I love a good superhero movie as much as the next guy. I love the bright colours and whimsy, I love the whirligig of action and fraught emotion, and I of course love the simple (but noble) battle of good against evil. Despite all of this affection, I am still astonished that now, in the 21st Century, female superheroes are still struggling to make the lead role.
It can be hard to effectively explain to my male friends how it actually feels to be a woman watching these films, and when I try I’m usually offered a swift defensive comment or a shrug in response. Although I often love superhero movies I always remain a little distant from them, as any character representing my sex is almost always undervalued, presented instead as merely a love interest, a partner-in-crime, a sidekick. Just like any man or boy I want to imagine myself in the cape and boots, and a thought runs through my mind while watching whoever the latest fantastical crime-fighter is: “Why can’t I be the hero?”
It’s an issue the major studios have noticed too. Along with the buzz around the new and upcoming releases of Captain America: Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Justice League, Guardians of the Galaxy etc, there have been rumours swirling that there may be a film in the pipeline centred around the Black Widow character in the wake of her recent popularity in The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier movies, as well as films centred around Mystique – our favourite blue villain from X-Men – and Jane Foster, Thor's earthbound paramour. On top of these, there is a confirmed upcoming series based on the exploits of character Agent Peggy Carter, who found fame on the big screen in Captain America: The First Avenger. I’m glad that these possibilities are being aired, if not confirmed, and it should be no surprise given that the actresses (respectively Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman and Hayley Atwell) have all either won or been nominated for some of the world’s most prestigious acting awards.
I find the rumours of these new superheroine-centric movies particularly reassuring, especially given Wonder Woman’s recent relegation from the lead in her own movie to sidekick in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. As the potential films starring Black Widow and Mystique are still only being spoken of in very vague terms I think it is important that this issue remains near the top of the agenda until they materialise. Studios have the power to represent their audience without fear of reprisal, and I heard somewhere that “with great power comes great responsibility".
Females now make up nearly 47 per cent of comic book readers (as shown in recent Facebook poll statistics), and you could almost guarantee that these women and girls are also eagerly buying their cinema tickets alongside their male counterparts. Figures recently released by FiveThirtyEight, lauded statistician Nate Silver's new statistical analysis site, prove that films that pass the Bechdel Test (a crude but effective way to measure the role women play in a work of fiction: the story must include at least two named female characters, who speak to each other about something other than a man) are actually more likely to be commercial successes. The Hunger Games was one of the highest grossing movies of 2012, as was the sequel in 2013, showing that a female hero can easily hold her own when it comes to box office sales. There is no reason not to produce a movie in which a woman is the lead character as part of this current trend of superhero blockbusters, so why are we still fighting the fictional, as well as the non-fictional, glass ceiling? Why are we still being treated like a minority when we are so demonstrably not?
I’d be the first to agree that the last 20 years have seen a handful of pretty appalling female superhero movies. But these have mostly been at the hands of bad directors and almost exclusively male producers. 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry was a tragic interpretation which robbed Catwoman of her fierceness and power. Elektra – the low-budget Daredevil spin-off — followed a year later focusing on an already-unpopular character. Look further back at Tank Girl from 1995 — though directed by Rachel Talahay, she was allegedly forced by the studio executives to re-edit and tone down the punk heroine. I fear that these flops may always be the first thing studios consider when presented with a female lead, which would be as unfair as saying, “Did you get a look at Batman and Robin? Jeez, let’s never make a Batman movie again”. The recent reveal that David Goyer (influential writer of the Dark Knight Trilogy and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice) really doesn’t think a lot of female superheroes shows the level of respect in this industry, not only for the value of diversity (both monetary and moral), but for the source material they rely on.
In light of the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past this week I would say that the X-Men ensemble is a great source for finding valuable superheroines. They not only supply us with multiple female role models, but with women harbouring tremendous power. This is why I am so disappointed that the significant role of Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) in the original story is somewhat played down in the movie adaptation. In the comics she is a key member of the X-Men, and in this story she uses her powers to go back in time to alter a pivotal event. However, in the film she uses this power to send Wolverine back instead. When Ellen Page is such a familiar face, how much harm could it have done Marvel and 20th Century Fox to be faithful to the source material, and allow her character to retain her status? I'm pretty sure we wouldn't all have legged it out of the cinema, and I doubt it would have suffered the critics' wrath either.
This discomfort with the lack of leading female characters is naturally a sentiment that pervades most blockbuster cinema, but no genre holds such a committed audience, such loyal and ardent fans as that of comic book superheroes, and this trend is doing the source material a disservice. Don’t get me wrong, I loved both Thor movies in the way you love a big dumb Labrador running up to lick your face, I loved Spiderman in both Maguire and Garfield incarnations as well as the dorky 60s cartoon, and I’m super-hyped about Days of Future Past. For my sins I loved Jubilee in the 90s cartoon series of X-Men more than anyone really should have, but that boils down to the same problem I have now of needing someone I can relate to. Jubilee was the scrappy kid from a crappy neighbourhood, she was naïve, her powers were rubbish, and she just wanted to join in.
I admit that while Jubilee does seem more like a yappy Jack Russell to me these days, I'm still craving the same things now as I did when I was young – I want a character I can embrace and understand. I want to recognise my own fears and desires in a character, while also wishing I was in her place, wearing her boots, using her powers, and fighting her battles. Not enough is being done to address the gender imbalance, and frankly it's looking a little embarrassing.
Kate Longman is a long-term lover of books, food, theatre, Star Wars, and her hamster named Rogue (yes, after the X-Men member of the same name). She currently spends a great deal of time thinking about boats and space while working as the Book Buyer for the Royal Museums Greenwich.
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