Actress award was undeserved, as Halle Berry wasn’t at fault for the bad script and direction, though Halle Berry did take the award in stride.

Raphael from TMNT called, he wants his weapons and color scheme back.

The final superheroine film worth discussing here is Elektra from 2005, a spin-off of the 2003 film Daredevil. Elektra was made back in the day when the Marvel movies being made had no rhyme or reason to them. While they had a marginal amount of success, they didn’t come remotely close to mainstream faire as the MCU eventually became. Some big superhero film’s were released around the time like Ang Lee’s Hulk and Same Raimi’s Spiderman, but also a lot of characters that were popular for their violent, dark and serious tones, like Daredevil, the Punisher and Ghost Rider.

Elektra is one of the most serious of these mid-2000 Marvel films as, much to its detriment, there isn’t a moment where the dark tension is broken. This is particularly strange given how the movie’s star, Jennifer Garner, eventually ended up being more famous for romcoms, possibly due to this movie. To give the movie some credit, it isn’t as bad as the 11% it has on Rotten Tomatoes would imply. However, it might also be the least entertaining to watch out of them as the filmmaking decisions aren’t so much as baffling as they are boring.

Her face says “Serious,” but that pose and the setting says “Come on, Vogue!”

The fact that Elektra is female is also confusingly handled, as the evil ninja clan in the film scoffs at the notion of their men being easily defeated by a woman, despite that same ninja clan originally trying to kidnap her when she was young over her prodigious skills. The film’s plot revolves around Elektra protecting a young girl from this ninja clan because the girl also has potential to becoming a prodigious assassin. And the film’s version of the character Typhoid Mary is one of the most successful killers in it, as she almost successfully kills both Elektra and the girl. Real life can have men, and women for that matter, be pointlessly sexist to their own detriment. However, sexism is not the main point of the film.

And you thought the sexual assault would stop. Now with more titillation for the 2005 audience.

What is the point is that Elektra doesn’t see herself as anything more than a weapon used for killing, but eventually finds her compassion again by protecting a young girl and trying to prevent her from going down the same path Elektra followed. Elektra learns that she doesn’t have to be just a tool for destruction, even if that’s what her life has steered her towards.

Except for Supergirl, that theme of compassion is what is in common with the rest of the films, women being abused into being toxic, harmful people and later relearning to value human life. However, this theme is either so watered down the audience probably won’t notice or so obvious that it will make the audience cringe in most of these films, in addition to the rampant issues discussed previously. This isn’t an inherently bad story for any given film, and can also be seen in superhero stories focusing on men on occasion, but it is a notable stereotype for a strong woman to have been damaged in the past, and must fix her problems through interpersonal relationships instead of using her muscular strength, powers or intellect.

In a Forbes article, it was stated that not only did Elektra cause permanent damage to Jennifer Garner’s career, but it also ruined the idea of a female-lead superhero film for over a decade. I don’t think that’s completely true, as I think it was the combined effect of all of the discussed superheroine films’ failures, as well as the general status of women in comic books up to that point, that caused this type of film to be so scarce.

The idea of making a new superheroine film would not become profitable again until the 2008 release of Iron Man and subsequent MCU movies proved superheroes can be popular mainstream entertainment. Unfortunately, as the MCU developed and it seemed like a film starring a woman was increasingly inevitable, there was a brand new obstacle to reviving superheroine movies that emerged: how would films fit into a larger, interconnected franchise narrative?

Narrative Placement for the Superwomen

The MCU, and the following development of the DC Extended Universe, was strongly predicated on the idea that mainstream audiences would be willing to follow an overarching story through a series of films. This wasn’t anything new, as franchises were already on the rise in 2008 when Iron Man was made, but most superhero movies up to that point were self-contained stories that might occasionally allude to previous things happening in the case of a sequel being made. The only real exceptions to this were the Sam Raimi Spiderman films, the X-Men series and the Dark Knight Trilogy by Christopher Nolan, and it is possible that their overarching storylines helped establish the future of superhero movies, though it is fair to point out that those films primarily focused on a single character, unlike the current extended universes. Even the X-Men series was more focused on marketing Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine than anything else, appearing in all the related films as either a main character or a prominent cameo.

As the MCU was building up towards Avengers, it is, unfortunately, easy to see why no prominent female characters were being introduced and included, aside from the then minor character Black Widow. Marvel Comics has never featured any strong recognizable female solo characters, especially compared to DC. While Marvel does have well-developed and recognizable male solo heroes, such as Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Spiderman, it did not have any strong or popular female solo characters to base an MCU film on.

As previously mentioned, this can be seen as a result of the CCA stifling female comic character’s roles, and while some superheroines could be solo characters in a comic series, they were not nearly as recognizable as their male counterparts, with one key exception: Wonder Woman.

In DC comics, the three most recognizable characters are Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and they are the three characters most consistently shown with the Justice League in both comic books and other media. Thus, it wasn’t a big surprise when, after the DCEU was starting its own film franchise, the 2013 Man of Steel was followed by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016, featuring Wonder Woman as a secondary character and precluding her own solo film, Wonder Woman in 2017.

They literally had comic books titled after their collective iconic status.

There is a question that arises from this series of films, and that is “Would a Wonder Woman film have been made if it wasn’t connected to a larger universe already established by both Superman and Batman?” and there isn’t a very good answer to that question. After all, I don’t think an Aquaman film would have been made if the character wasn’t included in a lucrative film franchise, but Wonder Woman is a little different. Wonder Woman isn’t just an obscure comic book character with either a bad or no reputation in the mainstream. She is, for a lot of people, the face of super-powered women. Wonder Woman comics have always had a majority female cast, even with its villains. What other comic book character from the 1940s would have had a villain team-up issue where all of the villains were women (or women disguised as men)?

