By Ali Lanier '15
In the tidal wave of superhero movies Marvel pinwheeled and backpedaled, since Spiderman and Blade Runner flouncing around interview questions swung and slashed their way into the with Comic Book Resources as the mainstream, the presiding trend among these titles has been men. Man of Steel, Batman Begins, Iron Man, The Amazing Spiderman—and to the credit of critics and consumers, the masculinity-touting trend hasn’t gone unremarked. In a flurry of online headlines and excited blog posts last summer, fans and online contributors rallied around news of a potential Black Widow movie. That news had grown out of long-suffering internet rumors, and the fan response was enthusiastic. As Forbes put it, “the drumbeat is getting ever-loud- er for said film to get made as Marvel’s first female-centric superhero film.”
Of course superheroines have had the stage in the past: there were 2005’s sex- heavy Elektra and Halle Barry’s atrocious 2004 attempt at Catwoman, both female- led movies that stumbled and flopped on lackluster scripts and frankly poor plots. They also, notably, came before the current Marvel-fueled superhero craze. And it’s a craze that has now produced more than a decade’s worth of big-name blockbusters, while smoothly avoiding putting a superheroine back in the starring role.
Cinema Blend, Screen Rant, Variety, and Time have all confirmed, as of last autumn, that whatever hope was lodged in that “news” of a Black Widow movie was not quite as substantial as it seemed. The definitive term “green-lit” had been misapplied by internet followers, and Marvel pinwheeled and backpedaled, flouncing around interview questions with Comic Book Resources as the company president, Kevin Feige, tried to dismiss the dropped project. Curiously vague catchphrases characterized this exchange, which Time’s (female) culture correspondent Eliana Dockterman picked up in a tellingly acidic article, “Marvel President Tries to Explain Lack of Female- Superhero Movies.”
Among these scattered excuses, there were such gems as “I think it comes down to timing, which is what I’ve sort of always said, and it comes down to us being able to tell the right story,” and “I hope we do it sooner rather than later. But we find ourselves in the very strange position of managing more franchises than most people have.” Or, as Screen Rant paraphrased, “Marvel is Too Busy to Make a Female Superhero Movie.”
It’s a foregone conclusion at this juncture, despite dismay from fans and from critics, that Black Widow is not in the works. Nicole Perlman, the first woman to pen a superhero screenplay for Marvel, revealed on Twitter that she’d written about six pages of a Black Widow movie, but the idea never got off the ground. Marvel’s production schedule through 2017 is public, and it doesn’t include a single female-led superhero film. Perlman was one of the writers behind Guardians of the Galaxy, but Collider points out that we don’t really know how much of Perlman’s Guardians script actually made it to the screen after James Gunn swooped in for his own re-write.
The factor sitting at the fulcrum of this ugly, conspicuous hesitation is exactly, as the company’s president put it, a matter of “timing.” Timing is terrible. But not for any of the very sound reasons Feige surely intended to define for his interviewer. Rather, the time for an exciting, groundbreaking female superhero movie has passed because the timing for exciting, groundbreaking superhero movies is over. Avengers 2 may be looming in May, an explosive summer blockbuster, but the expectations for it begin to feel more and more generic. Avengers 3 is confirmed for May 2018, but the waves of associated sequels give a strong indication that this title might be the last gasp, barring a true revitalization of the superhero craze, for Marvel’s main film franchise.
There’s nothing standing in the way of Marvel’s telling the “right story”— now, or last year, or the year before— other than Marvel’s own insecurity. That insecurity comes from how Marvel sees their demographic. The question circles inevitably back: the demographic for comic books is stereotypically male, isn’t it? Never mind that most moviegoers, in the general sense, are female. And as endemic and persuasive as that insecurity is, or as flawed, even admitting a single Black Widow movie into the wave of Phase One releases, the cheerful boys’ club of super men movies, would have been a decisive statement by Marvel.
