It’s no secret that superheroes kick ass on screen, but at the box office as well. Since 2007, Marvel Studios has produced twelve films as part of their Marvel Cinematic Universe series, grossing a collective $8.5 billion globally. This makes MCU the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, a title that Marvel plans to hold onto with ten more films already in production.
The fact that these films have continued to be so successful for so long is something of a marvel (insert lame joke drums). But what is even more astounding is the fact that Marvel has built this empire without having used a single female in a leading role.
Since the franchise’s beginning in 2008, the weight of the multibillion dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe has fallen on the beefy, masculine shoulders of Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. And while all of these main men have a female counterpart, their purpose in the films rarely ventures past the role of damsel in distress.
But despite the heavily one-sided male to female hero ratio, Hollywood has been gracious enough to give a few ladies the chance to fight alongside the boys, so that helps even the scales, right? Not exactly. Remarks made by actress and outspoken feminist Cara Delevingne this past June weren’t the first to point out the issues with female superheroes. Delevingne – who will be playing Enchantress in the upcoming supervillain flick, Suicide Squad – bluntly called out superhero movies for being “totally sexist” in their portrayal of female heroes. The main target of Delevingne’s roast was DC’s most famous heroine, Wonder Woman. Although she made her first appearance in 1941, the character hasn’t exactly kept up with the times. A promotional photo of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman from next year’s Batman vs. Superman film shows the warrior princess donning a glorified one-piece bathing suit and high-heeled boots: not exactly the most practical battle outfit. And while I have yet to collect enough frequent flyer miles to visit her homeland of Themyscira and see for myself, I have a hunch that the male warriors aren’t marching to battle in metallic Speedos.
But looking past the highly sexualized appearance of female heroes, sexism manifests itself in the actions and behaviors of these heroine’s themselves. Take Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow from the hugely-successful, Avengers: Age of Ultron,for example. Black Widow had appeared in a few box office hits prior to Age of Ultron, and had pretty much kicked ass in all of them. But in her latest appearance, the back-flipping badass we had come to know and love regressed into the shadows of sexist stereotypes. Despite plenty of fighting on the front lines with the rest of the Avengers, Black Widow’s characterization as a strong female lead is undermined by her longing to settle down with Bruce Banner and start a family (a desire that no male character seems to share). Black Widow has also been belittled by Avengers co-stars Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans, who referred to the character as a “slut” and a “whore” when referring to her flirtatious relationships with both Hawkeye and Captain America in past films.
The problem isn’t that female leads don’t work in superhero movies, Hollywood just needs to stop fucking them up. I realize that when it comes to capturing the attention of a largely male audience, it may be less work to give the heroine a tight outfit and ample cleavage than it is to give her an interesting backstory and personality, but show a little god damn effort, screenwriters. If one can manage to escape the archetypes, females make great heroes. Let’s take the Hunger Games series for example. The first three films of the four-film series set numerous box-office records, all with a female hero at the helm. And it didn’t take superpowers to make Katniss Everdeen super, either. All it took was the avoidance of hyper-sexualization that seems to plague females in superhero movies. Katniss embodies the best of both feminine and masculine qualities, making her a relatable hero to just about any audience. She has the nurturing nature of a mother while still acting as the main provider for her family. She appears strong-willed and emotionally hardened for much of the films, but also exhibits some very human moments of physical and emotional vulnerability. The best part of Katniss’s portrayal, however, is that while her romantic life does play a significant role in the story, it is never made her top priority. Over the course of the series, Katniss slams the door in the face of both her male suitors, Gale and Peeta, offering the highly realistic view that while fighting for your life in an arena of trained killers, or as the figurehead of a revolutionary war, finding a boyfriend is not going to be a main focus.
At the end of the day, what makes or breaks a female heroine is how her femininity is depicted. Females don’t necessarily have to be tough or macho to be heroic; it is when femininity is portrayed as weakness that the heroine starts to unravel. The future of the female superhero does show promise, however. The upcoming Suicide Squad features three female members who, according to Delevingne, have “the best roles” in the film. Even the dude-dominated Marvel Cinematic Universe will take a shot at their first female-fronted blockbuster, bringing the character of Carol Danvers to the big screen as Captain Marvel in 2018.
With any luck, these titles could be the first of a new wave of superhero movies to feature female characters in leading roles as opposed to the same masked men that have dominated the silver screen for decades. I mean I loved the last five Spiderman movies as much as the next person, but I think we could use some fresh faces, don’t you, Hollywood?
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