Captain Marvel is now playing on cinema screens across the country, bringing a dose of '90s nostalgia, alien space battles and a female superhero to us all. Not only is this good news for the Avengers, who are in desperate need of a super-strong, spacefaring hero after Thanos’ finger-snap of doom, but it’s also a refreshing and much-needed change to Marvel’s superhero line-up – because female audiences need superpowered leading ladies too.
I first saw Return of the Jedi on my fourth birthday when it was shown on British TV for the second time. This movie experience struck a chord with tiny me for two reasons – I desperately wanted to cuddle an Ewok, and I definitely wanted to be Princess Leia.
My admiration of Leia and love of Star Wars carried over into adulthood. But, as inspiring as she is, who else was there for me to identify with? All the boys had Luke, Han, Chewie, or even Vader to identify with, but if you were a girl all you got was Leia aaand… that green dancing girl in Jabba’s palace?
But this isn’t surprising. Male viewers have always been given more characters to identify with – especially in genre movies. Women, more often than not, are a love interest or a plot device, or some other tired stereotype.
Only recently have we begun to see a more driven effort in comic book movies to put female characters on an equal footing with their male counterparts. The arrival of Captain Marvel is significant because it’s the first time in Marvel Studios’ entire ten year run that the titular character is a superpowered leading lady. 1 out of 21 isn’t balance, but it’s a start!
Bringing balance to the Marvel universe
The Marvel Studios movies have been staggeringly popular, making an estimated $17 billion since 2008. But, before Captain Marvel, young girls have had few female characters to identify with. Sure, there’s Black Widow, Gamora, Wanda Maximoff, Shuri and The Wasp and they’re all awesome, but they’ve always been secondary in value to the male characters. I love them too (looking at you, Mr Stark) but I can’t help worrying about the message that a multi-billion dollar enterprise is broadcasting when it consistently shows women as accessories to the plot.
Boys and men have been given a seemingly endless buffet of male archetypes to admire and identify with. They can dress up as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, War Machine, Rocket, Groot or Star Lord.
In recent years there has been progressive tipping of the scales so our favourite genre entertainments have started to cater to broader audiences, and as more and more women are given more roles with agency within our favourite comic book universes, everyone gets more choice about who they identify with.
It’s absolutely not about removing or replacing male characters. What would be the point? Instead, what makes the recent female heroes promising is they introduce more women to these stories. This adds balance to what currently is an unbalanced, male-centric who's-who of heroes.
Why the development of female characters matters
Marvel Studios Producer and President, Kevin Feige, has reportedly revealed Captain Marvel is one of the most powerful characters in the MCU – that’s a big deal for the girls and women watching this movie.
She has super strength, she’s a pilot, she can fly through space and she’s ludicrously powerful, which by my rough estimations puts her at least on par with the mighty Thor, right?
But the focus here shouldn’t be whose ass she could kick. It should be that Carol Danvers is afforded the same freedom as male superheroes. Like them, she has power, she has strength, but she’s also a flawed character with a story and a soul.
Brie Larson told CinemaBlend : “I love that she’s flawed. I love the fact that because she’s a risk taker, you watch someone who also then falls on her face because they’re swinging big, that feels very relatable to me. I love that you see someone who doesn’t always make the right judgement call.”
Carol Danvers isn’t just a superhero woman in this movie, she’s a multi-faceted character with depth. This further hammers home that stereotypes are long past their expiration date and women in these types of movies don’t have to be perfect and polished objets d’art .
Pointing out the depth of her character, and the fact she makes mistakes may seem like a big deal. However, this is affording women the same rights we afford the male superheroes, who are often deeply conflicted, proud and just plain wrong – but never to the detriment of their heroism.
The same can be said for how Captain Marvel has developed over the years. The character has a confusing history in comics. A male Captain Marvel was first created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan in 1967. Then a female character took his place, then back to a male again, then a female, then a male.
For a time, Carol Danvers was called Ms. Marvel. In 1977 she was given a ‘feminist re-imagining’ by an all-male group of creatives, which resulted in plotlines that often subjected her to kidnapping and violence and a costume that looked, well, like this:
The most significant change to her character and status in the Marvel universe took place in 2012 when Kelly Sue DeConnick became the driving force behind a well-received relaunch of Captain Marvel. This long-deserved reboot was feminist through-and-through and helped to create a better environment for not just female fans, but female creators.
The motivations for the relaunch weren’t to give Captain Marvel special treatment. Instead, she’s being treated equally to her male counterparts. She got a story that put her front and centre, she was given room to become a fully-realised character in her own right without relying on male characters to define her and she received a makeover, which was way more practical and less about satisfying the male gaze.
A few rotten tomatoes vs. box office success
Of course, more balance and equality won’t please everyone. A few vocal trolls haven’t been happy about Captain Marvel , calling for her character to smile more in promo materials and leaving fake, negative reviews on movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes.
But let’s not forget the movies and TV shows which often cause an online uproar for their bold and inclusive choices often become huge commercial successes.
Both Wonder Woman and Black Panther were met with a similar angry backlash. But the box office receipts, critical praise and awards won are proof positive that diversity and inclusivity can only ever be a greater positive for us all – including the financiers.
Looking to a bright and balanced future
It’s too early to say whether Captain Marvel will prompt Marvel to make more female-focused movies, but the future looks promising. A Black Widow movie is finally in production and over in the Sony camp an animated Spider-Gwen spinoff is on the cards too after her breakout popularity in comics and her role in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse last year.
In the DC camp, Margot Robbie’s Birds of Prey , featuring female superheroes (and antiheroes) like Black Canary, Huntress and, of course, Harley Quinn, is expected to be released in early 2020. Batwoman is also getting her own show after appearing in the recent Arrowverse crossover..
Over the past few years, there’s been significant progress. Star Wars now has Rey at the centre of its cosmic saga, Doctor Who now has a woman at the TARDIS’s helm, and Wonder Woman became the highest-grossing superhero origin film of all time (until Aquaman narrowly squeezed past her last year).
These are female characters that are not only strong, but they are the driving force of their respective stories – just like the male characters often are.
This isn’t to say we are only able to identify with superheroes who are the same gender as ourselves, but there has to be more choice so the multi-million dollar stories on screen are genuinely reflective of the wants, needs and identities of their audiences.