Yeah, whatever you say lady.

However, just because she is the face of women in comic books, that does not mean people know much about her. Granted, Superman is still famous and I’m not sure how many people actually know any of his antagonists outside of Lex Luthor and General Zod, but they do know who he is. An alien shot from a dying planet, raised by a good couple from Kansas and grows up to be a superhero with his day job as a reporter. Batman is also recognizable as a rich man orphaned as a boy by a random act of violence who uses his wealth to stop the crime normal authorities can’t. The thing is, both Superman and Batman have had several movies about them, and as stated previously their own serials, TV shows and animated series. Their stories have become mythologized and ingrained in American society. Wonder Woman only had one shot with a television series, and while it establishes her background as an Amazon warrior who ventures into man’s world as a voice for peace, that doesn’t mean it stuck with the popular conscious. There were also rumors of Joss Whedon writing a script for a Wonder Woman film back in the middle of the 2000s, but conflict between him and the studio, as well as him pursuing other projects, meant it never got beyond a script. According to the reactions of the leaked script, this was a good thing.

The point here, however, is that Wonder Woman’s big screen debut wasn’t focused on her, but as a tertiary character in a film predicated on the fact that you already know enough about Superman and Batman as characters to see them fighting each other in the second installment of a film franchise. I don’t want to get too into Batman v Superman, but there is the fact that the movie was not very well-received, particularly for its two male leads, but what was considered a saving grace? Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman is in the middle, and to the front, which in film language means “This is my show now, capisce?”

Wonder Woman’s presence was considered a breath of fresh air in the extremely macho narrative of two men fighting over superficial dislike of each other. Even the dumb exchange between Superman and Batman asking who had brought Wonder Woman into the fold, which might have been a reshoot in the year between the film’s principal photography ended in 2014 and its release in 2016, was unironically liked for how it presented Wonder Woman as the game changer in the narrative.

Patty Jenkins, the woman brought on to direct Wonder Woman, was announced to direct after the principal photography of Batman v Superman. Despite the negative reception of Batman v Superman for its dark and serious tone, Patty Jenkins has stated in an interview that the different tone of Wonder Woman was how she always planned the film, as opposed to the heavy reshoots ordered for Suicide Squad that came out the same year as Batman v Superman. Still, the fact that it had a slightly lighter tone and a much better critical reception lead to a belief that Wonder Woman was a shift from how the DCEU began, for better or worse to some fans. Also for better or for worse, after Justice League (2017), Wonder Woman has slowly become the face of the new Justice League team, especially as there are plans for a Batman movie not starring Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill’s return to Superman is currently unclear, meaning that Gal Gadot and her portrayal of Wonder Woman are becoming central to the DCEU’s universe.

This is not the case in the MCU.

The MCU has always had a poor relationship with strong-female characters. They are usually a satellite love interest for the movie’s main male character or are extremely badass but so secondary their stakes in the story don’t really matter. Pepper Potts from the Iron Man films in the MCU is a good example of both, as her presence in the first two Iron Man films amounts to her slowly developing relationship with the tumultuous Tony Stark, and Iron Man 3 has token moments of badassery from her before they are instantly removed and ignored for her to be a fleeting presence in the greater MCU narrative.

As some people know, the MCU had been built around Phases. Phase 1 was meant to establish all of the primary characters for The Avengers; Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America, with cameo appearances of other characters such as Nick Fury, Agent Phil Coulson, and eventual members Black Widow and Hawkeye. According to the long attempts to produce an Ant-Man film, it was possible that Ant-Man, and possibly the Wasp, were being set up to be main characters in The Avengers as well to reflect their status as founding members, but their film ended up not being made in MCU’s Phase 1. Joss Whedon had attempted to write in the Wasp in earlier drafts of The Avengers, but had to omit her due to the history of the character being too complicated to sum up and force into a film that wasn’t about it.

See, there she is, in the early concept art.

After the success of The Avengers, and the MCU as a whole, the plan was then ushered out for Phases 2 and 3. Phase 2 would focus more on individual characters with Iron Man 3,  Thor 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as well as establishing newer characters with Guardians of the Galaxy and the finally made Ant-Man. Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man were the final films of Phase 2, and they helped establish the universe’s growing scopes as more superheroes were coming out of the woodwork, as did Guardians of the Galaxy by beginning the universe’s connection to more intergalactic threats.

At this point, the franchise had three superheroines, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Gamora. The last two had been introduced in group films and, especially in the case of Scarlet Witch, were not given much character. Gamora is at least connected to the overarching story of Thanos and given emotional weight due to her natural on-screen relationship growth with the other characters of Guardians of the Galaxy, whereas Scarlet Witch is introduced more as a plot device and an excuse for big, flashy special effects.

Ant-Man also tried to introduce the Wasp into the MCU universe, but it was handled in the most backhanded way. First it presented the original Wasp, Janet van Dyne, as a martyr that was the best example of superheroism before disappearing, and then ended with the implication that her daughter, Hope van Dyne, would train to replace her, with the line “It’s about damn time.” As awesome as these things might be, it was the twelfth film in the MCU, and it was just getting ready to bring in a female superhero by herself, despite knowing that the character was popular enough by herself to warrant this much homage and foreshadowing. While it made perfect narrative sense to frame the story this way, its still just an excuse to push a female-lead narrative further down the line.

Yes, it was about damn time. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t immediately recognize that.

