The inciting incident for this article was a story which came to my attention at the end of last year. Lucrecia Martel, director of the phenomenal Zama (2017), revealed at a masterclass held in Mumbai that she had been called to a meeting at Marvel Studios regarding the upcoming Black Widow movie, as they were looking for a female director (it has recently been announced that Cate Shortland will be helming the project). Having expressed interest in exploring different possibilities for the action sequences, Martel was told: “Don’t worry about the action scenes, we will take care of that.” Of course, it’s no surprise that Marvel run a tight ship in terms of action aesthetics as well as in every other way conceivable, but the retort alerted me to an issue to which Martel’s story glancingly alludes. Even in female-directed and -driven superhero films the essential dramatic and aesthetic impulse is masculine, and so far this has not changed as a result of women’s input, though there is certainly the potential. The brilliant Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) proved that the superhero genre lends itself to being pushed narratively and aesthetically, but a large part of its success was due to its being made without the restrictions of the mainstream, live-action cinematic universes. The release of Captain Marvel (2019) was what finally impelled me to comment on the current situation as I feel that, despite a long-overdue increase in representation, we are not necessarily moving as far forward as we’d like to think.
Superhero films have created the space for a return to the exorbitantly-funded productions of the latter stages of Golden-era Hollywood, this time around with digitally-conjured rather than staged theatricality. There is a renewed emphasis on the visually spectacular, and a constant clamouring from incredibly committed audiences for intricate, well-crafted narratives. As a fan of the cinema as an institution, I find this is an exciting phenomenon. It proves that cinema-going is far from dead, though it has undoubtedly mutated. Many have drawn the link with Westerns, which are precursors to comic book movies in their fictionalised setting, their sense of adventure and thrill, and their invention, cinematically, of the archetypes of heroes, groups of heroes and antiheroes. Westerns as a genre followed a trajectory which has already been charted and somewhat overcome by the current superhero trend: to remain relevant they had to become gritty, and subsequently they were parodied and made self-aware. The current, Marvel-perfected, tendency for comic book movies to contain just the right amount of self-conscious humour cleverly disarms those who treat them too seriously, but in the process it also disallows a critical look at those elements which are problematically simplistic or which contribute to the erasure of vital perspectives.
Considered as a group, comic book movies can come across as glossy, glorified montages: life is consistently moulded into a journey in which the protagonist(s) face and overcome obstacles which unfailingly move them onwards and upwards to higher levels of worldly achievement and fame. Furthermore, the films themselves are products marketed to encourage their consumption in the context of ‘universes’ which expand, engulf and constantly progress to some unidentifiable goal which promises ultimate satisfaction. There is a concerted, manufactured fascination with the constantly put-off climax, a cultural edging which leaves the viewer unsatisfied but gasping for more. This hugely profitable model of the expanded universe has become a monolithic approach which, though it has the potential (as we have started to see) to embrace a multiplicity of styles and narratives, has up until now largely used individual films to support a super-narrative of unceasing, masculine progression. These conventions, at the level of both individual film and wider universe, ultimately repress narratives of femininity or narratives which might themselves be gendered as feminine. As a slightly tangential example, the YouTuber Jack Saint has (hilariously) shown how Tim Burton’s attempt in Alice in Wonderland (2010) to transform the source material into an overtly feminist narrative fails, in part, due to Burton’s imposition of the standard ‘hero’s journey’ structure. The film ends up lacking a sensitivity to the nuances of female existence, persistence and triumph in a manner which similarly characterises and detracts from superhero film culture.
This is not to say that there is no place for superhero films as they currently exist, or that many of them are not highly achieved and worthy pieces of filmmaking which are deserving of awe and detailed interpretation by critics and fans alike. However, it does seem like we collectively need to question just how ‘empowering’ films like Wonder Woman (2017) are. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are undeniably entertaining romps, but they take place within a masculine narrative structure and aesthetic framework which ultimately leaves little room for the presentation of a truly female-skewed narrative. Even if they allude to feminism, it is not a real thematic thread. These films show female superheroes to be exceptional in their femininity, and this exceptionality is linked to their fulfilling of a male role in a masculine narrative. So far comic book movies led by women have portrayed male heroes in women’s bodies, bodies represent the ‘underdog’. It is surely time that ‘woman’ be allowed to graduate from one of the categories alongside ‘nerd’ and ‘socially awkward’ which constitute the underdog archetype.
This is also not to disavow the importance of screen representation, which in itself as an initiative still has a long way to go. In terms of female representation, however, the superhero genre often shares that which is galling about remakes such as Ghostbusters (2016) and Oceans 8 (2018). They suggest that to be a woman is to be a man without a penis, and that now that they’re equal and stuff women experience life in pretty much the same way as men. Cinema is conventionally masculine, but there do exist shining and inspiring examples of feminine cinema. (Not you, Magic Mike. I’m sorry.) I don’t think we have to continue along the path of ‘women are just as good as men’ in superhero films – I want to know how women are different and why that makes them great individuals worthy of great individual stories.
This article comes from a deep love and appreciation of the superhero genre, and a desire for it to do more for more people and for cinema as a whole. There is so much exciting potential for the fulfilling representation of women in film, and, as the massive success of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel suggests, there is a very real demand for it. The intense and prolonged popularity of superhero films perhaps provides the perfect opportunity for a new filmmaking ethic to impact mainstream cinematic culture.