As superhero after superhero makes their big screen debut – and earns sequels, team-ups, and crossovers with a successful launch – the lack women in the spotlight is becoming impossible to overlook. Wonder Woman was long-hailed as the greatest example of the need for young women to see superpowered role models on the big screen, and that absence is set to be addressed in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. But it isn’t just progress or equality that demands women be treated differently in superhero blockbusters – it’s the laziness that seems to go into shaping them.
It’s hard to even discuss women in comic books without enraging some readers/movie-goers, so let’s make one thing clear: we’re NOT intending to attack studios on the grounds of sexism, or feel a need to explain why more women in superhero franchises is a good thing. We’re even less interested in determining whether the treatment of women in comic book film universes is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’
The battle for equality between men and women in superhero films is a fight plenty will volunteer for, but the narrow field of roles (and powers) afforded to women isn’t just about equality – it’s about boring storytelling.
Some will claim that there is no real difference between male and female heroes, and point out that Marvel, DC, Fox, and Sony have all included women in their ensemble casts. Presence = problem solved, right? Unfortunately, it seems every studio has determined that in a superhero story, women are allowed to fit into one of a handful of painfully rote molds.
It’s fair to say that male characters have been just as restricted, showing slight twists on the classic ‘hero’s journey’ (Thor, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker all endured a personal tragedy that shaped them into heroes). But as cookie-cutter as superhero drama may tend to be, the preassigned roles for women are less interesting, less important, and simply more played-out than their male counterparts.
As the current frontrunner in shared movie universes, Marvel offers the most evidence of the problem. With female characters ranging from deadly super-spies to Norse goddesses, and the high-powered executives in between, Marvel’s movie universe has all the makings of a gallery of strong, interesting women. Some prove to be just that; others… less so.
There is much to be said about the intelligent, witty, independent and charming Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her constant need to be rescued (in Iron Man and Iron Man 2… and Iron Man 3), proving that the ‘damsel in distress’ trope is alive and well – even if the damsel in question is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. We’ll get to Pepper eventually, but it’s the Thor series that illustrates a few major problems most clearly.
We’ve spoken at length on the SR Underground Podcast about the lack of any real relationship between the titular god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and even fans of the film will concede that Jane’s existence functions largely as a walking, talking plot device. In the first Thor, the war-mongering son of Odin (Hemsworth) needed to realize humanity wasn’t below him, and be humbled – a problem solved when he fell in love with literally the first woman he met.
It’s hard to defend the use of Jane as a plot device in the first film (a more meaningful romance could likely have been shown developing, yet it is not), and much of the movie’s humor was based on Jane’s attraction to Thor based on little more than his sex appeal. But the issue got even worse in Thor: The Dark World – a film that would (for a nice change of pace) find Jane infected by the film’s MacGuffin, thereby requiring her to play a more active role in the plot.
Then there’s Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander). Where the first film had shown Sif taking pleasure in fighting Frost Giants and skewering Destroyers, fans were promised a deeper look at the relationship between Thor and Sif in the sequel. A vague romantic interest between the two had been slightly alluded to in the past, but with screaming New Mexicans surrounding them, the pair had more important things to worry about.
Hopes were high, since Sif had quickly emerged as the only real ‘warrior woman’ seen in a superhero film to that point – despite being more of an ‘Asgardian’ than a bona fide superhero. What viewers got instead was a warrior goddess (who managed to exude sex appeal without showing skin) reduced to a spurned admirer, and the ‘exploration’ of the pair’s relationship a single scene where Sif made herself available to Thor.
The character’s shift from pleasantly unexpected to lovesick was disappointing, but what was worse is that Marvel decided that reducing Lady Sif to jealousy wasn’t just a worthwhile move, but one that should be used as a selling point.
From The Dark World’s first trailer, it was clear Jane Foster’s arrival in Asgard would lead to an immediate love triangle, with a dirty look from Sif featured prominently. And just like that, Sif’s advances were rejected (for reasons we still don’t understand), and one of the most promising superpowered women in Marvel’s stable was reduced to one of the most stereotypical soap opera tropes imaginable.
