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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)?
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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