The Making of a HER-o

Just a while ago, Marvel Studios released the official trailer for their new blockbuster film Captain Marvel set to premiere March 8th 2019. The date is no coincidence; the first female-led superhero movie to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since its creation a decade ago will be released on International Women’s Day.

                 A clip from the trailer, prompted by a title screen “Discover what makes…” making for a                                                                                              confidently feminist debut.

Carol Danvers, the character behind the Captain Marvel title, is a fighter pilot with half-alien DNA – hence, the laser beams she can shoot from her hands – who was originally designed after renowned activist and feminist Gloria Steinem. She wields incredible power and influence. Even Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige stated that she is more powerful than any hero the MCU has seen since its inception in 2008.

So why did it take ten years for her or any female protagonist to take on a movie of her own?

One possible reason for the hesitation could be due to the box office failures of past female-led superhero flicks, such as Catwoman (2004). Immediately after these movies fail to perform well at the box office, the blame has been directed at the assumption that women can’t lead superhero movies. They don’t do the job well enough and audiences don’t want to see it. This is completely false, of course. Fans of DC comics and writers of the Catwoman movie themselves have made it clear that the reason why the movie failed was because it was simply a bad movie. The writing was lackluster, and the portrayal didn't’t do justice for a beloved character; instead it reduced her to a sexy leather cat suit.

Another possible reason for the hesitation may tie in to the prevailing assumption that the primary audience of superhero movies is male, and such an audience would not want to watch a movie with a female lead. Therefore, it wouldn’t make any money. I pose that this is also untrue. Simply look at the recent female-led breakout of the DC Universe, Wonder Woman, which solidified itself as the highest-grossing live-action film directed by a woman at a whopping $821 million worldwide.

Despite this, the blame is always quick to land on female leads. Box office analyst Karie Bible states, “If they aren’t successful, it will give studio executives and industry pundits reason to believe that female superheroes or action films don’t make money and won’t in the future… Men are allowed to fail, but women are given fewer chances and the stakes seem higher. There is little margin for error”.

So then, the lack of female-led superhero movies comes down to prejudice.

It is no surprise that changes towards diversity in comics or in film are always met with resistance and surrounded by controversy. When Carol Danvers took on the Captain Marvel title in 2012, there was considerable backlash. This negativity isn’t limited to when women push into male spaces, it also appears when the women already present in those spaces don’t live up to the norms of being straight, white, demure, or overtly attractive. Similar responses came out when a Muslim character took the role of Ms. Marvel in a 2013 comic-series or when Zendaya, a woman of colour, was cast in the iconic role of MJ for the MCU’s adaptation of Spider-man – a character previously portrayed as a white, red-headed woman. When the Captain Marvel costume was changed to cover her whole body, or when Wonder Woman’s actress Gal Gadot’s body did not meet the standards of sexualized comic illustrations there were complaints: the characters looked unfeminine and unattractive, or movie makers and designers were inserting their unwelcome feminist agenda into beloved stories.

More recently, when the Captain Marvel trailer came out, frustrated male commentators fled to twitter to express their complaints that the character didn’t smile. One even went as far as photoshopping screenshots and movie images of Brie Larson as Captain Marvel so that she wore a beaming smile while flying her fighter jet or trying to save the world from mass destruction, captioning the photos that he had “fixed” it. This feeds into the popular practice of men constantly expecting women to smile and ordering them to do so, even in subtle ways such as “You’d be so much prettier if you smiled”. This pattern associated with street harassment links with the sexist idea that women are supposed to look pleasant, pretty, and welcoming at all times in order to please others.

In response, Brie Larson posted edited photos of male Marvel superheroes dawning unnatural smiles in their movie posters showing how ridiculous and unfounded the complaints were.

                                                          Pictures posted on Brie Larson’s Instagram story

What is important to point out is that although we still see swarms of sexist rhetoric when pop culture makes a step towards diversity and fair representation, those who fight for diversity and fair representation are working hard to resist these harmful prejudices, and prove their irrelevancy.

Steve Wacker, a former editor of the Captain Marvel comics explains, “The usual suspects get very angry, and they’re certain Marvel is ruined forever, and then everyone forgets about it and we just keep going. It’s been the same way for 75 years.” Persevering against backlash, Marvel Studios executives claim that embracing diversity has always been a mission for them ever since Stan Lee would publish works about social justice issues at the end of comics in the 1960’s and 1970’s called “Stan’s Soapbox”.

Even though this mission seems late in execution – as upcoming blockbuster is also the debut for the first female director of the MCU – championing more female-led films is all part of the franchise’s plan for the next 10 years.­

With successes like Wonder Woman setting the stage, and an increasing amount of fan support, the coming years of superhero movies will hopefully showcase all kinds of characters. Representation matters. Not only does it do well at the box office, but it inspires all kinds of audiences around the globe. And shouldn’t we all be able to feel like superheroes?