The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Hollywood executives can no longer claim that when an action movie centering on a female protagonist fails at the box office (e.g. Red Sparrow, the Tomb Raider reboot), it’s because the movie-going public only wants to see white men as the heroes of such films. The rousing successes of Wonder Woman and Black Panther have given the lie to that notion, and this time, they can’t be laughed off. Now, in early 2019, Alita: Battle Angel has done well despite a poor Rotten Tomatoes critics score, an encouraging sign that a mediocre movie with a female lead might be as critic-proof as, say, Michael Bay’s first two Transformers movies.
Yet still we see pockets of resistance to inclusive representation in movies and television, particularly in action-adventure and SFF, and those pockets cannot resist any opportunity to call attention to themselves. Just now, the target of their ire is the upcoming Captain Marvel, the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a solo female protagonist. According to more than one source, they have flooded the movie’s RT site to spew their hate, hoping to damage its chances of success two weeks before its release. These people have not seen the movie and have no way of knowing if it’s good or not, yet apparently the fact that it’s going to exist bothers them no end.
Why this same crowd didn’t launch a pre-release attack on Alita: Battle Angel as well is a puzzler. I can only conclude that they didn’t bother because no one expected that female-led movie to do as well as it has, whereas the anticipation surrounding Captain Marvel has been great. Alita may have slipped through the fingers of the “anti-SJW” throng, but they don’t want to let another one get away.
Just why does the impending existence of Captain Marvel bother them so? Plenty of the haters claim their objections have nothing to do with its having a female lead, but say instead that it’s “too political” or “forcing radical feminism down our throats.” Yet I can’t help wondering how they’d know this when, once again, they haven’t seen the darn movie. How much can they honestly know about it, except that it centers on a female hero’s story? Considering these attacks bear an eerie resemblance to those aimed at Wonder Woman, the Ghostbusters reboot, and Mad Max: Fury Road, the haters’ claim is disingenuous. It’s the presence of a female protagonist that renders a yet-unseen action-adventure movie “too political” and an example of Hollywood’s new “radical feminism.”
So from this, can we conclude that stories with white male heroes are safely apolitical?
Of course not. The truth is that all good storytelling is in some way political. The same questions come up again and again in all forms of fiction: What is power? Who has it? How does one acquire it? How is it used? Does it always corrupt? I’ve been teaching a Foundations of Western Literature course at LIFE University this winter, and I can tell you that the Iliad, Oedipus the King, Antigone, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Thousand and One Nights, the Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales are all heavily political, as is every play William Shakespeare ever wrote. All center, in various ways, on abuses of power and efforts to restore a healthier balance.
Is Captain Marvel likely to be in that league? I doubt it. But I daresay it will raise some of the same questions relative to power. Naturally it will be political. I want it to be political, in the same way my favorite Marvel films — Black Panther, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers, and Captain America: The First Avenger — have been. All we want from a superhero movie is pure entertainment, some will protest. Absolutely. And what could be more entertaining than seeing those who abuse their power get their well-deserved comeuppance?
So, a female hero is inherently political. Any hero, with any discernible physical or personality traits, is inherently political. The “too” part of the complaint, however, remains to be proven. And I’d just as soon wait for the movie.
(Next: Yet Again, The Male Hero Isn’t About to Disappear)