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How to put the ‘Hero’ in Heroism

An informal study by DC Comics in 2014 suggested that female readership of comics is around 46.67% of total readership. Whilst this number may have changed slighty since then, this still suggests that comic companies such as DC and Marvel (and independent companies) need to start meeting demands for a more realistic representation of the diverse characteristics of women, and employ a more equal amount of women creators.

Female characters in superhero movies were - until recently - either the girl-next-door ‘damsel in distress’ or the sexy ‘femme-fatale’ who exercised power (over men) through her mere appearance. Whilst these may be characteristics of actually very complex women, in no way do we get to see this complexity - they’re left one-dimensional and floundering in their lack of merchandise and heteronormativity, and we’re left wondering if writers will ever be able to, well, write.

Nowhere can this be seen more than in cinematic adaptations of superhero comics. Women in these tend to be mere supporting characters, a tool of the narrative, or worse - love interests of men who can’t sustain a movie by just pondering their own strength and struggles against ‘evil’. It's like they can't seem to fit character development into two hours of screentime.

Batman’s ‘Catwoman’ seems kick-ass and powerful, but what do we really get to see of her abilities, other than her ability to seduce? 

Black Widow’s storyline in the comics is complex, and unpacked more in the films than that of characters such as Thor's Jane Foster (WHY WOULD YOU WASTE NATALIE PORTMAN?), but when Widow appears in Iron Man and Captain America mainly as background support - even though she’s an important driver of the overall story - the capacity for a way more interesting movie is lost.

We get hints at these characters strength, hints at their intellect rather than three whole movies based on the idea of a troubled genius who makes some robots, almost dies and then suffers the trauma. It’s still a limited story, but at least Tony Stark is given some depth.

Perhaps this is because women superheroes don’t get their own movies. Whilst the guys are developed - even if their development can mostly be reduced to ‘MY STRENGTH / GENIUS / GOD-LIKE-STATUS IS ACTUALLY A FATAL FLAW’ - women continue to be churned out as mere additions to a completely one-sided story, and that's not even half of the problem.

It’s not enough. We’re not getting the stories we all deserve. How can you achieve a complex, realistic and well-developed storyline when you’re only willing to focus on the same themes, the same tropes and the same narrative each time? 

Superhero / Comic-based movies aren’t falling out of demand, their one-trip-pony narrative has just run out of steam, so it’s time they learnt from their counterpart: TV Shows.

Here are three to get you started:

Agent Carter

A prime example of the power of spin-off, with its gradually building story arc and development of characters beyond strength, seduction, romantic love or weakness (turns out you can actually express all of these characteristics, not have any ‘powers’ and still kick ass - gasp!). Peggy Carter is graceful yet lethal, and the Black Widow storyline is unpacked a little more, too. Tony Stark's father (Howard Stark) features, and though arrogant and something of a 'womaniser', he's much more socially progressive than his son.

We're still left wanting a more diverse cast (though ableism is challenged through Daniel Sousa), and more challenges to hetero-normativity, even if it is set in post-WII 1940s. It's TV, imagine a little!

Agents of Shield

Another great show that knows how to develop a story effectively. The actors are brilliant, and the split of women and men in the show mostly balance out. The writing (and the length of the seasons, ~21 episodes) actually allows for long-winded character development that completely demolishes the idea of superhero tropes. Links between other Marvel storylines give this show extra depth, and a great sense of focus and direction.

Agent May - a major character - is portrayed by Ming-Na Wen, a fantastic Chiense-American actress - and also the voice of Disney's Mulan.

J. August Richards (Charles Gunn from Angel) also has a major role in the show as Mike Peterson. Ruth Negga - an Ethiopian-Irish actress - has a long-standing role as Raina.

The cast is pretty diverse, and whilst white people (mainly men) still hold most places of power (reflecting society pretty well) women - and women/men of colour - are still given places of power, both in-universe and as major roles in the show. Women are developed as scientists, political leaders, agents, fighters but also as victims, villains and flawed beings, and this is also reflected in the balanced development of male characters in the show.

The only thing left wanting is a more overt questioning of heteronormativity. Victoria Hand's sexuality was skimmed over, and any references to any sexual preference outside heterosexuality was left as a joke, or a hint. However, a recently introduced character seems to have addressed this need - and hopefully the show will continue to set examples for better representation!

Jessica Jones

Netflix’s latest Marvel series manages to uphold the legacy of the superhero trope but breaks it down completely through its refreshing subtlety. Jessica isn't a normal superhero - she can jump high, is pretty damn strong and heals well, but her power lies in her will and in her intellect (much alike Black Widow, Agent Carter and Skye). The show deals with dark themes, placed within a fictional realm but representative of real-life threats. 

The strong, character-driven narrative is what makes David Tennant's character particularly threatening, as we see more and more into his twisted mind, representative of all-too-real forms of abuse, control and manipulation. We're made to question what it means to be a villain, to be a hero, and whether any of those terms still have relevance, when nobody knows who really calls the shots.

Jeri Hogarth features in the show as a developed lesbian character, shown cheating on her partner with another woman (the show also gender-swapped her character from the comic's Jeryn Hogarth). Luke Cage and Malcolm are portrayed by men of colour, and the show does not shy away from themes such as sex, PTSD and rape. 

Check out Vulture's list of Marvel 'firsts' in Jessica Jones here.

It's time we start putting the 'hero' back in heroism, to allow for more representative superhero and comic-based movies. That means not only including women as major characters who are allowed more fulfilling character development, but also allowing male characters to develop in more diverse ways, and giving them the space to express traditionally 'feminine' values and characteristics to give way to less gender-controlled universes.

It follows that once we start to see films embrace gender equality, and become more comfortable with challenging traditional representations of characters, maybe we'll start to see them challenge other forms of social control dominating the cinematic world, such as (but not limited to) heteronormativity, racial discrimination, ableism and ageism.

A few of these have already started to be challenged, and hopefully this will be reflected in the cinematic universe: 

Deadpool will hopefully see a more obvious questioning of heteronormative values, as a superhero with a fluid sexuality - mostly described as Omnisexual / Pansexual - who also breaks the fourth wall and thinks the word 'Hero' is a load of bull:

Furthermore, the latest 'Ultimates' comic run sees Miles Morales - a black, Latino teenager - take on the role of Marvel's Spiderman:

Kamala Khan - a Pakistani American - is receiving a lot of love for her leading role in the Ms. Marvel comics:

Shows like Agent Carter, Jessica Jones and Agents of Shield have shown that the demand is there for well-developed female characters on screen, and as the comics themselves get more diverse, we've just got to keep pushing for even better representation on the Big Screen. Maybe one day we'll even get the Black Widow film we deserve, to go with that Captain Marvel movie!

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Emma Pocock

Exeter Cornwall

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