But, now, the superhero trend is winding down. It’s more a genre than a vogue. The hoard of superhero blockbusters is now in the phase of regurgitating sequels rather than stoking hype. Case in point: Marvel has shut down their writing program, a popular idea mill where entry-level screenwriters toyed with new, innovative ideas for the company. That’s where, incidentally, Perlman became the only woman to pen a screenplay for the company.
Instead of a continued, massive influx of rapid big-star titles, Marvel is slimming down, now proliferating more new titles on television: Agents of Shield, Agent Carter—and streaming online, in a new deal with Netflix—Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist. That Netflix deal will conclude with a miniseries, bringing together the heroes of the disparate shows into one mass-cast miniseries, The Defenders.
If that sounds suspiciously like a replication of both the form and the success of the Marvel movies on a smaller, less expensive screen, it’s because the model—single-character narratives to ensemble-finale—is nearly identical. Marvel is shying away from dumping massive bankrolls on titles that belong to a trend nearing the end of its natural life. Ant-Man is hardly the most promising successor to Marvel’s tradition of iconic characters, and Perlman’s Guardians of the Galaxy, while based on a comic book, veers away from the genre altogether.
DC Comics is trailing a little behind, but the company is definitively headed in the same direction. Trying to cling to the genuinely good Hollywood cinema that was Nolan’s Batman sequence, DC is hanging on by its fingernails—and it’s hanging on with uncertain movies like Man of Steel, which couldn’t decide if it was a Hallmark movie or a J.J. Abrams lens-flaring Star Trek sequel. While the upcoming Superman-Batman mashup movie is already drawing preemptive online groans, DC’s shining but short film reboot has every sign of taking itself too seriously and ending too soon. Instead, we have The Flash, Gotham, and Arrow, male-lead TV franchises that play on the same formula as the films: white men in seedy but carefully realist settings, touting mediocre-to-bad clichés.
DC’s Wonder Woman movie has been rumored—a carrot dangled in front of fans’ noses—for years now. While it is on its way to screen, the project did manage to lose its director recently, over “creative differences”—one more stumbling block on the way to cinemas. The character will debut in the Superman-Batman movie, which already ties the potential success of that female character to her two, more film-worn male cohorts. For now, DC and Marvel are making their moves on network TV and Netflix.
Smaller screen, fewer risks: it makes sense. The days of enthusiastic response to every superhero movie are over. Marvel may have made some of the most profitable and visible movies of recent years—with the most consistent representation of super-powered straight white guys saving the straight white girl—but maybe audiences are tired of seeing that. Onward, to television!
And mysteriously, miraculously, on the small screen, we suddenly have a female-centric narrative. Agent Carter follows Captain America’s love interest from the first film, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), as she struggles through the mire of dismissive male agents, who “treat her like a secretary.” A hard-hitting, brute- force, stunningly dressed protagonist, her red lipstick takes up a deserved amount of screen time beside explosions and clever digs at openly misogynistic coworkers. Carter isn’t doing any of Black Widow’s backflips in skin-tight black body suits, but she’s emotive, clearly feminine, and unapologetically stylish. The show doesn’t make any effort to masculinize Carter in order to make her appear “tougher.” At the same time, her numerous action sequences feature her body-slamming, face-socking, and otherwise fighting in a very bodily, very manly style. And let’s not forget that, in part because she’s a woman, she can’t make any of her above- and-beyond work known to her viciously demeaning office. If Marvel had set her up in front of a Beyoncé-style “FEMINIST” backdrop, their message couldn’t have been clearer.
And why Peggy Carter? The actress may be an obvious choice for a stand- alone series—she’s simply phenomenal— but the character certainly isn’t. A pretty, super-patriotic American blonde—not at all the beloved screen rendition of today—Carter first appeared in Marvel comics in 1966. There, she is not an agent but a French Resistance fighter who, after briefly serving as love interest to the comic-book Captain, gets amnesia and is whisked away to Virginia, where she lives a quiet life while her unaging Captain goes battling on.