Phase 3 was the biggest, and most changed, phase in the MCU plan. This makes sense as it was mostly planned out after The Avengers’ success and would rap up the overarching storyline of the three phases, that being Thanos and his search for the Infinity Stones, gems of unimaginable power. Phase 1 had largely been ignorant of this plot, as it was the beginning stage of the franchise as a whole, but once it was completed the films wasted no time in introducing the overarching plot by framing several films around the Infinity Stones. Guardians of the Galaxy especially helped establish what the Infinity Stones were, how many there were and why Thanos wanted them and why that was a big deal.

Phase 3 began with two films in 2016, Captain America: Civil War that brought in the plot of the Avengers fracturing as a group, and Doctor Strange which introduced magic to the universe as well as the second to last Infinity Stone. Captain America: Civil War is notable for its introduction of the universe’s Spiderman, as like with Batman v Superman, it relied on audiences to be familiar enough with the character to accept this brand new character to the story without much introduction, a rather privileged ability in the MCU. It also introduced Black Panther, but in a way that was more as a prequel to a Black Panther film, such as the case with Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman, rather than a character we’re just supposed to accept at face value like Spiderman. Spiderman: Homecoming was still made however, and before Black Panther.

In the original plan, Spiderman wasn’t even involved, but Black Panther was. Do you know who else was? Captain Marvel. This means that both the first MCU films to star a black-lead character and a female-lead character were pushed to the wayside by a character that already had several films before. However, as bad as this sounds, it works far better for the greater narrative of Phase 3, as Black Panther and Captain Marvel have more narrative importance to the climax of Phase 3 than Spiderman.

This was the original plan for Phase 3. Can you spot the changes they made?

As you can see, the original plan for Phase 3 had always placed Black Panther immediately before Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel immediately after. Despite more films entering the schedule after this initial plan, this does mean that those two films always had an important position in the film series planned ahead. Inhumans is the only film that was cut completely from this plan, for whatever reason, as it was supposed to be the penultimate film before the final Avengers film, and its removal meant that Captain Marvel then got that distinction.

Ant-Man and the Wasp was the other film added to the Phase 3 plan, and put in between Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel, so it was technically the first MCU with a female-lead. That female-lead not only having to share the lead status with an already established male character, but having her character arc and development pushed to the wayside for more of his development, because it makes more sense to how the story was structured. To make matters worse, to set up the final Avengers film, one of the two had to die to motivate the other into action. And it wasn’t the badass, coming-into-her-own female character, but the goofy, already established male character. It may very well serve the purpose of the story more strongly, but it still puts the male’s narrative importance over the female’s, something that is not just a recurring theme in the Ant-Man series, but the MCU as a whole.

Finally, and I do mean finally, we get to Captain Marvel in 2019, the 21st film in the MCU. Starring Brie Larson, an actress known for her ability to do comedy, drama and action, and featuring the character that, despite her inconsistent comic book presence, has been portrayed as the most powerful female Marvel character a number of times. As the film after Avengers: Infinity War and Thanos’ victory over finding all the Infinity Stones and eradicating 50% of the universe’s population, and before Avengers: Endgame where the Avengers will ‘avenge’ those that fell, Captain Marvel is basically introducing the secret weapon against Thanos, a brand new character whose power might just be enough to help save everyone and end Thanos once and for all.

And the sexists had to open their mouths to complain.

It’s all in the Presentation

Before Captain Marvel even came out, the Rotten Tomatoes score system was being abused to make it look like the film was bad before it had even come out, prompting the review website to make changes to its review system, much to the chagrin of the people making preemptive negative reviews. And if I’m allowed, I’d say it was probably mostly men, emphasis on “Not all” if that pleases you.

Wonder Woman did face some similar backlash, (or would that be frontlash?), but was lesser in comparison to Captain Marvel. There were some comments about her not being muscular enough to play Wonder Woman, despite having been a former member of the Israel Defense Forces. However, the exact opposite comments were made about Brie Larson’s training to become Captain Marvel, saying she was bulking up too much while simultaneously saying her physique and feats of strength weren’t impressive. It’s almost as if the common denominator here isn’t the women’s strength levels, but the women being women.

“Whatever, it’s not that impressive to move a 5,000-pound jeep. And her physique is too masculine at the same time, so I can’t enjoy watching it.”

What probably caused the intense preemptive strikes was how the films were being marketed to the audience. Wonder Woman mostly treated itself as a superhero movie that just happened to star a woman, with the added benefit of the Wonder Woman name already being recognizable and Gal Gadot being famous for the very popular and masculine The Fast and the Furious franchise.

Captain Marvel on the other hand focused on how it was both the second to last piece of the MCU Phase 3 and it was about a woman. Brie Larson was mostly famous for comedies before the film, and while having gotten some recognition for her performances in action films like Kong: Skull Island and dramas like Room, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress, she was still probably most recognizable for cult action-comedies like Scott Pilgrim vs the World and 21 Jump Street. Considering the former’s own issues with women, this isn’t necessarily a good thing for her.

I have already established that Captain Marvel’s position in the MCU was always intended to be a final piece to the Thanos-arc, and even earlier established how and why Captain Marvel has had the power to be so in source material. However, there are two inextricable problems from this. The first is that we are supposed to accept a brand-new character as a solution to the final film’s problem. The second is that we are supposed to accept that same character is female.

The first problem was going to be a problem regardless, as people would find the new character a deus ex machina no matter how well it was set up. The second is what needs to be focused on, because even if the first was always present, would it be as difficult to accept if the character was male?

