Captain Marvel: Hollywood’s first step towards progression?
The pinnacle of Hollywood cinema is undoubtedly Marvel’s new superhero extravaganza, Infinity Wars (d. Russo brothers, 2018). Given Hollywood’s recent revelations of sexual harassment and profound gender disparity, it should therefore follow that the industry’s bravest action movie to date speaks on these issues. By releasing Captain Marvel as the sequel to the Avengers’ films, this is the first Marvel movie ever to have a main female character.
2017 and 2018 proved to be devastating for the image of Hollywood. After the Harvey Weinstein case, women began speaking about the abuses they suffered in order to become successful female actresses in this world of men. The popular hashtag ‘MeToo’ initiated by celebrities in Hollywood showed how women everywhere undergo everyday sexism and harassment. Hollywood is unveiled as an industry that mirrors ideology, and the patriarchal structures of society are inherent onscreen. Superhero films represent the core of this and traditionally present men who undergo a character arc in order to defeat the bad guy, to ultimately redefine his male qualities. More often than not, he must save his love interest (a woman) from harm in order to accomplish this.
Movements like #MeToo have revealed Hollywood’s misogynistic treatment of women, and as a result, it seems that now more than ever there is the need to emancipate the female image from this tradition of marginalisation and misrepresentation on Hollywood screens. In Marvel’s extravagant Infinity Wars there is a promising moment of female empowerment where, amidst the violence provoked by the men onscreen, the women come together. During the battle at Wakanda Thanos’ evil ally Proxima Midnight declares that Scarlet Witch ‘will die alone’ referring to the coming death of Vision, Scarlet Witch’s romantic attachment in the movie. But before Proxima can - historical puns aside - ‘burn the witch’, two female Wakandan warriors with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) enter, exclaiming, ‘no she won’t’.
This short moment is an important breath of female solidarity in the midst of manmade battle. No male is responsible for Scarlet Witch’s rescue - and in fact she does most of the rescuing of her half-man half-android boyfriend throughout the film herself. Black Widow is also presented in Infinity Wars as a soldier instead of the sexualised heroine that the comic book world often paints her out to be. And along with the bald female warriors of Wakanda, there is a united feeling of feminist fervour that leaks across this scene, and perhaps foreshadows Hollywood’s promise of progression.
Infinity Wars foreshadows the 2019 release of Captain Marvel (Ms. Marvel played by academy award winner Brie Larson), and there is the feeling that a change is coming to this fictional universe, where onscreen female heroes are scarce.
Following Ryan Coogler’s refreshing representation of female African-ness in Black Panther (2018) that exalts the female Afro and places women warriors at the forefront of black liberation, Marvel is perhaps beginning to show women as independent, tech-savvy and empowered through a genre that has historically implied the opposite.
In popular culture, female superheroes have hitherto been portrayed as either the dangerous ‘femme-fatale’, sexy and manipulative, or been subjugated to the role of damsel in distress, girlfriend, wife, or mother to the male protagonist. Superman, Batman and yet more Superman and Batman are the most recycled heroes that audiences have loved to watch since the 1940s (stress of ‘man’ in most household superhero names).
It was not until Halle Berry’s Catwoman in 2004 that my generation witnessed a female superhero onscreen. However, even Catwoman embodies similar stereotypes of the feminine predator, lingering between good and evil. A year later Elektra (2005) offered another supeheroine, but this female protagonist was also unconvincing: Both films had poor Box Office results, and Catwoman was given the Golden Raspberry Award for worst film, worst director, and worst actress in 2004. 2017’s Wonder Woman finally gave a woman success as a heroine, and Gal Gadot has since achieved international stardom as the film’s main character.
If you stayed until the real end of Infinity Wars, well after the credits have rolled by (true fans will understand that a post-credits scene officially closes Marvel films, much like Stan Lee’s predictable cameos that almost always beget a knowing laugh), you will see a nod to Captain Marvel as saviour of this now divided universe: Before turning into ash Fury (Samuel Jackson) manages to send out a distress signal, which blinks with the hope of Captain Marvel’s insignia (only comic book fans will understand this, but who else will remain at the very end when the credits have rolled by, lights are up, 3D glasses are abandoned, and popcorn is shamelessly sprayed across your knees?).
Captain Marvel AKA Carol Danvers is Marvel’s own superman, except she is a woman. Enhanced strength, the ability to fly and a seventh sense, Danvers shows up in X-Men, Fantastic Four and Avengers comics as well as having several independent narratives.
