A Tale of Two Superhero Movies

Before we went to see Captain Marvel last weekend, my husband showed me Spider-Man: Homecoming, one of only two MCU movies I hadn’t seen (the other being Ant-Man). He was concerned that the theater would air the trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home, which he knew to contain a Spoiler for its predecessor. A perfectly reasonable concern, I thought, so I watched it. The lowdown: it’s an entertaining film with a flawed but likable teenage protagonist who learns quite a bit along his journey, and it’s anchored by a solid performance by Tom Holland. I can understand why critics praised it and why the public made it a box-office success.

It wasn’t for me.

The movie has three noticeable female characters. One is a kind-hearted maternal figure who might have a touch of sass about her (to judge by a certain spark in Marisa Tomei’s eye) if only the screenplay would give her a chance to show it. (Despite the fact that she’s clearly supporting herself and her nephew Peter, the movie offers not so much as a whisper about what Aunt May does for a living.) Another is a love interest who is longer on legs than on personality; kudos to the movie for casting an actress of color, but shame on it for failing to develop her character enough to make her matter. The third is a figure who hovers in the background, of whom we see just enough to know she would have been awesome if only she’d actually been given something to do.

Therein lies the problem. None of them does anything useful or important from the first frame to the last. They’re window-dressing, the “what-we’re-fighting-for” while Peter/Spidey and his buddy Ned do all the fighting, which makes far more sense in a story set during the First or the Second World War than in one set present-day. The girls/women represent the normal life the hero can’t quite manage to enjoy. This has been the job of female characters in decades upon decades of male-superhero lore, Aquaman and Black Panther being recent exceptions.

Spider-Man: Homecoming reminded me not so much of other male-led MCU films — heck, even Doctor Strange, my least favorite, has better female representation — as of those popular movies from the 1980s in which girls were symbols and rewards more than characters, and were rarely if ever very interesting. Who remembers anything about Dana from Ghostbusters before she gets possessed by Zuul, other than that Sigourney Weaver played her (and probably took the role because she’d get to play Zuul)? Or Jennifer from Back to the Future, other than her pouty-lipped gaze? Or Jennifer from War Games, other than that she was played by a cute teenage Ally Sheedy? Or Kate from Gremlins, other than her Really Creepy Christmas Story? Or Ali from The Karate Kid? Or Maggie from The Last Starfighter? I’m astonished I can even recall their names. The ladies in Spider-Man: Homecoming are on that level. Zendaya’s Michelle, in particular, is disheartening because she could have been so much more — a smart, snarky, funny girl that the equally smart and adventurous girls in the audience would want to identify with.

Back in the 1980s, filmmakers in general (with notable exceptions, e.g. those behind Labyrinth and The Journey of Natty Gann and the last two films of the first Star Wars trilogy) didn’t seem too conscious of girls as a demographic worth appealing to. They made movies centering on teenage boys that were sure to draw huge crowds of same, and their idea was that girls would “go along to get along” since they could relate to different-gender protagonists, which was too much to ask of the boys. How many girls thought about what they might be missing? How many told themselves, “I want to be the computer genius, not the normal girlfriend. I wish I could be the one traveling through time and space rather than the one waiting at home. I wish that for once I got to be impressive, not just be impressed”? A great many, I imagine, for otherwise nothing would have changed. Around the same time, Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley were writing YA fantasy fiction that catered to the girl audience’s desire for adventure and daydreams of being heroes in their own right. The girls who grew up reading this fiction, and maybe noticed the contrast between what girl characters got to do in those books and what they got to do in most movies, are grown now and creating stories of their own. More and more, we’re seeing signs that mainstream pop culture is coming to understand that girls have dreams, and those dreams tend not to be about waiting on the sidelines while the boys do everything cool.

That’s where Captain Marvel comes in. Spider-Man: Homecoming might have felt right at home in the ’80s, but I find it unlikely that those in charge of Hollywood back then could have conceived of something like Captain Marvel, or 2017’s Wonder Woman. (The old effort to bring Supergirl to the big screen is best forgotten.) Now the cinema’s powers that be have decided we’re ready for women with superpowers to headline as heroes in their own solo films — their own good solo films. Whatever flaws they might have, both movies are meaty wish-fulfillment for girls, including the inner girls of grown women like me. We get to fly! We get to fight! We get to save the world!