The real crime is that Jaimie Alexander was capable of a much better story, having escaped most expected stereotypes in the previous film (landing her as a fan-favorite for Wonder Woman). Yes, male heroes are going to be romantically tied to female characters for the foreseeable future; and yes, those loved ones will always be the first targets for said hero’s enemies. But seeing women running, screaming, and needing rescue has gotten old – fast. Especially when the women doing the running and screaming seem to defy past stereotypes in many other ways (one would think that a scientist who theorized the existence of other realms, or took over Stark Industries could manage to see trouble coming).
And despite what Man of Steel may imply in regards to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a romance doesn’t always add to the story. At least The Dark Knight trilogy had Bruce Wayne embarrassed and rejected by the women of Gotham for a change.
But that’s just dealing with the females in superhero blockbusters; what about the women hailed as bona fide superheroes themselves?
Picture this: two heroes – one male, one female (both in peak physical condition, as blockbusters require) – are encircled by a group of enemy thugs. Unfazed, the woman steps forward with weapons drawn and limbs swinging, and the male hero steps back, conjuring a storm of magic from the Earth itself.
Congratulations, you’ve just imagined something that nearly every blockbuster screenwriter has sought to avoid at all costs. In fact, it’s almost a complete opposite of how superpowers are traditionally handed out on the big screen. Trust us: when you can make a case for why picturing a super-team in which the woman fights while the male supports is not just a revelation, but grounds for accusations of feminism, something has gone horribly wrong.
In X-Men‘s world of mutants, the genetic mutations aren’t all bad: Cyclops fights with laser attacks, Wolverine fights with his claws, Beast fights with his strength, Iceman fights with… ice. For Marvel, Thor fights with Mjolnir strikes, Captain America fights with fist and shield strikes, Iron Man fights with weapon and repulsor strikes… Perhaps you see where we’re going with this.
Now look at the women: Rogue leeches life and powers from others, Blink can open portals, Storm communes with the weather, Kitty Pryde can become intangible and phase through objects, Mystique can deceive with disguise, etc..
Nearly every typical male superhero uses their gifts to attack, exercising power and dominance over whoever they face. Yet the female superheroes (who are presumably their equals) are relegated to support roles; or even more troubling, have their powers originating from an unnatural energy source, or a mental abnormality.
Comics and movies aren’t alone in this practice, as just decades ago doctors were still pointing to ‘female hysteria’ as a cause for dozens of mental and physical afflictions. But it’s 2014, and these blockbusters are shaping up to be one of, if not the biggest form of entertainment worldwide audiences will be exposed to over the coming years.
While superpower or mutations may be en vogue, people have always loved heroes who take control of any situation with gusto, fighting the good fight. Yet a lack of control is still used as a uniquely female trope: Rogue was unable to control her powers, hurting the men in her life she most cared for. Mystique’s gift is mired in issues of self-confidence, being led (against her will at times) by the men in her life. Fantastic Four‘s Susan Storm can disappear from sight, and lashes out emotionally with blasts of nonlethal energy when not complaining about her powers.
Even the no-nonsense Pepper Potts finds herself turned into a fast-healing, nearly invincible super-soldier in Iron Man 3‘s climactic battle. It’s a shocking twist, granting her the strength to protect the love of her life, and destroy the man intent on killing them both. Yet, in the end, her panic only subsides once Tony tells her that he can “sort out” the situation, meaning he’ll remove her abilities (ones every movie-goer would kill for).
The notion of a woman being unable to control her superpowers is widespread; now ask yourself this: when Pepper first threw a hateful stare after Tony’s armor mistakenly attacks her (likely intended as a lighthearted, accusatory glance), did you wonder – just for a moment – if Pepper had suddenly let anger and confusion cloud her judgement, making her a potential threat? (We didn’t.)
In short: we’re sick and tired of seeing women view their powers as burdens, not gifts. Because in the end, who is that meant to please? Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and even The CW’s Flash all take childlike thrills in testing the limits of their powers, but we challenge any comic book fan to think of a film that showed a heroine reacting the same way. Men can love their powers as the gifts they are, but if women take joy in being different – something sinister lies ahead.
For evidence, look no farther than X2: X-Men United’s Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), The Wolverine’s Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Iron Man 3’s Brandt (Stephanie Szostak), X-Men: First Class’ Emma Frost (January Jones)… If a superpowered woman is laughing or taking pleasure while using her powers in a film, odds are she’ll be a villain or morally ambiguous at best (hell, even Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman stopped enjoying herself once she decided to fight for good).