The self-conscious shift in character is jaw-dropping: Marvel has rebranded the character as the complete feminist bundle. While the show still fails to represent other aspects of diversity, Marvel has rather conspicuously decided to “change” their marketing demographic to women viewers.
It’s an egregiously obvious test run: Marvel asks, do people want to see a woman protagonist? And a test is exactly how it’s been enthusiastically greeted by fans. Calls resound on social media to watch the show legally, to prove its popularity. Legal viewing would give Marvel numbers, show Marvel that a female-led story can be successful. Presumably future female superheroes would then take their rightful place in equal stance and number alongside their male counterparts. But that aspiration feels like running to pick up the phone after it’s stopped ringing. Marvel, noncommittally, is testing out a second-tier female protagonist on the tail- end of a dying trend. Television is a “safe” testing ground. And if the test goes well, the likelihood is that any superheroine would find herself either confined to television or launched, in blockbuster form, alongside Captain American 3...or 4.
Quietly, other tests are underway too: Perlman has been given the go-ahead to write a Gamora comic book series, which will kick off later this year. An all-women comic-book series, A-Force, is also “in the works,” according to the company. So while a quiet ripple-shift is underway there, the change remains confined to Marvel’s less expensive sectors, far from the big-risk market of blockbuster cinema. Because, apparently, a female lead qualifies as a big risk.
This is not a question of how women should be portrayed: Black Widow’s emotional depth and actually- complicated-female-backstory is not undermined by the fact of her skin-tight body suit, nor does Agent Carter’s manly fighting style lessen her positive feminine representation. If anything, both of these deceptively typical feminine and masculine traits make for different, but equally hard-hitting, characters. Variety in representation is not a bad thing. But the bottom line is, inescapably, representation. In a genre that is so staunchly a boys’ club, the first blockbuster superheroine would not be significant because we could look forward to her social-justice Oscar speech. No, the first blockbuster superheroine would be significant because, then, superhero movies would be one more boys’ club, where women are not an aesthetic side note, an afterthought, or a risk. And the audiences for superhero movies are some of the most massive for any Hollywood hit; superhero representation is, definitively powerful representation.
Optimistically, female superheroes could be the next big new idea that Marvel uses to reinvigorate its box office presence. But that, considering Marvel’s exceedingly evasive track record with female protagonists, feels like a stretch. Agent Carter comes along conspicuously behind the tide, and with the sad fact of its lackluster ratings, it isn’t going to be a ninth-inning home run for female representation. Rather, it only reestablishes that Marvel is too insecure to abandon its boys’ club marketing image. Maybe things will change after the company announces additional plans past 2017.
And in fact, there’s some light after the all-male 2017 sequence: Captain Marvel, with a script to be co-written by Perlman and Inside Out’s Meg LeFauve, was announced only very recently for 2018. Details are sparse; rumors are numerous. A kick-ass female character, yes...entirely out of left field. A strange, sudden character to get her own movie after the Black Widow title fizzled out on its way toward production. Keep in mind, Captain Marvel is no more guaranteed than Black Widow, although I’ve got all my fingers crossed. Captain Marvel was initially supposed to make her debut in the Avengers sequence, but was written out. So, we’re likely looking at the origin story of a female superhero, written by two female screenwriters.
But I’m not convinced: this big-news, women-fronted movie looks a lot like a stumbling ploy to follow up the feminist test-run of Agent Carter. We’ll have to wait until July 6, 2018, on the far side of Avengers 3, to find out if Perlman will help deliver us a second well-developed female character in the Marvel Universe, beside Black Widow—a successful superheroine—the way Guardians didn’t with Gamora. Maybe superheroes are changing their exclusionary tune. But so far, all we’ve been given is potential, rumors, and promises, which have so often fallen through before.
From April 2015 Issue