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?