A Digression on Superhero Chick Flicks

Q&A Friday is here once again, and while I’m a little late posting this, this is still technically Friday, so the universe has not fallen completely out of disorder just yet.  Another day pushing back against the forces of chaos, right?  Sure, we’re all destined one day to be swallowed up by a vast and indifferent universe, but at least for today, I’m going to chalk this up to a win.

 

I’ve heard a lot of talk recently about the lack of female superheroes in film. Regardless of where you stand on that particular issue, I wonder what female superheros you would like to see have their own film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the new DC Film Universe they seem to be trying to make, or just in general?

The problem with superheroes is that they are traditionally a male-centered genre.  This isn’t just superheroes though.  The action adventure genre and all its sub-genres tends to be consider men its target audience.  Whether we want to admit it or not, there’s a certain, “Oh, girls are icky” attitude that haunts the genre.  But really, there’s a hell of a lot more baggage than that.

Superheroes are, with rare exception, empowerment fantasies.  They represent exceptionalism at its most obvious.  If you think about it, almost every superhero story is the story of a person who carries the weight of the world on their shoulders just by being so awesome.  Gotham City is always on the brink of chaos, and it’s only the activities of a wealthy, supergenius, mega-athlete that can keep it from crumbling into the abyss.  Not the police force.  Not the ordinary citizens.  Just one guy who decided to fight crime dressed like a bat.

Superman has awesome power, and it is only through that amazing power that he’s able to save Metropolis and the earth from any manner of fantastic dangers.  Tony Stark is a powerful industrialist who can change the world in a thousand ways with his abilities, but he chooses instead to put on an armored suit and punch bad guys in the face personally.

Frankly, not many people really buy the image of the empowered female.  It’s odd because it’s not as if we’re talking about reality here.  We’re talking about bold fantasy, so even if I don’t buy many of the arguments for male superiority in the real world, they make even less sense in a superhero world.  It’s hard to argue that, in a fair fight, Captain America would need to go easy on She-Hulk or that in a universe where Batman can fight Superman successfully that there would be no such thing as a powerful female character.

Yet this perception is so ingrained in us that, even in a world of infinite possibilities, it’s hard to find great examples of truly empowered female heroes.  Even those female characters without baggage tend to be less powerful than their equivalents.  So many female characters are gender-flips of already popular characters that you would think it wouldn’t be hard to apply the same rules, but the fact is, most female equivalents of male heroes are subtly less powerful and capable than their male counterparts.

The incredible Hulk is a raging powerhouse, one of the strongest beings in his particular universe.  If he’s a bad guy, he’s impossibly dangerous.  If he’s a good guy and someone manages to take him down, it’s a sign of how powerful they are.  Meanwhile, She-Hulk is powerful and probably one of the strongest female characters in her universe.  Still, if she gets beat nobody treats it with the same shock and awe.

Yes, I know She-Hulk’s powers work differently than the Hulk’s, but that doesn’t negate the point.  It just enforces it.  Bruce Banner gets zapped by gamma rays and turns into a raging, unstoppable monster.  His cousin just gets stronger and sassier.  (Though it should be noted that I love She-Hulk and she remains one of my favorite characters in the Marvel Universe.)

Hulk and She-Hulk are a good example too because while the Hulk might be a giant beast, She-Hulk is tall and gorgeous.  She’s imposing, sure, and some artists even go out of their way to portray her as well-muscled.  But it doesn’t change the fact that she is an attractive woman, which is a burden EVERY female superhero must struggle with.  There are so few ugly female superheroes, I can’t even think of one off the top of my head.

Finally, you can add that women, like so many non-white, non-male characters in fiction, are often pigeonholed into roles based solely on their gender.  Even if they aren’t hypersexualized (as they often are), their often burdened with sexy costumes or female-centric attitudes.  Or should I say, attitudes a guy thinks a woman should have.  I’ve mentioned this before, but for many writers, women are no different than dwarves or elves.  If they aren’t defined by their beards or pointed ears (or boobs or long legs), a lot of writers just don’t know how to deal with them.