People seemed to take Doctor Strange’s important role in Avengers: Infinity War in stride despite only having one previous film entry, and his level of power was extremely plot dependent; he was powerful when he needed to be and weak when he needed to be. Still, it is easier to accept an empowered man using his power through intellect rather than emotion or willpower, even though emotions turn out to be important for other male characters in the MCU like Star-Lord and Thor. When it becomes “contrived” is when it applies to female characters, such as the two most powerful characters outside of Thor, Scarlet Witch and Captain Marvel.

Aw crap, I think I left the red-eye on.

Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Infinity War was the only character aside from Thor to be presented as powerful enough to fight against Thanos one-on-one, being able to push him back when he had five of the Infinity Stones while she simultaneously destroyed the sixth. The thing to keep in mind here is that Scarlet Witch was granted powers by an Infinity Stone, thus explaining why she has such power, but her powers are able to counteract its effects as she is shown to be more powerful than the Vision, a robot empowered by the Stone itself. As Vision is a robot, thus representing rational intellect and logic, he represents a similar figure as Doctor Strange, but is still weaker than the powers of the emotionally-driven Scarlet Witch. However, both of these characters are secondary to the overarching plot of the MCU, unlike Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel who are presented as solo characters important to the last two Avengers films.

I bring this up because, in Captain Marvel, its revealed that Captain Marvel was empowered by an Infinity Stone, just like Scarlet Witch. Also like Scarlet Witch, Captain Marvel is presented as using her emotions and willpower to control her powers rather than intellect, and is shown to be more powerful and refined than the likes of Thor, Scarlet Witch, Vision and Doctor Strange in the use of her powers because, unlike the others, she already had good emotional strength and willpower to begin with. What was holding her back was other people trying to manipulate her and Captain Marvel not recognizing this.

It is an easy thing to accept that Doctor Strange became a powerful sorcerer through his established intellect, but another for the audience to just accept Captain Marvel’s ‘strength of will,’ especially because we as human beings have no quantifiable way of measuring one’s willpower. But, the important thing to keep in mind here is how privileged Doctor Strange is to have always been recognized for his intellect, a very visible trait, but Captain Marvel is constantly gaslit into thinking she’s less strong than she is because her willpower is not as visible. It is the entire character arc of Captain Marvel. It is easy to make her doubt herself by questioning the very reason she is so strong, which has been the narrative in the film as well as outside the film with its detractors. It is a female experience, but one that men can experience too, to be denigrated over superficial ideas of what makes one worthy of power.

I’m not saying that audiences should just accept whatever writing techniques that are thrown at them, but they should be aware of how it affects their prejudices against characters. Would we accept Doctor Strange’s intellect if he were female? Would we accept Thor’s power if he was female? Would we accept Captain Marvel’s power if she were male? Who knows, but the point is are we going to accept Captain Marvel, or deny any significance she has because her film had some weaknesses that would have been shrugged off in other, male-led films?

Conclusion

Female superheroes shouldn’t be a complicated thing for people to accept, but the genre of superheroes and comic books have been so male-centric for a long time that the entire concept is tainted in some way. There will never be a female character that has had the same impact as Superman, Batman, Iron Man, etc., because of this problem. Even Wonder Woman, because even if she gets a dozen more films in the future, and a few tv series, and an animated series, it will always be related to how Superman and Batman did it first and, to an extent, did it better. Especially as, being first, anything Wonder Woman does can be seen as only successful because men did it first.

That is the real issue, in that systemic sexism will always have a lingering effect on society no matter how people try to make up for it. Wonder Woman could only have a film after Superman and Batman had several franchises of their own. Captain Marvel and Black Widow could only get their own movies after 20 movies lead by men. It isn’t wrong to have all these male-led movies, but the second that someone immediately questions a female-led one, you can see why this has been going on for so long.

Women are different. Women are other. Their successes aren’t due to them being women, but their failures are. At least as far as the industries that men built have to say about it. That is why it is important to keep these things in mind the next time a superheroine movie comes out. It isn’t one movie that will forever change the status of women in popular culture. It is a constant stream of female-led movies that will eventually make the difference. The MCU and the DCEU have taken the first steps, and hopefully they keep moving forward

Sources

Comic book code of 1954. (2017, October 19). Retrieved from
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Comic_book_code_of_1954

Howden, L. M., & Meyer, J. A. (2011, May). Age and Sex Composition: 2010[PDF]. Washington D.C.: United States Census Bureau.
https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-03.pdf

Lasar, M. (2010, August 30). Papers of anti-comic book crusader now open to scholars. Retrieved from
https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2010/08/papers-of-the-dr-evil-of-comics-now-open/

“UGO’s World of Superman – Superman Movies: Supergirl”. (2006) UGO Networks. Archived from the original on July 29, 2009. Retrieved at https://web.archive.org/web/20090728051530/http://superman.ugo.com/movies/supergirl/default.asp

Stagecoach (1939)

Dir. John Ford

Intro

From the looks of this poster, are we sure the horses aren’t the villains?

The American West was once an extremely popular genre for dime novels and pulp magazine short stories. One author, Ernest Haycox, was a particularly prolific writer of the genre in the early 20thcentury, having written over two dozen novels and around 300 short stories. Two of them were adapted into movies in 1939, the novel Trouble Shooter was adapted into the film Union Pacific starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, and the short story “Stage to Lordsburg” was adapted the film addressed in today’s post Stagecoach starring Claire Trevor as Dallas and John Wayne as the Ringo Kid.

The production of this film was interesting because big-budget Westerns were out of style, with many Westerns of the time being B-movie fare, as well as the fact that director John Ford insisted on casting John Wayne in the leading male role. Hard as it may be to believe, John Wayne was originally known as a B-movie, low budget actor because of his roles in Western films, meaning that producers were wary of devoting money to the project because of John Wayne’s track record, as well as the film’s higher budget. And if the earlier producers had gotten their way, John Wayne would have been replaced with… Gary Cooper? The man who played Will Kane in High Noon when John Wayne refused? Huh, that is a connection I did not anticipate in writing these reviews back to back.

