I remember the theatre thundering with excitement and cheers, when Robert Downey Junior’s globally acclaimed character, Iron Man, delivered his signature words in Avengers: Endgame. “I am Iron Man.”
A similar reaction was received when all the female superheroes banded together, for the first time ever, against the villain of the decade – Thanos. I went back to check out the response on Twitter. This was the most awaited movie, since Iron Man (2008). I had mixed emotions regarding how all the loose ends of the past decade had been finally tied up in this movie. Nevertheless, I had no doubt regarding the all-female superheroes scene. It was obviously very late, yet inspirational. Yet, there were people who found that scene “forced”, the majority of them being men; while female viewers responded by retorting that these men had no idea as to what kind of impact this scene had on that generation of girls who had grown up with Barbie dolls as their sole representation.
There have been numerous female-led superhero movies in the past. They’ve mostly all been failed ventures in how they did well commercially but were looked down upon by the general public because of many superhero fanboys’ discernment towards women as leads in superhero films. This outlook has been carried forward into the 21st century as well, making creators anxious to produce such stories. They consider a female-led superhero movie as a risk waiting to destroy their careers. However, all these “failed enterprises” have been directed by a man’s vision, projecting their female protagonists in a particular light.
For instance, Catwoman, the Halle Berry starrer was a big let-down in terms of its plot as well as the characterization. She was depicted as an uber-sexualized version of her superhero persona. Similarly, Jennifer Garner’s Elektra portrayed her in a stereotypical fashion too.
Also read: The Women Of Shang-Chi
The next significant female superhero, Natasha Romanoff alias Black Widow, was introduced in The Avengers in 2012. The Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, became the first and the only female Avenger for the few upcoming years. Black Widow (who first appeared in Iron Man 2 in 2010) was introduced in the cinematic universe way before Wonder Woman (2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and Captain Marvel (2019 in her solo movie) were introduced. Thus Black Widow was known to the movie fans much before they were introduced to Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. Yet, this character never got the acclaim it deserved, except for the factor that it was being played by a globally admired star.
It was later in 2019, that the MCU finally brought to screen its most powerful superhero. Captain Marvel, the origin story of a female superhero, Carol Danvers, was played by the Academy Award winner Brie Larson. The movie wasn’t as grandiose as previous Marvel movies, yet it had its own charm. For the first time, we witnessed a female superhero in a non-sexualized costume. People still felt that Brie Larson’s character was downplayed due to the presence of Samuel L. Jackson (as Nick Fury). However, Anna Boden, the director of the movie presented the story in a way that helped prove that Carol’s self was worthy enough. She served for the US Air Force with her best friend, Maria Rambeau in the 1960s; a time period not favorable for women to have “robust” occupations.
There have been other good female-fronted movies like The Help, Hidden Figures, The Hunger Games, V for Vendetta, Annihilation, etc. yet, these movies weren’t deemed a threat in the same manner that female-led superhero films are.
The all-female superhero showdown in Endgame is a definite inspiration for women. Moreover, it threatens the concept of “masculinity”. The term ‘superhero’ has now become universal and almost lost its gendered connotation. However, as per the conventional mindset, the female-fronted superhero movies overtly express the robust and strong side of a woman, characteristics otherwise associated only with male characters.
While the idea of an all-female starrer superhero movie was pitched in by the female actors of the franchise repeatedly, it never made it to the spotlight until Benedict Cumberbatch, known for his role as Doctor Strange, joined along to promote it.
It was the DC Comics-inspired movie, Wonder Woman that set the feminist agenda back into motion. This venture made its creators as well as the audience anxious since DC movies were overshadowed by the MCU, and a female-fronted movie was already considered a risk in the industry. Yet, under the guidance of director Patty Jenkins, this movie turned it all around. It also helped push Gal Gadot into the limelight. Chris Pine’s presence, or character, never usurped Gal Gadot’s crown as witnessed in the previous such movies.
In a survey led by Collider Video, Wonder Woman ranked a high 8, in a list of ‘Top 50 Superhero Movies’. The majority of male employees at Collider found it to be a too high ranking and deemed the appropriate rank somewhere between 20 to 30. Yet, their female colleagues felt emotionally moved and empowered after watching this movie, satisfied that it received such a good rank. They spoke about a specific scene, when Diana reveals her identity as Wonder Woman in the world of men for the first time and how it changed their cinematic experience altogether. In that moment, she not only saves every man in the army against the Nazis but also steps out of her cocooned life to become the hero she was meant to be. She leads them all without seeming as an extra addition for the sake of representation or tokenism.
It makes us question why Iron Man’s death was memorialized while Black Widow’s sacrifice was almost forgotten by the end of the movie. It also makes one think if the origin story of Captain Marvel was just a means to an end for the 2019 Avengers: Endgame. “The strongest superhero to date”, yet she was merely used an instrument to rescue Iron Man.
Is this how the arcs of female superheroes are to be concluded? Are they to be reduced to an instrument or a simple sacrifice? It represents the “othering” of female subjects and the conclusion of their narratives. Yet, we are reaching for that light at the end of the tunnel, since more women filmmakers are being employed to tell the tale of more female-fronted superhero stories.
An all-female superhero movie will not only promote representation but also the spectrum of relationships shared by women with each other. It will also shape the concept of sisterhood by propagating the idea of women helping each other. Therefore, it will finally also put an end to the stereotypical representation of women as vicious creatures pulling each other down.
Ashima Grover is striving hard to complete her Postgraduate English Literature studies. She mostly stays afloat owing to the regular supply of coffee and endless streaming of Alt Pop-Rock and K-pop music. Greek Mythology is a black hole she shares a love-hate relationship with. You can find her on Instagram.