The best example is possibly Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who only fully realized her true power in X-Men 3: The Last Stand. Embracing her mutation doesn’t help her come to terms with who she really is (the theme adhered to for nearly every other film and character), but causes her to side with antagonist Magneto, with her murderous spree only stopped once she begs Wolverine to kill her. Because she just can’t control herself.
We’re not saying that Jean Grey’s live-action struggle with the Phoenix Force was offensive or ill-handled. We’re simply making the case that at this point, seeing yet another woman at the hero’s side receive powers, and complain about them rather than using them in a charming, or entertaining fashion is just downright boring.
In fact, Fox managed to essentially repeat the exact same character arc in X-Men: First Class, when Mystique learned to embrace what made her unique, ultimately leading her to join forces with the murderous Magneto as well. The shape-shifter would later spend the course of X-Men: Days of Future Past trying to decide which of the men in her life she was going to listen to, so Fox clearly thinks they’ve stumbled onto a winning subplot.
The bottom line is that comic book fans love their female heroes – just look at the passion and enthusiasm shown during the casting process, or when they’re deemed to be sold short in live-action. But even casual movie-goers can only take so much of women acting like superpowers are a drag, and there’s no good reason why the convention is restricted only to women (unless you’re Ben Grimm, in which case your mutation really is terrible).
The Real Crime
There are plenty of reasons for the lack of inspiration or new ideas for women in superhero movies, but the most devoted fans of the comic books should be the loudest critics of the genre, not claiming to be its defenders online. Women in comic books have been plagued with their own problems over the years, but even those who have risen to exemplary status on the page are being sold short by studios.
It seems foolish that fans once believed Iron Man 3 would see Pepper Potts suit up in an armor set of her own – an idea deeply explored in the comics, hinted at in the film’s trailers, and even implied by Marvel boss Kevin Feige to indeed be the plan. Instead, Pepper was cloaked in Tony Stark’s armor for her own protection (without even realizing it) before sheltering Tony from danger, and having the armor returned to its rightful owner (with her, again, just a passenger).
The scene was still a step forward for the character, but short-changed what should have been a chance to put the characters on equal footing. We hate to think that the studio knowingly misled fans by hinting that Pepper would become her superhero self onscreen, but there seems to be only alternative: Marvel genuinely doesn’t see a difference.
In the end, what the studio will no doubt claim is a “nod to the hardcore fans” was also a decision to not include the version of the character those fans hoped to see, taking the banter between Paltrow and Downey, Jr. (one of the franchise’s brightest features) to a new – yet totally natural – level. Apparently, comics can have that freedom; but on film, only Tony gets to wear the armor (…along with his best friend).
Rather than crafting a suit of armor to “protect the one he can’t live without” (like he had in the comics) Tony – and the filmmakers – decided to keep Pepper completely vulnerable, thereby allowing her to play the helpless woman in need of rescuing for the third straight film.
In all honesty, it seems that the sheer amount of bland and repeated story lines in superhero films have blinded the faithful comic fans to a simple truth: on the page, female superheroes are some of the most entertaining and important characters, in too many series to count.
Ask any fan of the “X-Men” comics universe, and they’ll tell you: Jean Grey, Storm, Rogue, Emma Frost, and Kitty Pryde are some of the most influential and powerful figures in the comic’s history. Really.
Moviegoers who assumed Rogue could use her power to copy every mutation of those around her were clearly dreaming – but that’s exactly what makes the comic version of the character so powerful. On the page, Rogue has flown into combat, and dealt out punishment with the super team’s heaviest hitters. It was only on film that her powers came to define her as a victim, instead of the complex character she’s always been.
It isn’t just the women who get a raw deal when adapted to film, but the men who fed off of their strengths in the comics, as well. The relationship between Scott Summers and Jean Grey, or Kitty Pryde and Piotr Rasputin have been a source of great fiction in the comics, but it required they be given equal treatment; something comic readers hope for and expect, but movie audiences – according to the studio – won’t value in the same way.
Similarly, the rule that only villains get to enjoy their powers/abilities/work is nowhere to be found in comic books. Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Black Canary, Spider-Woman, Black Cat, or any other female character expected to entertain readers generally shows some sense of humor. After all, these comics are supposed to offer an entertaining escape, not make readers feel they’re better off being ‘normal.’
Is it really shocking that readers expect these women to be written just as well – and made every bit as relatable – as their male colleagues? But for whatever reason, movie studios seem stuck on one idea: women should complain, and see fighting the good fight as a burden. And we simply can’t understand why.
