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NONFICTION — Riding the Wave of Representation: Women and Comic Book Movies

Many thanks to Sarah Myles for this piece and her excerpts from Feminist Flicker — a fortnightly column that decodes sexism in film. Feminist Flicker is now available on https://channillo.com/ , and you can find Sarah on Twitter as @sjmyles . Please note, this piece contains mild spoilers.

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I have this long-simmering theory that comic books are the modern-day equivalent of fairy tales. Don’t get me wrong – they are quite different in many ways. The centuries old tales of writers such as The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, for example,  were from the oral tradition of storytelling – often essentially cautionary tales, the purpose of which was to manage the behaviour of children – particularly that of young girls.

“Don’t go into strangers’ houses” (Hansel & Gretel) “Remain virtuous and your prince will save you” (Cinderella) “Don’t lie” (Rumpelstiltskin), “Don’t be vain” (Snow White), “Acquiesce to your captor/stalker and he will turn into the man of your dreams” (Beauty And The Beast). Comic books, on the other hand, engage in a greater level of moralising, as opposed to the direct policing of behaviour – since their modern, popularised iteration really began as war-time propaganda in the 1930s.

The equivalence between fairy tales and comic books is found in their respective roles within popular culture. Both grew to become a medium through which stories are constantly evolving and morphing into new creations – with very specific heroic and villainous characters their core. Fairy tales gave us Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Jack from Jack And The Beanstalk, among others. Comic books have given us Batman, Superman, Captain America, Thor, and Wonder Woman, to name but a few. In the case of both genres, however, these stories and characters are consistently re-imagined and re-worked – going through phases of high interest, and lulls in curiosity – all of which has them permeate society in a way that is quite unlike any other kind of storytelling.

In the past century, both narrative genres have taken the next step in development by moving into big screen adaptations – and in this sense, it is quite fitting that Marvel Studios was purchased by The Walt Disney Company, which rose to prominence on the back of theatrically released versions of fairy tales. But, this is where the evolutionary path of fairy tales and comic books diverge most dramatically – for, while fairy tales often centre female characters (albeit in problematic ways), both hero and villain – comic books have always been a step behind in that respect. This has never been more apparent than in the current era of the comic book movie.

Onscreen comic book adaptations have been around for over 70 years – being made around the world, in many languages. For the purpose of this discussion, though, we’ll focus on those that are based on English language comic books. The first of these was 1941’s serial Adventures Of Captain Marvel – that’s the Captain Marvel whose alter ego is named Billy Batson, by the way, and who has been owned by DC Comics for many years now. Since then, there have been no fewer than 357 filmed comic book stories – including 120 animated projects, 12 serials, 62 that were produced for television, and 89 that were released directly to video.

Breaking that category down further, there are specific characters that have enjoyed numerous adaptations. For example, 35 of these adaptations were centred on Batman, 21 on Superman, 18 on Justice League, 10 on The Avengers, 9 on The Incredible Hulk, 8 on Captain America, 8 on Spider-Man, and 7 a-piece on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the X-Men. What do those characters all have in common, other than their tendency to be constantly re-imagined for the screen? They are all male, or male-led teams, of course.

To be more specific, of the 357 comic book filmed adaptations made to date, only 26 are centred on female characters – which goes a long way to explaining why the recent live-action feature film Wonder Woman has caused such a stir. Among these 357 comic book adaptations, 102 are live-action productions for the screen and – even though we have had 35 Batman projects, and 21 Superman projects – Wonder Woman has had only four. Wonder Woman is the first of those to depict her in live-action, in a feature length project. To be clear, it took over 75 years, and over 357 adaptations to arrive at the point where Wonder Woman can exist in live-action cinema.

The response of many, when confronted with such statistics, is to ask, “So what?” Well, let’s return to fairy tales for a moment, to see how the permeation of popular culture works. Like comic books, fairy tales have a trans-generational appeal. These are the stories we tell our children. We read these stories to them from books, and refer to them in our everyday lexicon, with phrases such as, “Wake up, Sleeping Beauty,” “If the shoe fits…”, and of course, when we “let our hair down.” As children grow older, they become media consumers, and absorb the content of fairy tales with which they are already familiar through television, music, movies, video games, and cinema – and with all the branded merchandising that goes along with it.

Since Disney set its stall out early in the realm of fairy tale screen adaptations, even those that limit their exposure to the media are unable to escape some awareness of the subject, thanks to the way in which it is embraced by the majority. Thus, the leading characters of these stories become cultural icons, widely referred to as ‘Disney Princesses.’ The Disney Princesses — which now include characters that reference historical stories as well as fairy tales — are often presented as role models to young children, as these works of fiction battle oppression and bad guys to save the day.