Anyway, Stagecoach was the film that launched John Wayne’s career and made him a household name. Is it as good as that distinction makes it sound?

I’m sure it was this shots like this that cemented John Wayne’s role as a Western icon.

Synopsis

In the year 1880, a stagecoach is preparing a trip from Tonto, a town in what was called the Arizona Territory, to Lordsburg, New Mexico. The passengers include Dallas and Doc Boone, a prostitute and drunken doctor respectively who have been chased out by the townswomen of the “Law and Order League.” They are joined by Mrs. Lucy Mallory on her way to join her cavalry officer husband, and by Samuel Peacock, a whiskey salesman whose wares are quickly exhausted by Doc Boone’s alcoholism. The driver, Buck, asks Marshal Curley Wilcox to be his shotgun guard; Wilcox accepts because the fugitive Ringo Kid is going to Lordsburg to murder the man who killed his father, Luke Plummer.

Before the stagecoach can depart, a cavalry lieutenant tells the driver and passengers that Geronimo, a violent raider based on a real Apache resistance fighter, is attacking travelers throughout the area. The lieutenant provides the stagecoach a small troop escort to Dry Fork, where another cavalry group is currently staying. At the edge of town, two more passengers join the stagecoach journey: the Southern gentleman Hatfield, a man with an extreme penchant for gambling, and the domineering banker Henry Gatewood, who is running away with embezzled cash from his bank.

On the road, they come across the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne, whose horse has gone lame and so he accepts going into Wilcox’s custody to save his own life. When the coach reaches Dry Fork, the group is informed that the cavalry had moved to Apache Wells, meaning that they’ll be unprotected because the other cavalry must leave them and return to Tonto.

From left to right: Hatfield, Buck, Wilcox, Doc Boone, Mrs. Mallory, Peacock, Dallas, Ringo, and Gatewood.

Everyone votes to continue despite the danger, and tensions rise as the group has lunch before their departure. The gentlewoman Mallory is perturbed at having to be near Dallas, as she is a prostitute, but Ringo invites Dallas to sit at the main table anyway. Hatfield attempts to keep Dallas away for Mrs. Mallory’s sake. When back on the road, everyone becomes thirsty and so Hatfield offers Mrs. Mallory his silver folding cup so she doesn’t have to drink from the canteen with the men, while he denies Dallas the same offer. Mrs. Mallory recognizes the family crest on the cup and its revealed that Hatfield had served in the Confederate Army under Mrs. Mallory’s father, hence his insistence in joining the stagecoach to protect her.

Arriving at Apache Wells, the group discovers that that Mrs. Mallory’s husband had been wounded in battle and the cavalry had moved out of there as well. The shock of this leads her to faint, but its revealed that it wasn’t just the news that caused it, but the fact that she had gone into labor. It is revealed that Mrs. Mallory’s desperation to reach her husband is so that he can be there as their first child is born, but now she’s about to give birth in the middle of nowhere with a group of strangers. Dallas takes charge and forces Doc Boone to sober up to help deliver the baby, while she assists him. Mrs. Mallory gives birth to a healthy girl but is too weak to care for the baby by herself, so Dallas takes on the responsibility.

That night, Ringo asks Dallas to run away and marry him, saying they could live on a ranch he owns in Mexico. Dallas is reluctant, due to her past, but eventually agrees after Doc Boone tells her she deserves to be happy. While Dallas wants to marry him she says that Mrs. Mallory and the baby need her right now, so she helps Ringo escape and plans to meet him at his ranch later. However, just as he is about to leave on horseback, Ringo sees Apache smoke signals, heralding an attack, and he returns to Wilcox’s custody to help protect the stagecoach.

Look, you don’t have to try and woo me. You’re a noble criminal and I’m a hooker with a heart of gold, we were bound to end up together.

What follows is an epic sequence in which the stagecoach tries to outrun the war party while having to cross a river and large portion of flatland. When everyone believes the danger has passed, an arrow strikes Peacock in the chest. Buck tries desperately to run the horses faster but gets injured with an arrow and loses one of his reins. Ringo jumps from horse to horse to try to help steer, while Wilcox, Hatfield and Doc Boone try to shoot their Apache pursuers. Even after several Apaches are successfully shot off their horses, the war party remains large and keeps getting closer to stopping the coach. Dallas hugs the baby tightly while Mrs. Mallory prays. Hatfield, with only one bullet left, levels his gun to Mrs. Mallory’s head as an act of mercy, but he too is shot before he can pull the trigger. Thankfully, the cavalry from Lordsburg arrives just in time and saves the stagecoach from the raiding party.

This is a great action scene and all, but I still can’t help but look at that coach and remember that seven people were in there at once for most of the trip.

Hatfield dies, but no one else’s wounds are fatal. Even Mr. Peacock survives and, before being taken to a doctor, invites Dallas to his and his wife’s home for a visit. Mrs. Mallory learns that her husband’s wounds were not serious and expresses remorse of her treatment of Dallas and thanks her. Dallas is understanding and gives Mrs. Mallory her shawl for the baby. The domineering banker Gatewood, after complaining about poor law enforcement in the area, is then arrested for his embezzlement.