One of the interesting things to me about Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Carol Danvers — SPOILERS AHEAD — is that the world she saves isn’t the one she initially sets out to save. Her character arc reminds me somewhat of another tasty wish-fulfillment dish, Netflix’s new animated series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: in flying off course, she lands in a place where she discovers she’s been fighting on the wrong side, and where she has a chance to discover who she really is and what she’s meant to do. She has to reconnect with her lost identify, to know herself, before she can be a hero. Brie Larson plays this journey of self-discovery beautifully, imbuing the character with flashes of humor and spirit even from the beginning.

But as much as I love Carol and Nick Fury and want to give sweet kitty Goose a scratch behind the ears, the character who resonates most strongly with me is Monica, the daughter of Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau. She’s an incarnation of my inner twelve-year-old, smart and funny and wise in ways the adults aren’t. At a pivotal point, Maria must decide whether to fly with Carol on a dangerous mission or stay at home and protect Monica. Like most kids, Monica doesn’t think she needs protection, but that’s not how she puts her case when she convinces her mom to go with Carol. Instead, she points out that Maria has a chance to play a key role in important events, and no way should she pass that up. She should think of the example she’s setting for her daughter.

In a way, Monica says to her mother what I wish I could have said to all those bland, passive girlfriend characters from 1980s movies: don’t just send the boys off on adventures with a plaintive and teary-eyed plea to “be careful.” Put on your boots and join the fun. Take a stand. Don’t wait for others to solve all the problems; go out and do something.

In the comics, Monica becomes a superhero. I can’t wait to see that happen in the MCU.

 

 

 

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SFF Novels/Series Written by Women: A Recommendation List

In honor of International Women’s Day and World Book Day, I’m keeping today’s post simple: a list of recommendations, as of this day in 2019, of my favorite SFF authors who happen to be women and my favorites among their works. This list will, of course, change over time as I discover new books and authors.

Juliet Marillier: Daughter of the Forest; Son of the Shadows; Child of the Prophecy; Wolfskin; Heart’s Blood; Dreamer’s Pool; Tower of Thorns; Den of Wolves

Octavia Butler: The Parable of the Sower; Wild Seed; Kindred.

Sharon Shinn: Mystic and Rider, The Thirteenth House, Reader and Raelynx, Fortune and Fate, Jovah’s Angel; Troubled Waters.

Kate Forsyth: Bitter Greens; The Wild Girl (historical fiction rather than fantasy); The Witches of Eileanan; The Pool of Two Moons; The Tower of Ravens.

Kate Elliott: Black Wolves; Cold Magic; Cold Fire; Cold Steel.

Patricia McKillip: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Alphabet of Thorn; The Bards of Bone Plain; Moon-Flash; The Sorceress and the Cygnet; The Cygnet and the Firebird; Ombria in Shadow; Winter Rose.

Barbara Hambly: The Ladies of Mandrigyn; The Witches of Wenshar; Stranger at the Wedding; Bride of the Rat God.

Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death; Akata Witch.

N.K. Jemisin: The Shadowed Sun; The Fifth Season; The Obelisk Gate; The Stone Sky.

Naomi Novik: Uprooted; Spinning Silver.

Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion; Paladin of Souls.

Karen Lord: Redemption in Indigo.

Mercedes Lackey: Phoenix and Ashes; The Fire Rose; The Serpent’s Shadow; The Fairy Godmother; Winds of Fate; Winds of Change; Winds of Fury.

Joan D. Vinge: The Snow Queen; The Summer Queen.

Elizabeth Bear: Range of Ghosts; Shattered Pillars; Steles of the Sky.

Robin Hobb: Ship of Magic; Mad Ship; Ship of Destiny; Dragon Keeper; Dragon Haven.

Violette Malan: The Sleeping God; The Soldier King; The Storm Witch; Path of the Sun.

Martha Wells: The Cloud Roads; The Serpent Sea; The Siren Depths; The Wizard Hunters.

Holly Lisle: Fire in the Mist; Bones of the Past; Mind of the Magic.

Jo Walton: The King’s Peace; Among Others.

Vonda McIntyre: Dreamsnake.

 

Male Heroes Aren’t Going Anywhere

Or, Why I Need Captain Marvel to Be Good

A few days ago, an interesting question came up in my Twitter feed: what is something you wished you liked, but don’t? After a minute of thought, I answered, “SFF books” — SFF stories, really — “with male-only protagonists. . . Whenever I read a book with no female POV, something feels off to me.”

