Wonder women: A new dawn for superheroes?

Marvel’s announcement of a plethora of new female-focused films at Comic-Con this weekend was met with widespread applause: finally, female representation in key roles in the traditionally male-dominated Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, as Natalie Portman, Angelina Jolie, and Scarlett Johansson were unveiled on stage in San Diego, it was difficult to escape that niggling question of tokenism.

Until Captain Marvel (starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson) last year there had never been a female-led superhero film among the interconnected web of movies in the MCU. In fact, the dearth was striking – in the 20 films released over the decade from 2008 to 2018 there had not been one female-led film, no female character featuring in a film title, no decent, fleshed-out, fully-formed story arc for a woman. When they did appear, characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in The Avengers series were peripheral to the male protagonists. More often than not women were not superheroes at all, but the PAs and love interests of the men.

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Now, it seems, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is eager to redress the gender imbalance. Of the five Marvel films announced for 2020 to 2022, three are heavily focused on women. Portman is taking over the Mighty Thor mantle from Chris Hemsworth for the fourth instalment in the series while Johansson, who has been playing Black Widow (and second – or sixth – fiddle) in The Avengers and beyond since 2010, is finally getting her own movie. Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek, meanwhile, will head the cast of new superhero franchise The Eternals.

It’s quite the sea change and, on the face of it, could smack of box-ticking. But it’s not quite as simple as that. If female representation is to mean anything it has to happen not just aesthetically by parading A-list stars on the big screen, but organically across the industry from writers to directors, producers, cinematographers and beyond. The stories told need to be representative of the female experience.

Marvel has gone some way to addressing this issue. Captain Marvel, for example, the first female-led superhero film in the MCU, was written and directed by a woman and man team, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck while Geneva Robertson-Dworet also has a writing credit on the film. It was a long time coming. Boden was the first female director of a Marvel movie, and the film is only the second, after Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), to credit female screenwriters.

Although Marvel would argue that Captain Marvel was already in development when rival DC released Wonder Woman, that film, released in the summer of 2017, was a game-changer. With Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the title role, it certainly ticked a box or two on the representation list. However, it also boasted a female director in Patty Jenkins and the screenplay was written by Allen Heinberg, a writer with female-centric TV series like Party of Five, Sex and the City, and Gilmore Girls among his credits. It was a critical and commercial success, earning a worldwide gross of $821.8 million.

Wonder Woman set the bar, but Captain Marvel, released in the months after the MeToo movement kicked off, arguably benefitted from both Wonder Woman’s success and capturing the zeitgeist in the summer of 2018. It grossed a whopping €1.12 billion. One of the reasons why it has taken so long to see female superheroes carrying movies harks back to the notion that female-led films don’t sell. Among the leaked Sony emails in 2015 was one from Marvel Entertainment CEO Isaac Perlmutter in which he said the 2005 film Elektra was “a very bad idea”, Catwoman (released the previous year) was a “disaster” and Supergirl (from all the way back in 1984) was “another disaster”, suggesting female-led films were box office suicide. However, it could be argued that the women were not the issue with those films. No actor, male or female, can make an abysmal script work (we’re looking at you, Ben Affleck in Daredevil).

Money talks, and the box office success of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel (and Black Panther, carrying the flag for diversity) has paved the way for more and the move is welcome. But what does this mean for female-led films beyond the superhero genre? Of course we want young women (and men) to see Gal Gadot kicking ass just like Superman, and representation within the superhero genre is essential and welcome.

However, there is a wider issue. These films will come at the expense of films from smaller film-makers and producers. It’s no secret that the dominance of big-budget franchises is muscling out smaller films like dramas, which would traditionally appeal to a female audience. Yes, we want Gal et al but we also want to see stories reflective of our real lives too. Studios are less inclined to invest in dramas from ‘unproven’ and even proven female voices than reliable box office fare, and it’s the audiences who suffer.

Yet, films like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, starring our own Saoirse Ronan, and Booksmart, which was written and directed by Olivia Wilde, are proving that not only is there an audience for authentic, original female-centric flicks, but that they can also be successful both critically and commercially. Lady Bird was nominated for five Academy Awards and earned a worldwide gross of €78 million on a reported budget of just €10 million. Female voices are finally being heard – let’s just make sure there’s room enough on the big screen for all of them.

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