Ringo is permitted by Wilcox to walk Dallas home. She tries to get him to leave her at a brothel, but he refuses, instead taking her to a bad part of town where she admits she lives. Ringo doesn’t seem to care about her past, but Dallas is upset because Ringo still has plans to go murder Luke Plummer, which will either result in his death, or in his arrest, thus leaving her alone. Ringo leaves Dallas to confront Plummer, who is playing poker in a nearby saloon. Plummer’s men inform him of Ringo’s presence, as does Buck, Doc and Marshal Wilcox. Plummer goes up against Ringo with two other men, but Ringo wins the shootout.

Dallas is relieved to see that Ringo is still alive but is dejected when he tells her he is giving himself over to Wilcox. Wilcox says that she can accompany Ringo to the edge of town on their wagon, but before they start, Wilcox and Doc scare the horses, allowing Ringo and Dallas to escape over the Mexican border and be happy together instead of taking Ringo into custody.

Analysis

This is a very large cast to have to pay attention to, especially as they each have their own individual stories and relationships to one another. However, the movie does an excellent job in establishing who everyone is at the beginning, and then letting their relationships move forward organically. What I find to be the best expression of this is the introduction of Dallas, who is being mobbed out of town by a group of older, austere looking women, and looking to Doc Boone for help, even though they are both social outcasts hated by the town. The film never explicitly states Dallas is a prostitute, but this display and how Mrs. Mallory and Hatfield treat her gives the audience enough information to know that she is an outcast for some reason. Since this film was made in 1939, it probably wasn’t possible to call her a prostitute on screen, but the subtle indicators throughout the film fill in the blanks.

The film is also visually impressive and amazing, especially relative to other Westerns from the 1930s. There are some obvious reuses of footage and location but considering how good looking the shots are its hard not to see why they did it. The most notable of these shots are the ones that include Monument Valley, as there is a portion in the beginning of the film and before the chase scene later in the film with the only difference being the direction the stagecoach is going. While that would normally indicate that they are going in the opposite direction, here’s its used just as a backdrop. The notable thing in this case being that Stagecoach was actually the first major Western to be shot there, and even more notably it is one of the examples where the film actually takes place around the Utah-Arizona border area. John Ford loved shooting in the location so much that he shot nine more films there, even when those films didn’t take place in Arizona or Utah. A lookout point in Monument Valley was even named after him.

Hehe, nice butte. These two buttes are called “The Mittens,” by the way.

The chase sequence where the stagecoach is being attacked by Apache warriors is amazing. It is a great action sequence that is not only intense but also shot gorgeously as the horses do look like they are going extremely fast and people are moving and climbing around the coach. The interior of the coach might have been its own separate set, otherwise filming and choreography would have been nearly impossible, but outside and the inside shots still feel seamless. It’s difficult to make two separate shots feel a part of the same scene, at least from a film from the 1930s, but Stagecoach is able to accomplish that.

If you watch this scene and say it’s not impressive, you are a liar.

I will say that I am perturbed by the whole racism thing, as the relentless bad guys are the Apache. Geronimo was an actual person in real life who fought U.S. forces and conducted raiding parties in the name of the free-moving ways of the Apache, but for him to just be name-dropped in this film as a point of terror feels diminishing and unnecessary. We don’t even know if Geronimo is the one attacking the group, as he’s never pointed out. Additionally, over a dozen Apache gets shot over the course of the chase sequence while the members of the stagecoach only suffer two injuries and one fatality. While good for the narrative, it feels as if the Apache are solely being used to created conflict and then conveniently die for the sake of entertainment. I can write this off as a product of its time, but that doesn’t make it feel any less cheap to me, and its probably the only reason I don’t like the scene despite its impressive qualities.

That being said, threat from Native Americans did exist in the time period this movie is set in, and the film’s presentation of Native Americans is far from the worst depiction on film. Stagecoach is also not even remotely as bad as John Wayne’s actual opinions on Native Americans, among other minority groups.

Stagecoach is one of the many classic Westerns that has been remade a few times. It was adapted for radio three times in the ‘40s, was remade with a star-studded cast in 1966, and was remade again for television in 198, featuring all four of the country music supergroup The Highway Men as stars. I only watched the 1986 version alongside this version, and I would say it was okay. It was at least in keeping with the original story and the acting and characters were still good. I will say that I think the action in the 1939 film was better though, at least because I remember it more than the chase sequence from the 1986 version.         

Also, because I’m a Wyomingite, I have to mention that the 1966 version, instead of having a westbound stagecoach in the Arizona Territory, had an eastbound stagecoach in the Wyoming Territory headed to Cheyenne. Just an interesting change in setting in my opinion.

Conclusion

Stagecoach is a classic in the Western genre, not only for breathing life into it again after it had become stale and cheap, but also for introducing the star power of both John Wayne as an actor and Monument Valley as a tourist destination to the movie going public. Stagecoach is an equal part character piece and action set-up that many come to expect from the Western genre, but at the time it was considered the return of prestige to the American West.

High Noon (1952)

Dir. By Fred Zinnemann

Intro

He can take ’em, look how tiny they are.

The showdown. It is a very familiar trope of the Western. Where two characters stand on opposite ends of a street in a small town, both with their fingers tickling their guns before they shoot, leading one to drop dead.

While the phrase “showdown at high noon” is at least common enough to have its own TV Tropes page, High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann and screenplay by Carl Foreman, actually subverts the expectation. Despite there being a showdown, it isn’t a one-on-one, single draw kind of deal where the protagonist is on the moral high ground. In fact, the movie subverted expectations of Western ideals so much that many people, including John Wayne, basically ended up calling it a Communist film, but that will be discussed further in the analysis section. For now, let’s summarize the tale of Marshal Will Kane.

