This last year has been an interesting one for women in comic book movies. We got Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises and Natasha Romanov in The Avengers. Compare that to 2011, when the most prominent Marvel women on the big screen were Peggy Carter and Jane Foster of Captain America and Thor. Now, don’t get me wrong. I adore Peggy and Jane, and I hope we get to see more of them. They are refreshingly 3-dimensional for being primarily love interests. But, like the women who came before them (Rachel Dawes, Pepper Potts, Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy, Betty Ross, and even Liz Sherman, Sue Storm, and Jean Grey), they are both very much embedded in the stories of their men, and neither could carry her own movie.*
2012 changed the game. I could see Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in her own film. Fans are practically salivating for a Black Widow feature. But so far, it looks like the powers that be are continuing to balk, lining up Ant-man and Guardians of the Galaxy ahead of Natasha in spite of her seniority.
What gives? And what will it take to finally get a superheroine top billing?
If you don’t think female representation in comic book movie adaptations is a problem, all you have to do is ask yourself why we don’t have a Wonder Woman movie yet. To the general, non-comic-fan public she is by far the most recognizable super-lady, and alongside Superman and Batman she comprises the core of the Justice League.
And yet while Batman has eight major live-action movies, and Supes has five (with a sixth on the way this year), Diana is sitting on a big, fat zero. Don’t say that it’s because she’s too campy for a contemporary reboot. The only way superheroes ever get updated is by someone taking a chance on a new interpretation every once in a while. That’s how Batman went from this…
And remember, people said the same thing about Captain America and his was one of the best solo movies in the Avengers franchise. If you take the origin story seriously, poke a little fun at its more outdated elements, and give it heart, nothing is too campy to have life breathed into it. Nothing.
In fact, Joss Whedon tried to get a Wonder Woman movie made back in 2007 and was shot down. If his work on The Avengers is any indication, it probably would have been pretty awesome. But I am saddened less by Whedon’s failure than by the certainty that women have tried to get Diana’s story told many times before and never got half as far as he did.
The sad truth is this: Wonder Woman doesn’t have a movie because there is simply no way to make a Wonder Woman movie that is not about Wonder Woman. Other superheroines have sneaked their way onto the big screen by hiding out in the background of men’s stories and in ensemble casts. But to make a Wonder Woman movie, studio execs would have to nut up and actually put a woman’s name on the poster. And so far, they’ve been almost embarrassingly hesitant to do so.
Well, except for…
Catwoman and Elektra Do Not Count
It’s telling that the only two comic book ladies to get their own films in the current millennium both got their starts as secondary characters in a male hero’s franchise. It seems that Hollywood will only take a chance on a woman if they’ve test driven her in a previous film.
“But wait!” you might say, “Both of those movies sucked in a pretty profound way! Does that mean that comic book movies starring women are doomed to mediocrity?”
No. Catwoman and Elektra didn’t suck because they were about women. They sucked because they were terrible, terrible movies. And a single female-led movie for each of the major comic book powerhouses in the last twenty-nine years is simply not enough data to draw any significant conclusions. Especially since their epic suckage was surely due at least in part to the studios not giving that much of a crap about them. Misogyny begets misogyny.
And, while both movies did pander to straight male viewers to an insulting degree, neither did they fail because of…
Those Scary Feminists
Someone whose opinion I value highly once argued to me, in all seriousness, that female superheroes should not get their own title movies because feminists would only complain about all the things wrong with them. I told him the same thing I will tell you now:
“You’re damn right.”
I’ll let you in on a secret. Hollywood knows how to write female characters well. They’ve always known how to write female characters well (it’s remarkably similar to how one writes male characters well). The only reason they don’t is because it’s easier to write an archetype or a piece of fetish material than an actual human being, and so that’s what they will do as long as we let them get away with it.
As long as Hollywood insists on feeding us crap, it is our duty to continue being vocally displeased. That’s the only way we’ll ever get characters like…
While The Dark Knight Rises was not as thematically strong as its predecessor, The Dark Knight, it had one thing that made it stand out for me among a sea of similar movies.
Selina is an anti-hero. She has a dark history and selfish motivations, but she’s very good at what she does and even when she’s committing crimes the viewer is encouraged to root for her. More complex facets of her continually show through – she inspires loyalty in at least one good friend, she shows touches of vulnerability when she gets in over her head or makes a mistake, and her declarations of only being in it for herself ring a little false at times. Then, when her proclaimed selfishness gets pitted against a real moral dilemma, she risks everything to turn around and provide the support necessary for the hero to save the day.
Now, I’ve got nothing against the Princess Leias of the world. Pepper Potts is a great Princess Leia, and so is Jane Foster. But I cannot describe how happy it makes me that Selina got to be Han Solo.
And while I was thrilled with her story arc, I was even more impressed by the way the camera continually engaged with her as a person instead of as an object. In one scene, she has John Daggett up against a wall. When he attempts to fight back, she pins his hand to the wall with her boot at the level of his head. Throughout the scene, I kept expecting the camera to pull back for a shot of Selina’s body contorted, her legs in a vertical split. But the shot remained focused on the characters’ faces. How nice it was to see a director putting more cinematic emphasis on what a woman is doing than what she looks like while doing it!
Comic book women can be effectively translated to the screen. It can be done.
Which brings me back to…
Give me a #!$?@*)% Black Widow Movie
The Avengers was masterful. It could easily have become “The Cap and Tony Show” with everyone else as scenery, but writer/director Joss Whedon worked hard to give everyone screen time and character focus – even the ones who hadn’t warranted their own title. In the process, by coincidence or by design, he made Natasha Romanov the clear and undisputed protagonist of the movie.
She was the one with the personal stakes from the very beginning (Hawkeye getting captured). She was the one with the most compelling personal arc. She was both physically strong and psychologically devious. And she was the one who actually saved the day by disrupting the portal using Loki’s staff, no big deal!
Don’t get me wrong. I love Tony and Cap. I love Tony and Bruce. I love Thor and Loki. I love Hill and Fury and Coulson. I love Hawkeye. But while they flitted around being flashy and having nice character epiphanies, Black Widow quietly got on with the business of driving the plot forward while simultaneously being absolutely fascinating.
Following the movie, fans immediately started speculating about the Black Widow origin story we were sure to get. But as the months have gone on, it’s becoming increasingly evident that such a movie will not be forthcoming. I am not appeased by the news that Natasha will be showing up in Winter Soldier; as much as I’m looking forward to seeing her opposite Cap, this feels like a consolation prize. Nat has been tried and proven. She had more screen time in The Avengers than either Bruce or Thor. The lack of a solo movie for her (or, hell, even a joint movie with Hawkeye!) is a glaring omission made possible only by her femaleness.
With DC working on a Justice League franchise, it seems likely that we will finally get a Wonder Woman movie in the near future. There are hints that we might see Pepper Potts take on her armored persona Rescue in the next Iron Man. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman exists. And Black Widow could not be more perfectly poised to launch her own solo movie.
It’s time for Hollywood, Marvel, and DC to put on their big-boy pants and admit that the only reason it took them this long to get here was deeply-ingrained, anti-women spite. And give us a Black Widow movie.
*I will give you Storm – she wasn’t anyone’s love interest. But she was also a very flat character and mostly poorly-written. I would have loved to see her fleshed out in her own movie, but she just wasn’t quite there in X-Men.
Author: Christina Kim
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