Legacy sexism and superheroes

Here’s a post that’s been kicking around in my head for awhile, which I’m finally writing because I have some spare time over the holiday break:

Lately within some segments of geekdom some people have been hoping really hard we’ll that soon we’ll get a superhero movie focused on a female superheroine. A major one, and not a sucky one like the infamous Halle Berry Catwoman movie. As much as I’d like to see this happen I think there’s a practical barrier here that people are underestimating.

To a first approximation, all the superheroes anyone cares about debuted 50 years ago or more. The X-Men provide a bunch of partial exceptions, because they’ve added a lot of team members since their debut in ’63, and many of those more recent editions have become fan favorites, most notably Wolverine (1974). But beyond the X-Men, if you looking for important superheroes created after 1963 you won’t find much beyond inherently R-rated characters like the Punisher, the cast of Watchmen, and most recently Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl.

And however bad you think sexism is today, it was much worse 50 years ago. Second-wave feminism hadn’t even happened yet. And it shows in the comic books of the time. Almost without exception, the female superheroines of the time are The Chick, aka The One Girl On The Team. People familiar with later incarnations of the characters may not realize how bad the problem was, because of the upgrades some of these characters later got, notably X-Men’s Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix and Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl getting force-field powers (originally, she could turn invisible and that was it.)

The big exception is Wonder Woman. The story behind Wonder Woman and her creator, William Marston, is fascinating, but while I would gladly pay to see a movie that returned Wondie to her original bondage-themed roots, my guess is that such a movie would be perceived by the general public as another Catwoman.

Strip Wondie of her fascinating real-life roots, and it’s not clear how much she has going for her. How many people know anything about Wonder Woman beyond the fact that she’s The One Important Superhero Who’s A Woman? Or worse, the Justice League’s version of The Chick? Quick: name Wonder Woman’s greatest foe. Who’s her Lex Luthor, her Joker? And yes, some comics fans really, really like Gail Simone’s run writing Wonder Woman or whatever, but trust me the general public doesn’t know anything about that kind of thing.

The sexism of the early 1960′s comic book industry wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except for whatever reason the superheroes that matter are still mostly the ones that were around 50 years ago. If someone gave Joss Whedon $200 million to make any movie he wanted, you could bet your ass he’d make a fun movie with multiple kick-ass female characters, but that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, he got $200 million to make The Avengers using a specific group of characters who’ve mostly been around for 50 years.

There’s been hints of a clever solution to this problem from Marvel when they had Carol Danvers, formerly Ms. Marvel, take over the “Captain Marvel” mantle. This has some people hoping we’ll get a Captain Marvel movie with Carol Danvers in the role. You can imagine this approach being extended to other superheroes, say having She-Hulk take over as the “main” Hulk. But in a large number of cases, this ends up being hard to do because the names of the superheroes aren’t gender neutral, usually because they contain the word “man” but sometimes for other reasons (e.g. Thor).

There is, however, an even simpler solution to this problem: we can all agree to stop caring how long a character has been around. Movie studies can agree to make awesome superhero movies about brand new characters, and audiences can agree to go see them based on whether or not they’re good, rathe than how long the characters have been around.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

  • MNb

    Fortunately there is another, more likely solution: get bored with superheroes. Trends like these generally don’t last longer than about 10 years.

    • Joe Shelby

      Why do you think they keep rebooting each franchise with yet another origins story (re: Spiderman and Superman). When your target audience is teenage boys, 10 years is a generation. 3 Movies and that’s all you need to do. Then you start over with the next generation of 10-12 year olds and make 3 movies for them ’til they’re 18, then start over again and again.

      If anything, the ‘origins’ problem is what would concern me when it comes to any new characters. For whatever reason (ok, Joseph Campbell might have some answers), the origins stories are the only ones that actually translate on screen to the point of being critically successful. As soon as characters become established and we get into the saturday afternoon serial (that G Lucas wanted), the critics start complaining about lack of development, the audiences start to dwindle – it just doesn’t hold up.

      TV had long since replaced the theater for that style of writing…and now we have the next problem: tv is losing as well due to too much competition (both within and beyond) and productions are (being paid for by advertisers) more prone to recession-based funding problems.

      So to keep introducing new characters means to keep writing origins stories, which is already the trap the established characters keep getting in under the studios. For myself (at 42, mind you), I find it uninteresting now.

      • Jeff

        I’m mostly getting bored with superhero movies because in the 12 years or so since Spider-Man resurrected the genre, they’re less about characters and relationships and philosopy and more about displaying the awesome CGI work done by the special effects teams.