Synopsis

The story begins in the New Mexico territory with Marshal Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, marrying his Quaker bride Amy Fowler, portrayed by Grace Kelly. Their marriage precedes Kane’s official retirement from being a U.S. Marshal, with the new marshal being over a day away and the couple planning to head out and start a general store in a new town.

Unfortunately for the newlyweds, Frank Miller, an outlaw played by Ian MacDonald, is coming to town on the noon train. Kane was the one who had arrested and jailed Miller and, even though he was supposed to be hanged, Miller was released and sent word to his gang that he was coming back. The telegraph operator, recognizing them, runs to warn Kane, which leads the wedding attendees to rush him and his wife onto a wagon and set them off running. Kane, however, wrestles with his conscious before driving the horses back around. Fowler is confused the entire time, not knowing why she’s being rushed off or why her husband is so conflicted. It isn’t until the make it back that Kane fully explains what is happening, that Miller is coming back for revenge and Kane isn’t willing to run from the fight. He also adds that once they start running, they’ll never stop, and will only be more easily taken by surprise. Fowler, however, refuses to understand his reasoning, not only being devout and a pacifist but also remembering the senseless deaths of her father and brother, and doesn’t want to become a widow on the first day of their marriage. She informs Kane that when the train arrives, she’ll be leaving on it.

Turn your Bride into a Widow within an hour, or your money back guaranteed!

Meanwhile, the young deputy Harvey Pell is embittered over Kane’s retirement, as he believes Kane refused to put in good word for him to become the next marshal. Helen Ramirez, a Mexican woman who was Miller’s lover, then Kane’s lover, and now Pell’s lover, isn’t impressed with his moping. Pell isn’t successful in trying to coerce Kane into naming him his replacement in exchange for helping with Miller’s gang, and after Ramirez fends off his sexual advances and calls him out for his immaturity, he goes to sulk in the bar.

Ramirez is visited by Kane who, while no longer romantically interested in her, is concerned for her safety should Miller return. Ramirez agrees and sells her general store, planning to move to Chicago and start a new life. Fowler, who was unaware of Kane’s romantic past, hears of this and confronts Ramirez, convinced that Ramirez is the reason Kane planned to stay and fight. Ramirez informs Fowler that isn’t the case, that he told her to leave and that was what she was doing. While the two decide to wait for the train together, Fowler explains how she can’t understand Kane’s convictions while Ramirez tries to convince her to remain loyal to her man, as she would if Kane still loved her.

I wonder, what are they trying to say based purely on their clothing choices?

Kane, during the hour before noon, is trying to rally a group of citizens to deputize and help him fight off Miller and his gang. Outside of Pell’s greedy offer, Kane is met with almost no support. Half the town’s men are unwilling to fight against Miller out of fear while the other half, such as the hotel owner and barkeeper, actually liked Miller’s presence as it was good for business and didn’t like Kane’s devotion to law and order. Even his most ardent supporter denounces his plans of confrontation, believing that Miller wouldn’t harm the town if Kane just left. The only men willing to join his cause altruistically are a man who is too old, a boy who is too young, a man who is drunk and half-blind and a man who backs down when he realizes he’s the only real volunteer. Pell attempts to convince Kane to leave, which leads to a violent confrontation, leading to Pell being knocked unconscious. Now, with absolutely no allies to speak of, Kane writes out his will.

When the clock strikes noon and the train arrives, Miller gets off while Ramirez and Fowler get on. The gang meet up and begin to ferret out Kane, and as stated, this isn’t a traditional showdown with two men on opposite ends of a street. This is like a dark game of hide and seek, with four against one and all with loaded guns. Kane is able to take out two of the gang but slowly gets cornered by the other two. As the last gang member reloads to kill Kane, Fowler shoots at him from behind, having jumped off the train at the last minute and immediately taking the gun from Kane’s office to save her husband’s life. Unfortunately, after saving him she is then put in danger when Miller grabs her and uses her as a hostage and human shield to lure out Kane. Kane comes out, but Fowler is able to claw at Miller’s face, leading him to push her down and attempt to kill her first, allowing Kane a clear kill-shot.

The two embrace after the danger is over. All of the townsfolk, everyone who stood by and watched as Kane confronted the gang alone, come out. Solemnly and with disgust, Kane drops his tin star on the ground and leaves with his wife, never to return to his life of justice.

“Quite a honeymoon, eh sweetie?”

Until High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane from 1980, but that’s a different story.

Analysis

First off, I’d like to say that this is a very dreary, solemn film. That isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable, but the tone of this thing is one of pessimism and defeat. There is a sense of resolve and honor surrounding the character of Will Kane but considering how much he’s risking over those things and how little his chances are, it can really bum a viewer out.

The tone is firmly established by the music, composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, as it is slow, wistful and the lyrics for the songs literally spell out the hopelessness of the situation. That a man has to choose between love or honor, and he can’t back down “until I shoot Frank Miller dead.” Literally the last line of “The Ballad of High Noon” (Tiomkin, 1952).

It would also be one thing if Will Kane was presented as a stereotypical ‘good guy’ in this film, because even in the dire situation you would root for him. But he is not. He is Lawful Good incarnate, which is to say that he puts law, order, justice and honor above all else. While this does sound good in theory, this film goes out of its way to show how it has worked against Kane. This nuanced depiction of Lawful Good characters is more common today than it was in 1952, as being a law-abiding citizen and having faith in the system was important to the culture at the time, which you can see later in this essay.

If you are at all familiar with RoboCop, you should know how this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The most important relationship he has in the movie, aside from his two love interests, is with his deputy Harvey Pell, and while Pell is immature and grossly ambitious, Kane does nothing to prevent the souring of their relationship as law enforcement partners. When Pell questions why Kane didn’t recommend him as the new marshal, Kane states that he said nothing about Pell. Not that Pell was a good or bad choice, but Kane believed he had nothing to say in the matter.

