Since Tom Holland’s Spider-Man (Peter Parker, cinema version 3) made his first engaging appearance in Captain America: Civil War, everyone, it seems, is stoked for his forthcoming solo film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even those who didn’t see why we needed a third go-around with the Peter Parker incarnation of Spider-Man seem to have been won over. In my lack of excitement I feel conspicuously alone, because even though I did appreciate the first two Spider-Man films starring Tobey Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi, I have never been happy with the characterization of women in any of the Peter Parker movies. Mary Jane exists to charm and bewilder Peter and get captured and need rescuing. As for Gwen, the love interest of Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker — Gwen Stacy, party of one, your refrigerator is ready.
I have little hope for anything better from this new reboot, because while active and useful heroines may be part of the Spider-verse, none of them exist on the same plane as Peter Parker. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s choice of Peter as their Spider-Man makes it all but inevitable that any important female character will be relegated to the role of love interest/distressed damsel. To give her more to do, the writers would have to diverge sharply from the comic-book source material, which I doubt they will.
Truthfully, comic books and graphic novels in general have lately been far more generous to female characters, and female readers, than their cinematic counterparts have been. In recent days, readers of comics have been treated to the exploits of a number of interesting female heroes, including the dashing soldier Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, the awkward and brainy adolescent Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, and the courageous though often befuddled legal eagle Jennifer Walters, a.k.a. She-Hulk. (I can’t speak as much about the DC side of things, because I admit that where graphic novels are concerned, I’m more of a Marvel girl.) But while women and girls may be saving the day on the page, on the screen they continue to be cast as sidekicks if they’re lucky, damsels if they’re not.
As sidekicks, or as Sky High dubs them, “hero support,” the ladies get to be somewhat useful and get in a few strong punches for Team Good, even if they’re not the difference-makers at the climax. My favorite of these is Peggy Carter, as she appears in Captain America: The First Avenger, but since I’ve already devoted an entire blog post to her, I’ll move on to other examples. I haven’t watched Deadpool yet, but I have it on authority that Negasonic Teenage Warhead is an effective sidekick who inflicts her share of damage on the bad guys. Characters like Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Widow in the Avengers films also qualify as sidekicks even though they’re ostensibly members of hero teams, because male heroes lead those teams even though the women have their awesome moments. (Interestingly, I find Black Widow to be her most badass in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which she’s clearly hero support for the title character yet still comes across as a powerful force; I still smile when I remember Scarlett Johannson’s delivery of the line, “Did I step on your moment?”)
What distinguishes the sidekick from the damsel isn’t really the need to be rescued; although my girl Peggy miraculously evades the cliche, both Gamora and Black Widow end up in need of rescue at different points in their stories. But those scenes are not all we remember about them. Those instances don’t define them. We see that if they were only given the chance, they could be the heroes of their own stories. That’s why Peggy Carter got her own TV series (let us observe a moment of regretful silence for the Season 3 that will never be), and why fans have been clamoring for a solo movie for Black Widow.
Nobody will ever cry out for a movie or a TV show with Spider Man‘s Mary Jane Watson or Superman‘s Lois Lane as protagonists, because these characters could not exist apart from the superheroes to whom they’re attached. One is an actress and the other is a reporter, so we must assume they lead somewhat full lives when we’re not watching — but when we are watching, what they’re doing is getting into trouble they can’t get out of and relying on their men to save them. Lois, to be fair, often gets to uncover vital information before she’s rendered helpless, and then gets to deliver that information to those who need to know it once she’s been rescued; I do like Margot Kidder’s version of Lois, as well as the one voiced by Dana Delany in Superman: the Animated Series, both of whom are quite fearless in pursuit of a by-line. Yet still, when we think of the character, we think first and foremost of someone repeatedly in need of rescue. Mary Jane is a far worse case, since at least Lois usually gets captured while trying to get a story, whereas the villains capture Mary Jane not because of anything she does but because it will make Spider Man unhappy. And what, after all, does anyone remember about Peter Parker’s other major love interest, Gwen Stacy? Spoiler Alert! (Unless, of course, we’re dealing with the alternate universe in which Gwen is “Spider-Gwen” — but the new movie can’t go there.)
Yet whether the women in superhero movies are useful, competent sidekicks or ineffectual damsels, there is one thing they never get to be: the heroes who lead the way. No matter how capable the women may be, men are always the difference-makers at the climax. Marvel’s Ant-Man even uses this as a plot point: hero-ing is men’s work, and women who long to enter the fray just have to pack their patience. (Female fans eager to see a female hero are told the same thing, though not in so many words, as the planned big-screen adaptation of Captain Marvel is pushed back to make room for the new Spider-Man films.) I remember all too clearly watching the animated superhero comedy Mega-Mind, in which the titular villain is desperate to create a hero because he’s bored without opposition, and wondering why it never occurred to him, or apparently to anyone else, to bestow superpowers on the plucky girl reporter Roxanne, whose heart was obviously in the right place whereas his eventual choice’s was not. What quality essential to super-heroism did Roxanne lack? A Y chromosome.
One superhero film stands out as a possible exception, one without a pre-existing comic book incarnation: Pixar’s 2004 hit The Incredibles. In the movie’s first half, Mr. Incredible, a.k.a. Bob Parr, a superhero forced by our litigious society to do time as an insurance salesman, is the clear protagonist, but the second half opens up to include his wife, daughter, and oldest son. They might seem like sidekicks at first glance, but no. For me, the movie is really the story of Violet Parr, a painfully insecure tween whose ability to turn invisible is symbolic of her longing to hide from the world, but who, despite major failures early on, evolves into a force (and force-field builder) to be reckoned with. All four heroes are essential to the action at the climax, but who gets the final moment of awesome near the end, shielding her family from certain death? Violet. That’s my girl.
Twelve years after The Incredibles, I’m still holding out for a big-screen superheroine. If Spider-Man: Homecoming should prove me wrong and not follow its predecessors’ examples when it comes to female characters, I will be lavish in my apologies. But for now, I say — new Peter Parker movie? No, thanks; I’ll be over here reading my Captain Marvel graphic novel.