Marvel has actually done okay by its lady-heroes

by Sonny Bunch on July 5, 2012

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.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

bustermcd July 5, 2012 at 6:13 pm

I would argue that the terrific “Powerpuff Girls” film should also be included in the canon. It was a solid film about a quality property, and as I recall it did not do well at all.

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Doug Stewart July 5, 2012 at 9:08 pm

I’m wondering if we might not see Rescue show up in Iron Man 3. It amazes me that it took as long as it did for someone at Marvel to realize that Pepper should get a shot in the suit.

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Ray July 6, 2012 at 12:03 am

I disagree! Leave Pepper in the cut-offs!

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SkinsFanPG July 6, 2012 at 9:09 am

Ummm… I would absolutely pay to watch Famke, Anna, and Halle discuss 50 Shades of Grey in detail. I would probably enjoy it far more than any movie they have appeared in (Except Monster’s Ball).

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Chris C July 7, 2012 at 10:34 am

A little over a year ago, JVL posited that X-Men: First Class was actually a story about Mystique.
http://jonathanlast.com/2011/06/20/x-men-first-class-the-temptation-of-mystique/

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Sonny Bunch July 7, 2012 at 10:37 am

I’d forgotten about that, but yes, it seems mostly right and renders the argument that Marvel ignores/mistreats its female heroes all the more ludicrous. And, as I note, it makes Mystique’s self-sacrifice in Last Stand all the more tragic. (I doubt that was the intention, but still.)

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Chris C July 7, 2012 at 11:47 am

First Class is all over HBO right now. That post changed the way I see the movie now.

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JD July 8, 2012 at 9:06 pm

>> “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. <<

It is also only true if you didn't watch the movie. Johansson's Black Widow gets one of the great intro scenes of any superhero in movie history. It starts with what *looks like* a classic "damsel in distress" scene from which she's going to have to be rescued. But not only is she perfectly capable of taking care of herself (I noticed her fighting skills, not her butt, when I saw the film), the whole "capture" scenario was *her* tactic for interrogating the mobster. She knew he and his men would underestimate her and used that to get that the information she needed from them. She used exactly the same technique on Loki, who *also* believed that *he* was manipulating *her* when the reverse was true. (She also fooled *me* because I didn't see that coming despite how much I'd loved her first scene. )

Natasha not only kicks major ass, she out-thinks her (male) foes, one of them a Norse God. I must have missed the scenes where she was smiling indulgently and waiting to be rescued. And I don’t think she was flaunting her assets any more than any of the ripped guys in the film, all of whom were in tight outfits, managed to get shirtless or both in the course of the film. That’s the nature of superhero movies. Deal with it.

Regards,

JD

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