        • UWIR

          Spiderman resurrected the genre? When did it die? Check out this list:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_superhero_films

          Since 1977, there has been at least one superhero movie every year except 1985, 1988, and 2001. Even looking at just Superman, Batman, and X-Men, the largest gap is four years (three if you include Supergirl). Spiderman didn’t come out until 2002, after all three of these franchises.

          • Jeff

            Bad choice of words on my part. I was thinking more that the genre significantly took off because of Spider-Man, and your list offers evidence of that. 1998 and 1999 each only had one superhero movie (Blade and Mystery Men, which aren’t exactly held up as being remarkable). The 2 or 3 years before or after this point sees a lot of B-list and otherwise obscure heroes (Darkman III? Toxic Avenger IV?).

            Take a look at the worldwide gross column. Assuming that all the numbers are adjusted for inflation, Spider-Man absolutely blew away anything that came before it. $821 million made it not only the highest-grossing superhero movie ever at the time, but it made twice as much money as the second-highest. After Spider-Man, the genre exploded. But yeah, it was never actually dead.

  • jjramsey

    There is, however, an even simpler solution to this problem: we can all
    agree to stop caring how long a character has been around. Movie studies
    can agree to make awesome superhero movies about brand new characters …

    Ah, but that solution is not really simple at all, especially for studios that want to reduce the risk that they’ll put money into a flop. A new superhero is an untested one, one with uncertain box office draw. Marketing is also more difficult, since one isn’t building on the reputation of an established brand.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Yeah, yeah. I didn’t claim it was a *practical* solution.

    • Spooky Tran

      In fact, the problem is even bigger than that. Remakes of any genre are lucrative for studios because they bring in older audiences who are curious or who are fans of the original(s), in addition to the normal movie goers. Once they have that they can do whatever they want with the movie: stay true, reinterpret or wholly fuck it up. They will keep going back to the well as long as there’s water in it.

  • Pofarmer

    What about the incredibles?

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    I believe the problem is demographics. The super-heroes of >50 years ago were presented to a generation which had just discovered a lot of powerful things, including radiation, and without widespread awareness that it’s impact on DNA (the basis for Spiderman) can only be negative rather than empowering – they were primed to accept just about any premise as possible. It was demographic, in that far fewer had enough education that more realistic ideas and sober pursuits would detract away their attention. It was the demographics of a nation that was itself flying with pride after winning WWII, rising through an economic recovery after a long period of despair, in a time when serious talk of space travel inspired a lot of fantastic ideas which had been previously inconceivable.

    Compare the above to the demographics of today, and it’s just hard to imagine why anybody would be interested in producing another cartoon or spandex-clad hero with superpowers. We live in a disillusioned age, and a more educated one. If some new character has an unusual power, more people want at least a half-plausible explanation (I think the reason Iron Man worked so well in it’s comeback is that Tony Stark is an engineer). There’s also more vampires, werewolves and zombies than ever before, but these are understood (so I hope) strictly as fantasy, and would be expected to compete with classic superhero flicks. The kids who make the movies now seem to be more interested in lampooning the whole idea of superheroes, rather than in creating another serious one. There just doesn’t seem to be a future for classic-style superheroes of either gender. Not that I didn’t really enjoy Kickass 2, and I really thought Chloe Grace Moretz as “Hit Girl” deserves a lot of credit for her truly kick-ass moves, and without the pretense of any seriously-silly “superpowers”. Somehow I find the vigilante heroism of strong people who are mortal (like the rest of us) more inspiring. I thought she made her (movie) boyfriend look like a bit of a wimp, but she pulled it off with a lot of style – she never lost her cuteness!

    EDIT: I since went and watched the Kick-Ass debut movie of 2010, and I feel a little different about the whole Hit-Girl story now – it’s fun, it’s heroic, it’s as feminist as anything I’ve seen, but it’s also extremely Libertairan, and I have no stomach for any extreme (synonymous with stupid) ideas. I don’t feel much better about gun-control dictators either, but still I resent the insultingly manipulative nature of Libertarian media. It’s an interestingly clever ploy how they hijack platform issues which the Liberals have stood ons (such as feminism) , and the Hit-Girl comics even play the multi-racial card, but of course it’s a world where there’s no use for law and order, only ass-kicking and rocket launchers. Which, when you think about it, seems to be the basic idea behind ALL superheroes!

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