I never intended for this to be a trilogy, but what the hey. I’m all riled up.
In part one, we looked at the idea that Marvel was ignoring a deep and venerable stable of female superheroes, instead opting for rejects like The Guardians of the Galaxy. As I showed, this is simply not the case: There is no such stable.
In part two, we looked at the idea that there is some pent-up demand for lady-hero centric comic book adaptations and that Marvel was passing up a key business opportunity by failing to cater to female comic book fans. As I showed, this is also not the case: The three most recent big budget action-adventure/action-comedy comic book movies with a female lead have absolutely tanked, grossing just $86M combined in their entire runs. To put that in perspective, that’s less money than Catwoman’s budget. Avengers grossed almost as much in its first day of release ($80M) as those three did altogether. Consumer demand for such a film is negligible.
What I’d like to do now is defend the ways in which Marvel has used its female characters. Writing in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis dismissed women in comic book films: “Most women in superhero movies exist to smile indulgently at the super-hunk, to be rescued and to flaunt their assets, like Scarlett Johansson’s character in ‘The Avengers,’ whose biggest superpower, to judge by the on- and off-screen attention lavished on it, was her super-rump.” This is, frankly, ludicrous. It is only true if you don’t bother taking comic book movies seriously.
Let’s look at ScarJo’s Black Widow first. She plays a clutch role in the film, not only drawing the Hulk out of hiding but also serving a key role as Loki’s interrogator. She uses finesse and guile where brawn and bullets can’t get the job done all the while receiving some interesting characterization and developing a real onscreen relationship with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). She was so good that some fans were saying that a Black Widow-Hawkeye spinoff would be a pretty exciting proposition. I tend to agree with them. Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) also impressed as Nick Fury’s second in command—strong, competent, confident—but her role was much smaller.
Where women have really had a chance to shine in Marvel’s film catalogue is in the X-Men films. If one goes back and rewatches those pictures one after the other, it becomes clear that the key aspect of the trilogy isn’t Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) trying to discover who he is or the innate struggle within mutant kind to assimilate or dominate. No, the real heart and soul of the series is Rogue’s (Anna Paquin) inability to deal with who she is and the difficulty of life as a marginalized outsider. She begins the trilogy on the run in the frosty wilds, finds some solace and companionship in the sequel, and concludes it by choosing to rid herself of her powers. It’s actually a relatively moving arc, all things considered.
Rogue’s not alone. Jean Grey and Mystique also have significant, emotional arcs that run throughout the course of the series. Mystique’s journey—which culminates in Last Stand with her sacrificing her mutant powers to save Magneto from the horror of losing his—is made all the more tragic in X-Men: First Class, in which we see why she chose to spurn the path that Rogue took. She comes to accept who she is and what that means, even if it warps her view of the world and leads her to take up Magneto’s call to destroy humanity.
Anyway, as far as big budget action adventure comic book films go, these are relatively forward-thinking uses of female characters. And even if you think this isn’t enough, you must acknowledge that women are serving as far more than window dressing in these pictures. Granted, Jean and Rogue and Storm aren’t sitting around discussing the wage gap or third wave feminism or how awesome 50 Shades of Grey is. But if they had been, it would have bored the stuffing out of viewers and the series probably wouldn’t have grossed three-quarters of a billion dollars domestically. That’s what Marvel’s worried about.
And, frankly, it’s all they should be worried about.