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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