That’s a pretty big problem considering how little sexuality there generally is in superheroics.  I know that the guys are almost all hunks and ubermen, but they are rarely sexualized.  They are powerful beings, not necessarily sexual ones.  So women in comics, especially female superheroes, must somehow be both powerful and sexual.  Well, they don’t HAVE to be, but they usually are.  And why should that be surprising?  Women are constantly defined by their sexual desirability, and that’s a raw deal all the way around.  It creates a universe where Rush Limbaugh can criticize any women he doesn’t like by either labeling her ugly or, even more paradoxically, too attractive.  Meanwhile, Rush is a big fat bald guy who doesn’t exactly send a woman’s loins quivering.  That’s not even about politics.  That’s just a perception that reaches across the board.

With sexuality being such a defining characteristic of female superheroes, is it any wonder that most discussions about them are which is most desirable?  Their love lives tend to get a lot of focus, and if I had a dollar for every alternate universe story where Wonder Woman hooks up with Superman, I’d have a few extra bucks in my wallet at least.

Wonder Woman is probably the poster girl for this particular problem.  She comes from a land of women.  She is probably one of the most powerful women in her universe.  Yet when so many fans and writers envision her hooking up with someone, it almost always ends up being Superman.  Why?  Because, as powerful as she is, Superman is more powerful.  Suddenly the relationship makes sense because the idea of a powerful woman with an ordinary man just confuses the hell out of us.

(ASIDE:  This is a big part of the story in my next novel, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, where a physically powerful woman and a weaker man must deal with their mutual attraction and the cultural baggage that comes from it.  Excuse the plug, but a guy’s gotta eat.)

All the above adds up to a real problem for female superheroes in general, but especially for fiction.  A female superhero who acts like a male superhero will often be perceived as aloof or unlikable.  To get around it, the writers often must explicitly write moments of vulnerability that no male hero would have to act out.  And then by doing so, the female superhero stops appearing superheroic, often being perceived as weak.  It’s a classic damned, if you do scenario.

None of this really answers the original question though, does it?

I think the best bet for a strong female superhero to transition into film is probably found in the Marvel cinematic universe.  They really haven’t done this yet.  In fact, none of the Marvel movies have had a powerful female character in action yet.  Black Widow was good in Avengers but she also is safely low-powered character who has to huddle in a corner for a few moments after nearly being squashed by the Hulk.  Not that this is a bad scene, but it’s safe to say if Captain America had been in the same situation, he’d just have gotten up and gone back to fighting without blinking.

The truth is that Marvel has neglected its female characters in the movie universe in a way I sometimes find inexcusable.  At the moment, the two most powerful female characters in the movies are the one enemy agent Tony Stark fights in Iron Man 3 and a powered up Pepper Potts, also in Iron Man 3.  The enemy agent is defeated by Stark without his Iron Man armor even.  It’s a good scene, but it doesn’t help the perception that even a superpowered female bad guy is relatively easy to beat.  After all, Iron Man has to blow a hole through another bad guy’s chest, and the final boss needs to be blown up several times to be truly defeated.  Though at least it’s Pepper Potts who delivers the final blow.

This still doesn’t change that the movies have yet to feature a really powerful female hero, even though they’ve laid the groundwork for the first truly superheroic universe.  The problem though is that all the heroes featured in the movies have had their own long-running solo series, and despite having hundreds of female heroes, almost none of them have had a chance to build an audience on their own.  They are almost always defined by their relationships to a team or as supporting characters.  Basically, giving any of them their own starring role in a movie would be breaking completely new ground, and the whole point of taking a previously established character is to have that work already done for you.

Thinking about it, I see that as almost an insurmountable obstacle.  Their are only two prominent, physically powerful female superheroes in all the Marvel universe that have had their own solo ongoing series:  She-Hulk and Captain Marvel (aka Ms. Marvel).  The problem here is that both characters are gender-swapped versions of other characters.  She-Hulk would be a hard sell because Marvel really hasn’t been able to make the Hulk work very well until Avengers finally gave him permission to unleash his full might.  Ms. Marvel is a legacy of a character who is just as obscure, and her powers are pretty fantastic, making her a difficult sale to the general public.

So despite my earlier claim, I guess the Marvel movieverse has a long way to go before they can feature a truly powerful female protagonist in her own feature film.

This leaves us with DC, which has much the same problem as Marvel.  Their most prominent female characters are all supporting, and it’s why they’re so hard to make interesting on their own.  The Catwoman movie gets a lot of flak, but the truth is that without Batman to counter her, Catwoman is difficult to define.  Although she did have her own solo series for a few years, and from what I understand, it was decent.  Though, once again, Catwoman is a character that is often sexualized and really isn’t very imposing in terms of her powers.

