Heroes for All (The Sequel)

The better part of a year and half ago, I wrote a wee blog about how popular sci-fi and fantasy handle feminism. If you’ve not read it, you can find it here, but my woeful conclusion was ‘not very well at all.’ Well, eighteen months on, things are better, right?

I’ll have to go with a solid ‘sort of’, on that.

See? There are lots of superheroines in the Marvel universe. Mind you, when Dazzler’s one of your leading punches…

Superficially, things seem much improved. Since my original piece, we’ve had female-led films like Jupiter Ascending, plenty of mainstream comics titles centered around women, and even the Assassin’s Creed franchise (which I may have lambasted a touch) has found the resources to add a double X chromosome player character in the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

Of course, Jupiter Ascending is near-universally regarded as a muddled narrative (which isn’t enormously relevant to the topic at hand) in which the titular lead is a constantly hapless damsel in need of rescue (which is totally relevant). Could Tauriel have been any more peripheral in Battle of Five Armies? She’s built up as a kick-ass warrior, then… *sigh*… fumbles her fight against one of the faceless antagonists so her unlikely love interest can bail her out. Yay! Feminism.

As to comics, it’s unwise to count any Marvel or DC ongoing series until it’s passed the 12-issue mark (and sometimes not even then), and anyway too many of the ‘new’ characters are either female re-skins of existing male superheroes (the Jane Foster Thor), or second generation heroines playing off established male characters (Spider-Gwen).

For the record, I’m not especially bothered about Thor being a woman at the moment. Sure, it smells of faulty publisher logic, but it’s a rare shift in comics status quo that doesn’t. What does offend me, is that Sif hasn’t managed to earn a chance at an ongoing – especially after the excellent run in Journey into Mystery a few years back.

And, of course, Syndicate’s Evie Frye shares protagonist duties with her brother Jacob. Until the game hits stores, it’s impossible to know if hers is a tokenistic presence, or one that’ll start to address the series’ flawed balance. I hope for the former, but time will tell.

Don’t misunderstand, this highly-selective snapshot does give me hope that things are moving in the right direction. A few years ago, a film like Jupiter Ascending would have played from the perspective of Channing Tatum’s character. Middle-Earth is genuinely the better for the presence of women. A greater slew of superheroines is only ever a good thing, especially when it brings in more female creators. And a woman sharing the protagonist’s role in a triple-A game franchise is a hell of a lot better than a reduction to NPC status.

Then again, Evie’s a bit hard to spot on this cover, don’t you think? Maybe I’m expecting too much.

As for the rest, at least it shows that the tide is (maybe) turning – in the product that’s produced, if not necessarily in corporate practice. But, by all that is good and sweet in Odin’s beard, there’s still a long way to go.

Don’t believe me? Well, there’s a phenomenon on the interwebs called ‘Where’s Natasha?’, born out of the baffling lack of Black Widow merchandise on sale after Age of Ultron. This is a real thing – so real, that even one of Scarlet Johansen’s co-stars felt the need to point it out.

The topic really picked up steam with the release of the ‘Cycle Blast Quinjet’ playset, which recreates Black Widow’s motorcycle pursuit, with one tiny alteration: no Black Widow. In the playset, it’s Cap riding the motorcycle, creating the bizarre Moebius image of him riding out to assist… himself?

Yes, I’m not exactly on the pulse with this. Chances are, you’ve heard some or all of this before – the stories have been circulating since the release of the movie, give or take, and reignited following the DVD release. Black Widow’s missing from several of the DVD covers (though she is on the Blu-ray). This in itself has provoked a fair bit of grumbling but, taken at face value, it doesn’t bother me. Hawkeye’s not on the DVD cover either, and his presence in the film is far more significant – they’re neither of them primary characters.

But when I rewatched Age of Ultron recently, it got me thinking. The problem isn’t Black Widow’s absence from the toys and promotional materials, it’s the fact that the film’s structured in such a way that she can be absent. Think about it. In Age of Ultron, what does Black Widow actually do?

Take your time.

I’ll wait.

Oh, that’s it. She’s a love interest, and gets captured. Awesome. The only woman close to the heart of the story, and her main impact on the plot – not to mention a fair chunk of her screen time – is centred around the possibility of raising a family, and being locked in a cage so her beau can come break her out. It’s not only a backslide in general terms, it’s actually a huge leap backwards for the film series. Remember Avengers Assemble, where she tricks Loki into revealing his plan, then provides the means of shutting down the portal? There’s an argument to be made for her having more impact on the plot than anyone other than Tony Stark. Not in Age of Ultron. Nope. She’s a woman trapped in the familiar go-to of servicing a male character’s arc. That’s why Black Widow gets left off covers. (The toy is harder to explain. That one’s just dumb).

Don’t misunderstand me. I actually quite like the romantic subplot in Age of Ultron, even if it does feel like it comes out of nowhere, and the emotional conflict from Nat not believing she deserves any kind of happiness is well-presented. You can even argue away her capture by claiming it’s homage to Ultron’s oedipal tendencies in the comics, what with Banner being one of his ‘dads’. It’s still disappointing.

So, like I said at the start: we’re getting there, but we’ve still a long way to go. If nothing else, I feel like there are more women in popular sci-fi and fantasy – the next step is giving them agency and – just maybe – a genuine presence that goes beyond romance, rescue and motherhood.

You know what I’m looking forward to? The Force Awakens. I’m hoping that once again Princess Leia Organa will set a new standard, as she did nearly forty years ago.

Don’t you dare let me down, Abrams.

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