I came to realize this when I finished Martha Wells’ The Edge of Worlds, the fourth novel in her Raksura series. Wells is a storyteller and world-builder par excellence, and I’d devoured her initial trilogy (The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, and The Siren Depths) with gusto. All the books are written primarily from the perspective of the male protagonist, Moon, with only a few scattered sequences departing from it. When I read the first three, this bothered me not at all, but as I moved through the fourth one, I couldn’t escape the feeling that female characters had less to do than in the previous outings, and when, at the climax, only two female characters were active and both were villains, I decided I would not need to read this book again and put it in my sell-back pile.

What has changed between my loving The Siren Depths and my disliking The Edge of Worlds — the books, or my perceptions of them? The more I ponder the question, the more I suspect Wells’ books are not the problem. It’s me. I’m suffering from a case of Male Hero Fatigue.

This year I will turn fifty, and I’ve spent a good portion of my life consuming stories in which boys and men occupy the center of the narrative, make all the important decisions, and perform all the crucial actions. Some have had no female characters at all (e.g. The Hobbit). In others, women occupy small and/or incidental roles (The Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, a big number of iconic geek-culture flicks from E.T. to The Last Starfighter to Ghostbusters to Back to the Future). Others, ranging all the way from the original Star Wars trilogy to last year’s Black Panther, have cast women as active, competent allies who get their moments to shine even though, at the end of the proverbial day, boys and men are still the saviors, the Messiahs, the Chosen Ones. In the last three decades I’ve found a better share of day-saving women, mostly in the pages of books, yet the balance of heroic leads has, throughout my lifetime, been skewed in favor of men. Perhaps if I were younger, if I hadn’t gone through my formative years in the 1980s, I wouldn’t feel this fatigue. But it’s there, and likely to lessen only as the balance is corrected. That’s why it is vital to me that Captain Marvel be good.

Yet some fans don’t want to see that balance corrected, and every move towards its correction (wait, Rogue One has a female lead? After The Force Awakens had one? Two female leads in a row? Feminists are ruining Star Wars!) upsets these fans no end. They don’t want Captain Marvel to succeed. They want the default lead for SFF and adventure stories to remain male, and my Male Hero Fatigue may be largely a reaction to their predictable, perpetual railing against change.

In the minds of these fans, more and better representations of women means less and worse representations of men. They cling to this idea despite overwhelming evidence that contradicts it. Back when they were railing at Mad Max: Fury Road, I wrote a post to show how this movie had not led and would not lead to a dearth of central roles for men in SFF and action films. Now it seems I have to do it again. Captain Marvel is but one adventure movie coming out in the first half of 2019. Let’s take a look at some of the rest.

April: Shazam!; Hellboy; Avengers: Endgame.

May: Pokemon Detective Pikachu; John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum; Aladdin.

June: The Secret Life of Pets 2; Toy Story 4; Child’s Play

And for the rest of the summer — Spider-Man: Far From Home; The Lion King; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw; Artemis Fowl; The Angry Birds Movie 2; Good Boys.

Every single title here has a male protagonist. Where will the women be? So far, the only things I know for sure are that the female lead in Hellboy is a villain and Artemis Fowl, if it’s true to its source novel, will feature a feisty heroine who gives the titular anti-hero a rough time (which he deserves).  But will there be awesome female allies to kick butt alongside Shazam? Will Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4 be as heavily driven by male heroes as their predecessors were? And will I be able to overcome my Male Hero Fatigue enough to enjoy them? As an MCU completist I will have to see Endgame, and I hold out some hope for Toy Story 4 despite my opinion that the third film had a perfect ending. Hellboy, John Wick 3, and Hobbs & Shaw I’ll stay away from. For the rest I’ll wait and see.

Yet as you can see, opportunities to see a woman save the world are thin on the ground. Men in Black: International will give us Tessa Thompson having fun in an action role, but she’s co-hero with a male lead. Dark Phoenix centers on a female supervillain and the men (if the franchise stays true to form) who have to stop her, so of course that doesn’t count. Up until Star Wars Episode IX appears, Captain Marvel is it. It has to be good. It just has to be.

Many rebuke this mindset. It doesn’t matter who the protagonist is, they say, as long as the movie tells a good story. A fair point, but I would take it more seriously if it didn’t so often come from the same people who complain about what they see as “too many” female protagonists. In their minds, Captain Marvel represents “radical feminism” because she occupies the sort of heroic role that has for so long been reserved for men. My good is their evil.

When the movie is finally released and the critics and wider audience have their say, we’ll see which side history will favor. In the meantime I will keep Martha Wells’ original Raksura trilogy on my shelf, waiting for the time when my Male Hero Fatigue subsides at last.