Wonder Woman is a logical choice, but DC has never known what to do with her.  Despite decades of trying, she has had difficulty breaking into a character of her own.  Worse, beside being a woman, she’s saddled with being an Amazon, which shouldn’t be a problem but sticks her with too many guys based on Greek mythology.  None of this has to be an impossible obstacle, but it can make her seem out of touch and bizarre.  At least Superman was raised in Kansas.  Wonder Woman is an outsider without much to connect her to the modern world.  And then there’s the costume, which is always a bone of contention among fans and casual folks alike.  Personally, I don’t give a damn about pants or no pants, but a lot of people do.

So, after all that, I don’t know who would be a good female superhero to try giving her own film.  It’s not that there aren’t plenty of candidates, but they would take a lot of work to get right, and even then, despite everything, I’m not sure the audience would be ready for it.  Comic book readers have had decades to get used to the idea of powerful superwomen, and they still tend to balk when these superwomen come along.  They’re more interested in who would look better naked than who would win in a fight.  And that’s a real shame, but a long way from disappearing.

But, hey, I wrote all this and you read it, so let’s pick someone, right?

Squirrel Girl.

Sure, she hasn’t ever had a solo series.  Sure, her powers are designed not to be intimidating.  Sure, part of her appeal is her joke character status.  But the fact is, Squirrel Girl is a lot of fun and a terrific character.  I especially like how she is the direct opposite of so many grimdark heroes in mainstream superhero comics and how she is unofficially, the most effective superhero (male or female) in the Marvel universe.

Squirrel Girl could bring a lot of fun to superhero movies, and while she’s not intimidating, she is pretty badass.  She just might be able to sneak under the radar.  It might sound ridiculous, but I never thought they’d do an Ant-Man movie (or that it would look pretty badass too), so anything’s possible, right?

And if anyone at Marvel or Disney needs a professional novelologist to write the script, you can always contact me at HIPSTERCTHULHU@HOTMAIL.COM.

Catch you next time, Action Force.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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5 Comments

  1. Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    You make a lot of good points. When I was writing my superhero novel “A Hero’s Journey” I tried to avoid a lot of the stereotypes from comic books. She’s a relatively normal woman who just happens to have a suit of magic armor she uses to beat up bad guys. You can buy it for 99 cents here: http://store.solsticepublishing.com/a-heros-journey/
    Or $11.69 for the paperback here:
    http://www.amazon.com/Heros-Journey-P-T-Dilloway/dp/1482374080/ref=sr_1_1_title_0_main?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1370649472&sr=1-1&keywords=p.t.+dilloway

    Sorry for the shameless plug but as you say, a guy’s got to eat.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted June 8, 2013 at 1:02 am | Permalink

      In the spirit of one artist to another, I’ll allow your plug and wish you luck.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Posted June 9, 2013 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    I very much enjoyed hearing your thoughts on the subject I asked (plus, hey, that was totally my question, sweet!). This is a bone of contention I have argued many times with friends and loved ones, and I enjoyed hearing someone with very similar thoughts tackle it in their own way.

    A Squirrel Girl film would be wonderfully humorous. I personally very much hope that Ms. Marvel gets a chance to shine on her own. While a gender-swap, her alternate-gender character is basically a footnote in current comic lore, and it is the perfect time to present her to the fans of the films without that baggage. A film about a powerful female hero, with her own stories and villains based on many decades of comics and history. I’d be a big fan.

  3. Posted June 10, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Wow you make so many awesome points that it just makes me sad for comic books in general. Luckily while I do love graphic novels I do NOT love super hero comics – I just don’t connect with them. I like the dark gritty comics that are in no way “super hero” related. Not that I don’t like capes and all that jazz they just never appealed to me. So I wouldn’t know which super hero female I’d love to see have her own movie.

  4. Rick Sheppard
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi Lee,
    You’ve missed some of the best female superhero to make it on the big screen. Elecktra, of Daredevil fame, had a nice solo movie after the DD flick came out, but it lacked a really bad, bad guy.
    My all time favorite is Tank Girl, played by Lori Petty. While Ms. Petty is attractive, her looks were never a focal point within the movie. The bad guy was really bad (he was bleeding the world dry of water) and the movie was campy like the comic it was based on. Definitely worth a watch!

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