I’ll get the disappointing news out of the way first: 2018 was regrettably low on female heroes, at least of the blockbuster variety. 2016 gave us Moana, Zootopia, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as standout female-hero stories. In 2017 came the one-two punch of Wonder Woman and Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. Yet what I’ll remember most about 2018 are the many interesting and competent female characters who could have been the central heroes of their own stories but instead had to settle for facilitating the achievements of male heroes — Nakia, Okoye, Shuri (Black Panther), Domino (Deadpool 2), Mera, Atlanna (Aquaman), Art3mis (Ready Player One), Spider-Gwen, Peni Parker (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), and Hope (Ant-Man and the Wasp). In the popular Avengers: Infinity War, female characters were even more painfully shortchanged; only Gamora got substantial screen time, and she turned out to be more victim than hero. The closest I saw to a heroic female lead in an action-adventure film was Elastigirl in The Incredibles 2, yet while I liked the movie quite a bit, certain plot wrinkles and thematic elements kept me from embracing it with my whole heart. I wonder how much of an accident it is that despite Elastigirl’s central role, the character that everyone remembers most fondly is Jack-Jack.
Then there was Star Wars. After giving us female heroes for three movies in a row, the franchise offered Solo: A Star Wars Story, which was apparently made to appease that segment of Star Wars fandom that has been railing against “SJWs” for ruining the series with too much heroic female representation. If that’s what it takes to shut these guys up, I’m okay with it.
Yet despite the dearth of heroic female leads in the hot-ticket genres and franchises, female characters managed to flourish in more realistic films: slices of life (e.g. Eighth Grade, Tully), dramas focusing on social issues (e.g. The Hate U Give, Leave No Trace), anti-hero stories (e.g. Widows, Can You Forgive Me?), and Oscar front-runners (e.g. A Star Is Born). The female protagonists in such stories may not have been heroes; rather, they were complicated, messy women, prone to mistakes big and small, doing their best to power through difficult situations. The most outstanding example, for me, was The Favourite, a take on All About Eve set in the court of the erratic Queen Anne, featuring three complex and outrageously unpredictable female leads. Fans of stories that center on female anti-heroes should eat this one up like double-dark chocolate mousse. We need characters like this, women who are allowed to be deeply flawed and, dare I say it, “unlikable” in the way that male characters have always been free to be. Like A Star Is Born, The Favourite is an Oscar front-runner, and although I’m not all that excited about the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper film, it does my heart good to see two female-centered films ahead in the race. (The Golden Globes awarded their top prizes to a pair of guy-centric movies, but hey, they’re the Globes.)
Yet as gratifying as it is to see these complicated ladies on the big screen, I can’t help wishing I could have my female heroes, too. Hopefully I don’t ask too much. Captain Marvel had better be good, darn it.
Without further delay, my awards for this year:
Best Proof that the Historical Drama Remains a Thriving and Relevant Genre: Colette, a story of a woman’s fight for creative agency set in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century France. This movie, despite amazing performances by Keira Knightley and Dominic West, hasn’t generated the kind of talk it would need to be a factor in the Oscar race, but it should help filmmakers see how much woman-centered history they could tap into.
Best Use of Comic Scrip On Screen: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Best Scene-Stealing Supporting Player: Shuri, as played by Letitia Wright, in Black Panther. Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death and Akata Witch, is currently writing a series of comics with Shuri as the protagonist. Hopefully this series sill find its way to the big screen within the next couple of years.
Best Musical Number: “A Place Called Slaughter Race,” from Ralph Breaks the Internet.
Character I Didn’t Expect to Love, But Did: the desperate, courageous mother played by Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place.
Movie I Didn’t Expect to Love, But Did: A Quiet Place.
Movie I Would Have Loved More If It Hadn’t Been for That Post-Credits Scene: Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Movies I Hope I’ll Love But Still Need to See: Annihilation, Leave No Trace, The Hate U Give.