Pell is clearly a bad choice for marshal, and his attempt at bargaining during a life-threatening situation shows that, but Kane does nothing to salvage their partnership. Even after Pell got drunk in anger over the slight, he does attempt to get Kane out of town, which goes unappreciated and is seen as an insult by Kane.

Come on, who wouldn’t trust this face?

Other than Pell though, there is practically no one willing to stand up to Frank Miller, aside from the aforementioned poor choices. The worst thing about the situation is that Kane can’t even blame the people who back down. Instead of fight for justice and honor, they sit back for life and their family. In a way, Kane wishes he could make that decision, but ultimately he sees it as the bad choice.

In that sense, that is why this movie was considered “un-American” by some people. The hero’s goodness is at conflict with others sense of it, and the established word of law will not defend you. When I said that it was considered a Communist film, that isn’t entirely accurate. What people called it was an anti-blacklist film, which indirectly amounts to being Communist because, y’know, the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Carl Foreman, the screenplay writer, was even called to appear before HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, during the production. Foreman had been a member of the American Communist Party but quit after being disillusioned by it, but was still found guilty and black-listed for being an “uncooperative witness.” What that means is that he didn’t name any of the people he knew while he was still a member of the party, and to be black-listed meant that he wouldn’t be allowed to find work in Hollywood.

All it needs is an Elmer Fudd laugh.

He was still be listed in the film as the writer but his interest was sold off to the producer, Stanley Kramer. Foreman tried to make his own production company and even had the support of High Noon’s star, Gary Cooper, but the public brought an end to it and Foreman, his path to becoming a Hollywood film director forever blocked, eventually emigrated to England,

The thing is, despite Foreman’s sympathy for Communist ideals, if any at the time of writing the screenplay, I’m not sure I see that much of a parallel in this story. Even if the anti-black-list sub-text was intentional, it is far more subtle than, for example, The Crucible play from 1953, which was a WAY more obvious criticism of the McCarthy era. This is not some propaganda film trying to convince American’s youth of the Communist party’s ideals nor is it a scathing caricature of real life individuals at the time. I think the whole “un-American” thing is an exaggeration by the film’s detractors, such as John Wayne, to justify black-listing Foreman and for disliking the film for other elements. Those other elements being the slow pace, the moral ambiguity and lastly, the fact that a Quaker woman saves the protagonist’s life.

Seriously, its reasons like that are why John Wayne hated the film so much that he and director Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo in response. As stated by Hawks in John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, “I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western” (Munn, 2005, p 148).

To unpack that a little, why is being saved by a woman, a Quaker woman at that, such a bad thing in a Western? That is basically the crux of his argument that the movie is bad, as it is the example from the film he uses to illustrate his point. If anything, I think Fowler going to save her husband only strengthens the theme of the whole film; that Kane got his hands dirty for honor and refuses to be passive for the sake of love, while Fowler was about to remain passive to defend her honor before ultimately getting her hands dirty for love. It shows that doing good isn’t always clean, but you live with it because it is what you feel is the right thing to do. To see Fowler’s sacrifice of her innocence in this film and see it as a reason why the film is bad is something I can only chalk up to a sense of emasculation in a very masculine genre. And that is stupid.

And why is a marshal trying to rally help framed as a bad thing too? Again, Hawks said “that a good marshal would turn around and say to someone, ‘How good are you? Are you good enough to take the best man they’ve got?’ And the fellow would say, ‘No,’ so the marshal would say, ‘Then I’ll just have to take care of you.’ And that scene was in Rio Bravo. It was the exact opposite of High Noon” (Munn, 2005, p. 148).

But, is it though? Kane refuses the help from the people more likely to die rather than help in his conflict with Miller, and decides to defend the entire town despite having no support from it. That isn’t Kane’s way of saying ‘Then I’ll just have to take care of you’? Just because the sentiment wasn’t blatantly stated in a heavily masculine fashion doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Much like how I mentioned in my essay on the Ghostbusters franchise, politics had a very heavy hand on how this film was received. This is especially interesting considering that the two films had about 63 years between them, as well as being from two wildly different genres.

Thankfully, Wayne and his fellow detractors weren’t the only people talking about the film. The film was fairly popularly received, was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four of them, Katy Jurado was the first Mexican actress to win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Helen Ramirez, and Will Kane became one of the main well-remembered Western characters. As far as people with conservative politics go, Ronald Reagan stated his favorite film was, in fact, High Noon. (Mulholand, 2003)

Conclusion

High Noon is a surprisingly fascinating film. It is a good movie, no doubt, but the fact that it had such varying degrees of praise and hate is just interesting, and is just one of the many examples of McCarthy Era Hollywood. Thankfully, we as a culture have moved on and can enjoy this film as it is. And I can remain comfortable in my ambivalence towards John Wayne as a public figure, but that’s something to explore in another post.

Sources

Mulholland, J. (2003) Inside High Noon. DVD documentary.

Munn, Michael (2005). John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth. Penguin. p. 148. Accessed via Google Books. Retrieved at https://books.google.com/books?id=lVJL6w1T3ocC&pg=PT148&lpg=PT148#v=onepage&q=Howard%20Hawks%20%22I%20didn’t%20like%20High%20Noon%22&f=false

Tiomkin, Dmitri. (1952). “The Ballad of High Noon.” On High Noon (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack). Retrieved at https://genius.com/Dimitri-tiomkin-the-ballad-of-high-noon-lyrics