The studio’s first priority is to entertain and satisfy, so who is the lasting image of a the burdened, unhappy, support-class superheroine seeking to please? Women struggling with their powers may not necessarily ruin a film or story, but it certainly doesn’t speak to the female fans lining up to see those powers in action.
For once, could a faithful adaptation show movie audiences that Catwoman is alluring and carefree in any situation, or that the X-Women are as deadly as they are relatable? Why the studios insist on following movie rules – and twisting the most iconic female characters into unheroic reflections – is a question they won’t answer. Or worse yet, it may be a question they haven’t even bothered considering.
The Good News
Not every studio filmmaker seems dedicated to keeping the status quo, and Marvel’s Phase Two has shown some marked improvements. The Comic-Con crowd knew The Avengers would try something different when Joss Whedon was allowed to write and direct the film – given his longtime commitment to interesting female characters (whether seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, or Dollhouse).
The result was a film that took Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) – introduced in Iron Man 2 as a romantic temptation for Tony Stark (but she was really undercover) – and showed her skills as a spy (both mental and physical) in the first scene to follow the film’s title card. Under Whedon’s supervision, Widow would go on to intercept Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk face-to-face (while relatably terrified), feign vulnerability to trick Loki into revealing his plot, and share a relationship with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) that never went beyond friendship.
Whedon’s influence as overseer of the budding Marvel movie universe was clearly felt, as other films tried to follow suit. Although flawed, Iron Man 3 did seek to make Pepper less of a damsel in distress than in the past. And while Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) turned out to be both a former conquest and a villain, an effort was at least made to justify her motivations.
The Russo Brothers kept the momentum going with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, walking the line of potential attraction between Widow and Steve Rogers at times, but showing both were more interested in their duty than checking the box of ‘romantic subplot.’
Bringing closure to the Steve/Peggy love story also afforded another bright spot. While a romantic subplot was mostly out of the question (given Peggy’s age), an older woman also received respectful treatment in Thor: The Dark World, with Frigga (Rene Russo) shown to be just as deadly as her sons. And Peggy Carter’s early days with S.H.I.E.L.D. will now be given their own series (along with Jessica Jones on Netflix).
While those are signs of Marvel moving in the right direction – as is James Gunn casting Zoe Saldana’s ruthless killer/Guardian of the Galaxy as another promising heroine(?) – it’s clear the studio still has some work to do. Since Black Widow remains one of the only well-executed female characters to get equal billing to the surrounding Avengers, we can only hope she is used as the template. And the other studios churning out blockbusters would be wise to follow suit.
It isn’t just Asgardian mothers who can prove to be dangerous, as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel sought to show the same kind of motherly strength. Where Superman’s mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer) is typically a sidekick to her husband Jor-El in the comic book origin stories, Snyder decided to do one better: open his film with a scene of Lara giving birth to Kal-El. Lara would go on to support her husband in sending their son into the stars, and was even given the task of launching him herself.
The shift in the character may have gone unnoticed by most as the step forward it was, but the formulaic romance between Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Superman (Henry Cavill) show Snyder and DC’s universe haven’t mastered the problem, either. Yet the deadly lieutenant of General Zod, Faora (Antje Traue) stole the show, exuding military might without being “masculine”; seemed powerful without being “bloodthirsty,” and conveyed evil without falling into campiness.
Has Snyder shown enough promise to dispel concerns over Wonder Woman’s portrayal in Batman V Superman? Probably not. But exactly how a powerful, beautiful, accomplished woman should be depicted in a blockbuster seems difficult for any genre. After all, Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence is the only character to spend a majority of screen time in X-Men: Days of Future Past, essentially naked.
How Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman functions alongside Batman and Superman will carry an impact in more ways than one, least of all how likely she’ll be to carry a film on her own. But at this point – with everything that major studios and superhero franchises have given us – we’re just hoping to see something less-than-painfully predictable.
Because the last thing any movie or comic book fan needs is ‘more of the same.’
The age of the superhero blockbuster is now fully upon us, and the next decade (at least) will provide plenty of writers, director, and studio executives the chance to craft an entire generation of interesting, unexpected, and unique female characters. So which of your favorites do you think stand the best chance? Do you trust Hollywood to adapt them faithfully, or would you prefer they be spared the embarrassment, and remain on the comic book page?
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.