It’s the start of a New Year, and there is plenty to look forward to in the world of storytelling. Specifically, in the last few years, the superhero genre in film has really taken off. With Aquaman in cinemas as well as new releases like; Shazam, Spiderman: Far From Home and Avengers: End Game, on the horizon it doesn’t look like it will be fading away anytime soon. As a rising influence in popular culture, and as a genre that deals directly with themes of morality, I’d like to take some time to look at character representation in the past and speculate on how this may be done differently in the future. There is so much I could talk about with regards to this topic. However, today I’ll just be focusing on female representation by looking at two characters: Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel. Both lead their own stand alone films, as well as exist in a larger cinematic universe that put them in supporting roles. Also WARNING: DC and Marvel comparison imminent.
Let’s start with Wonder Woman. When I first saw the trailer I wanted to be excited for it but I just wasn’t, and it took me a long time understand exactly why. Admittedly I was already biased toward Marvel (Wonder Woman comes from the DC comics) but I didn’t yet understand why I felt so strongly about it. Though the publicity was decidedly feminist, I was not convinced that the creators understood how to achieve what they were promising. The first red flag was that all the humour that was included in the trailers was at her expense. Despite the fact that she is some kind of all powerful warrior god (DC isn’t great at defining character powers and as usual they have way too much for there to be any dramatic tension) she still needs a guy to tell her what’s going on all the time and how to behave. Not fun to watch and mildly insulting.
When I finally watched the actual film (on TV I couldn’t bring myself to buy it or go to a theatre) Everything I thought they would get wrong they did. Patty Jenkins did direct the film brilliantly, always making sure Diana was filmed as a hero and not an object but the story itself still fell flat. It seemed contrived, as if the creators thought gender-swapping stereotypical characters would distract audiences from the fact that it’s a film they’ve seen a million times before. (I mean the villains are actually Nazi’s. Really?) Wonder Woman might have had arguably the strongest character arc in the whole DC universe but the second that character was brought back in Justice League (no longer the lead and without a female director) her representation became, not only sexist, but completely inauthentic to the character they built in the first film. I was disappointed but not surprised. Despite its flaws, the film raised some important question and ideas. The most importantly that empowerment comes, not from who stands in front of the camera, but from who stands behind it.
This brings me to my next example: Captain Marvel. The film hasn’t even been released yet but my reaction is already completely different. The first trailer is focused completely on her character, not only cleverly concealing much of the plot but staying true to the Marvel formula. The question posed to the audience: “What makes her a hero” sums this up perfectly. We’ve seen the typical hero’s journey plot over and over but Marvel’s characters bring something new to this age old story. What better way to bring this beloved story arc into the future than with an engaging female lead. The theme of resilience is already hinted at, providing a new character arc that is sure to be engaging and fresh, as well as upholding the integrity Marvel has spent so long cultivating.
Now, Marvel’s record isn’t perfect. I could spend a long time looking at their earlier films; with women being 1-dimensional, largely in the background and/or overly sexualised however even this has improved since the franchise gained traction. In fact, with each new film’s success the creators seem to take more risks, sacrificing conventional representation for character integrity, not the other way around. It is now confirmed that the smartest character in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) is Shuri: Black Panther’s younger sister and princess of Wakanda. This means overtaking Tony Stark (in intelligence and humour just watch any of their scenes). If this is the way supporting female characters are going things are looking good for Marvel’s first female lead.
I don’t know even who the director is or who the writers are, though I could easily google it, but this time I don’t feel like I have to know. The studio has built enough integrity that I have faith that the creators will do the character justice. Not because they have to deliver on empty promises made in the promotion of the film, like in Wonder Woman, but because Marvel’s success is grounded in the authenticity of their characters, and they know this.
Marvel’s integrity has paid off before. Black Panther’s stand alone film broke records at the Box office, despite this character only appearing briefly in a subplot in Captain America: Civil War. Though the film came with it’s own cultural relevance outside of this, it is because of Marvel’s integrity that the audience could trust that they could pull this off. This is why, despite DC’s best efforts, the Justice League made box office numbers closer to Marvel’s Ant Man and the Wasp rather than any of the Avengers films. While I hate to reduce films to numbers and finance it can be a good indicator of what truly makes popular culture: popular. The kind of integrity that Marvel have stood by is risky but it pays off due to good writing. There are no shortcuts to that kind of success. You have to offer the audience something genuinely new.
Now it might seem odd to look at representation in something as trivial as superhero movies. Why not look at more classic films, academy award winners even, that have dealt extensively with representation? The reason is that superhero movies are not trivial. They have become a huge part of our current society. Since, popular culture reaches such a wide audience, they set the bar for what is acceptable and what isn’t. For change to occur, accurate representation can’t just exist in a few film’s it needs to exist in all of them. This is what takes it from novelty to normal and ultimately makes for more authentic and compelling stories for people to enjoy. After all, in Marvel’s words “With great power comes great responsibility.”