Catwoman and Wonder Woman have shown that DC will occasionally give female superheroes their own films, but Marvel is still permeated by patriarchal underrepresentation: the Black Widow is the only female Avenger, and no Marvel movie since Elektra featuring a female heroine has ever been made to date, although there exists over 100 female characters across the Marvel comic book universe.
In the 21st century, where first, second and third wave feminism have come and gone and been acknowledged in cinema too, it seems that a strong female superhero movie has been a long time coming. It is true that popular films portray the society of their production, and superhero films often break box office successes because they appeal to an international audience, embodying the epitome of today’s popular film. Infinity Wars is the highest grossing box office film to date, followed by Black Panther. Captain Marvel as the saviour of the Avengers could, philosophically, create a new space within popular cinema to discuss gender politics. This is crucial today considering Hollywood’s far-reaching grasp, the importance of women’s rights in America after the election of a misogynist over a woman, and its significance as a political movement across the world.
Note that the history of Captain Marvel in comic books is already political. Fictionally, she became a hero in her own right, transforming from Mar-vell’s girlfriend into her own hero after acquiring his powers. The 1977 comic book Ms. Marvel is seen today as part of the political fiction that mirrors the 1970s feminist movement: Ms. Marvel fights for equal pay in her civilian identity as Carol Danvers, where the comic book title replaces ‘Captain’ with ‘Ms’ to foreground her political, feminist strife.
In the 1980 Avengers No. 200, however, it seemed like decades of feminist power had been undone by writing in the inconsequential rape of the heroine. Carol Strickland wrote a strong reaction to this volume after its release in 1980, where she states that the narrative of No. 200 exemplifies that ‘raping is manly. Women love to be raped. Perversion is wonderful for kids and other people of taste to read’. In this edition, Ms Marvel returns to live with her rapist at the end of the comic book after unwillingly giving birth to his child.
With this conflicting history of how Captain Marvel was written about, her representation onscreen was going to be critical. It would be negligent for directors Anna Boden and Ryan K. Fleck to forget how this heroine was once at the forefront of fictional feminist politics.
Nevertheless, even before the release, there seemed to be the awareness that this new movie would change the course of Hollywood blockbusters. Much like Black Panther demonstrated a break from common representations of African-ness onscreen, 2019 hopes to be progressive for women in cinema as well. Screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet was chosen to write Captain Marvel, having already re-worked the narrative of a strong female protagonist by scripting the remake of Tomb Raider in 2018. Since the Disney-run Marvel company unfortunately harks back to the misogynist founder Walt Disney himself, and Hollywood has now come under huge fire for institutionalised sexism, there is a growing urgency for the voice of women to be heard in these blockbusters.
Previous Captain Marvel comics have also been discussed as feeding into the patriarchal system that the genre itself mirrors (perhaps she is not radical enough in her feminism, not empowered enough, or still remaining subject to her male love interest), so it will be interesting to see how this new Hollywood film under the same name will be different.
Hollywood has a long, known history of either fetishising the female image (shots of legs, eyes or clothing are usually the way women enter the big screen in popular cinema), underrepresentation (little agency or independence is usually an attribute), or stereotyping (the trope of the ‘femme fatale’, for example, was the most common way films from the 1950s could depict their female characters).
When Carol Strickland wrote, ‘most people know, if they don’t truly understand, that women have been stomped on by the comics industry ever since there were comics’, this too reflects the prerogative of the film industry. Writing for female empowerment via fiction in the 1980s, I’m sure that Strickland will look at 2018 happy to see the achievements for women since her time, but also shocked to see what is still left to be done almost forty years on. Ms. Marvel’s history of empowerment should be the key to unlocking this. In Earth 616, Marvel says, ‘this isn’t a question of what I’m not. This is a question of who I could be.’ Her 2019 movie correctly portrays this heroine for what she is: multilayered, complex, comical, tough as nails, and the driving force of not only her own plot but the lives of other heroes in her universe.
Perhaps the arrival of a Captain Marvel film is a climactic moment for women’s rights in the fictional space of popular cinema, or perhaps it is just Hollywood’s reaction to the events that have unfolded since Harry Weinstein: a backlash to save face and prove that this industry is capable of the semblance of change. In either instance there can be no steps backwards for Marvel now. The only way forward is into a post-credits future where a woman will be the hero responsible for the fate of the fallen Avengers. The hope is that this translates outside of the fictional realm and change the way women are treated across Hollywood.