Comic books exist in the same trans-generational cycle. Adults that love comic books share them with a younger generation, who subsequently develop a love for them. As they grow, they consume media through books, television, music, video games and movies, and then share the same with the next generation. The result here is that giant film franchises, with all the attendant merchandising, elevate comic book characters to the rank of icon — but guess what? The source material in this case is overwhelmingly populated by hyper-masculine types, with female characters often appearing as spin-offs of the same — being few and far between in terms of female characters that lead their own comic book titles.

So, if fairy tales and comic books occupy a similar space in pop culture, why is one filled with women and the other isn’t quite so well balanced? Well, it’s because — despite hailing from centuries ago, and therefore arguably an even more sexist time — fairy tales are fundamentally about policing behaviour, while comic books are about morality and responsibility. Women and girls supposedly need guidance in how to conduct themselves in the world, while men and boys are able to explore stories about strength of character. Thus, female comic book superheroes are the exception to the rule.

The current era of comic book adaptations is dominated by Disney’s Marvel and Warner Bros’ DC, of course – the Marvel Cinematic Universe having launched in 2008 with Iron Man, and the DC Extended Universe having launched in 2013 with Man Of Steel — both of which have the fortified testosterone baked right in. These two franchise endeavours have the largest market share by far, in terms of the comic book movie genre at the current time.

Nine years after its launch, the Marvel Cinematic Universe consists of fifteen feature films, with the sixteenth — Spider-Man: Homecoming — being released on July 7th 2017. Every one of those films has been centred on a white male character, and every one of those films has been directed by a white man. Those same fifteen films have been written by a total of 32 screenwriters. Of those 32 writers, only one is female – Nicole Perlman, who contributed to the script of 2014’s Guardians Of The Galaxy. As of June 2017, every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has featured the work of male cinematographers, exclusively.

So, though there have been many women contributing to these Marvel projects in various capacities on the production crew, and in supporting roles onscreen, it is absolutely the case that the market dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe has, to date, been created entirely through the white male gaze. This trend will not be broken until November 3rd 2017, when Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok is released. That film centres on a white male, but its director is of Maori descent, and its antagonist is Hela – the first woman to be included as a main antagonist in the franchise.

It is Marvel’s Black Panther that will be the real game changer, though. It is directed by Ryan Coogler — the first black male director in the franchise —  and focuses on a black male lead. The majority of the cast are characters of colour and, most significantly, the story of Black Panther includes his legendary all-female security detail — the Dora Milaje. This means that, for the first time in a decade, and the first time in the MCU, multiple women of colour will have major roles in a single franchise instalment.

If comic book movies are notoriously inept at including women — either onscreen or off — they are even worse at intersectional inclusion. In other words, generally, when women are included in significant roles, they tend to be white women. Pepper Potts, Christine Everhart, Betty Ross, Black Widow, Jane Foster, Frigga, Sif, Agent Carter, Maria Hill, Maya Hansen, Brandt, Darcy Lewis, Sharon Carter, Nebula, Irani Rael, Scarlet Witch, Laura Barton, Hope van Dyne, Cassie Lang, Christine Palmer, The Ancient One, and Ayesha – white women, all.

The exceptions are Miriam Sharpe, played by Alfre Woodard, who appears in one scene of Captain America: Civil War, for the sole purpose of making Tony Stark feel guilty; Aleta Ogord, played by Michelle Yeoh, who appears in one post-credits scene of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2; and Mantis, played by Pom Klementieff, who has a pivotal role in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 as an empath that has essentially been kept as a pet by Ego (Kurt Russell). The single exception of a woman of colour in a co-leading role in the MCU to date is Gamora, of Guardians Of The Galaxy – played by Zoe Saldana. While her presence is groundbreaking in this overwhelmingly white male franchise, however, she still occurs in a story that is told from the point of view of a white man – Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt.

The DC Extended Universe had been in danger of following the same trend – with its first instalment, Man of Steel, centering on white, male Superman, and its second on conflict between white men Batman and Superman. But, then came Suicide Squad, and it was the first indication that this comic book movie franchise might be doing things a little differently. Certainly, having white man David Ayer write and direct the film meant that he joined white man Zack Snyder as the only filmmakers to have delivered the series, but the casting was far more inclusive.

Rather than being populated mostly by white men, with various token women dotted about to appease diversity critics, Suicide Squad featured a core cast of 11 characters – only three of whom (Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, and Jai Courtney)  are white men. Will Smith starred as Deadshot, Jay Hernandez starred as El DiabloAdewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje starred as Killer Croc, and Adam Beach starred as Slipknot. That core group of 11 also included four women – two of whom are women of colour. Viola Davis starred as Amanda Waller, and Karen Fukuhara starred as Katana – while Margot Robbie starred as Harley Quinn, and Cara Delevingne starred as Enchantress.

Then came Wonder Woman – with its dazzling array of incredible Amazons, a woman at the helm, and a story centred squarely on an iconic female superhero. With the combination of Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, the DCEU out-stripped the 9 year old Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of inclusivity and intersectionality with just two films in ten months. So, it’s a whole new day, right?

Well, don’t get excited just yet. The DCEU is doing sterling work at the moment, but it has not yet managed to solve the problem of sexism in film, all by itself. To be clear, there are currently 15 comic book films in development for the DCEU alone, and Patty Jenkins remains the only female director in play – reportedly working on Wonder Woman 2. Similarly, there is only one female writer involved – and that is Geneva Robertson-Dworet, writing Gotham City Sirens (which will be directed by David Ayer).

The Marvel Cinematic Universe fares no better. If we include the soon-to-be-released Spider-Man: Homecoming, that franchise has 9 films in development. One of those 9 will be co-directed by Anna Boden (Captain Marvel), and that same film is written by Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve. So, apparently, in the two most popular comic book movie franchises, the precious few women that are hired to write and direct so far are white women.

How do these two juggernaut franchises stack up against similar endeavours at other studios? The X-Men series of comic book movies was launched by 20th Century Fox in 2000, and has seen 10 films released in 17 years. Every single one of them was written and directed by men. There are a further three X-Men films in development – also being written and directed by men. I suppose this should not be surprising, given that the X-Men universe is a literal depiction of patriarchy, with its legion of mutant superheroes – both men and women – labouring under the meticulous supervision of two old white men.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Male writers and directors. The Dark Knight Trilogy? Male writers and directors. The Spider-Man Trilogy? Male writers and directors. The Amazing Spider-Man movie duo? Male writers and directors. The pattern very quickly becomes clear, once you look it square in the face. There is something positive happening though. Warner Bros may well be dragging its feet when it comes to hiring more than one woman filmmaker for an entire franchise, but Sony has now seized the baton of inclusivity. Sony is working on its own Spider-Man spin-off series of films, including Venom and Silver & Black. While Venom will apparently adhere to the males-only rule of filmmaking, Silver & Black not only boasts a story by writer Lisa Joy, it will also be directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood – making her the first woman of colour to direct a big budget, studio comic book movie.

As we saw with Wonder Woman, the director makes all the difference. We have become so accustomed to viewing our favourite superheroes through the lens of the white male gaze that we forgot what it could be like to see something that is actually a little closer to reality, in terms of intersectional representation. Now that the Amazonian Warrior Princess has breezed through our theatres like a breath of fresh air – highlighting the subtleties and absurdities of patriarchal bias as she goes – we must all demand better of these giant filmmaking corporations that we fund with our ticket money.

We now live safe in the knowledge that things can be different. If you are bored with seeing the same old hyper-masculine characters growling at each other through re-boots in city-destroying stories, don’t support them. If you are sick of white male comic book characters moralising in tales of responsibility and consequence, while every woman in the audience faces the daily micro-aggressions that constitute the consequences of a pop culture that supports white male patriarchy, spend your hard-earned cash on something else. If you don’t think it’s fair that studios hire white male directors to tell everyone else’s stories, while women have to stay in their lane, tell them.

Now is the time to take a leaf out of the Amazon’s playbook. Working together to battle injustice and aggression — as a unified team — a woman yells, “Shield!” as she thunders down the battlefield. Her fellow women brace against their armoury and launch her high into the air, whereupon she rains down her arrows with formidable accuracy. That woman turns the tide of the fight and makes change for all by reaching lofty heights – but only thanks to the women that gave her the momentum she needed to get off the ground in the first place.

The more women we launch, the more positive change is made – and there will be many more Wonder Women to enjoy. If we act now, this can be the next evolution in our comic book movies – lest our female characters go the way of those instantly forgettable fairy tale Prince Charmings.

 

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Be sure to check out Sarah’s review of Wonder Woman, and her discussion on Women in Horror on Twisted Sister.

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures/ DC Comics

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