Update. Since time of writing, it seems Disney have pulled the plug on Infinity. It’s a crying shame, but my overall point still stands – which is why I’ve still published this blog.
I need to do another blog about writing. It’s been months. One’s coming, I promise, but in the meantime, I’m going to touch briefly on an old topic. Concerning Heroes for All. This post contains spoilers for Civil War and Batman v Superman, by the way (and Age of Ultron, if you care). Spoiler-free reviews of the first two can be found here and here.
First up, it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that our recent superhero films are still dominated by white men. Hell, one of them’s even effectively titled ‘Man A v Man B’. But I think things are changing. Not dramatically, but they’re getting there. I’m on the record as saying that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the damn near the best bit of Batman v Superman, and the women in Civil War all contribute to their respective causes in important ways. Black Widow actually has the strength of character to change sides (sort of). Sharon Carter risks ruin by feeding info to Cap, and steals his gear out of lockup. They’re both pivotal – providing intel and necessary support to both Stark and Cap. Scarlet Witch establishes herself as an (inexperienced) powerhouse, with doubts about herself, and her place in the world. Even Peggy Carter, without even a single line in the film, manages to push Cap’s story into motion.
Of course, the obvious flaws are still there: the spotlight is still given over to men: Batman. Superman. Cap. Iron Man. Lois Lane is still rescue fodder. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re travelling in the right direction. Couple of examples. Five years ago, Peggy wouldn’t have died of old age, off screen – she’d have been killed by Crossbones, fuelling Cap’s calling to be a vigilante. Five years ago, Wanda would have been a wet blanket the entire film, going all googly-eyed over Vision, and serving as the mechanism for Cap (or Hawkeye) to show their leadership by snapping her out of it, and their combat chops by breaking her out of the compound. While the former kinda, sorta happens, it’s definitely Wanda who makes her own escape possible. Black Widow and Sharon Carter? Draped across Stark and Cap like fashion accessories (all right, maybe that’s from about twenty years ago, but the point stands).
We’re still waiting for Wonder Woman’s movie, Captain Marvel’s movie, and others like them. In the meantime having a film that treats women with respect and gives them the ability and nous to control their own destiny is a good step forward. And you know what? Not only is it really easy to do, but I’m pretty damn sure it made for a better movie.
But you know what’s really strange? What pours cold water on my hopes? There’s no Scarlet Witch figure for Disney Infinity.
(The one shown below is an awesome fan design.)
Okay, I know that seems stupid, so let me explain. Ever since the original Star Wars, merchandising has been a huge part of blockbuster movies – especially the kid-friendly ones.Disney have had a couple of PR disasters recently, as far as merchandising their female characters, one hastily back-peddled (Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens), one not (Black Widow, in anything). Probably there was a Gamorra issue, too, but I missed that one.
Why does it matter? Well, image is everything. Merchandising is the biggest, most prevalent public face of a company. It shows (accurately or not) what that company values. By implication, what a company doesn’t merchandise, it doesn’t value.
So why isn’t Scarlet Witch in the Disney Infinity line up? I’ve heard it suggested that the weird licence status of the Maximoff twins is part of the problem. As Avengers, their rights remain with Marvel. As mutants (despite a bloody stupid retcon last year), Fox also have rights to use them in films, hence why there were two Quicksilvers, and hence (probably) why my favourite one got killed off in Age of Ultron. Marvel’s really bad at sharing.
This argument smells funny to me. Why? Spider-man. While (sorta) back in the Marvel stable again, his rights were still solely in Sony’s withered grip back when his first Disney Infinity figure came out. Hmmm. That means it’s likely to be about money, but in a different way.
Women are traditionally missing from the roster of available toys, or at least have shorter production runs. From Aliens (yes, this was marketed at kids in the Nineties) to Star Wars to Avengers, it’s always much easier to find ‘nonspeaking cannon fodder three from the left’, than it is to find ‘kick ass female lead’. The traditional logic is that ‘boys don’t want them’. The increasingly vocal counterargument is ‘who cares, the girls do.’ Probably a lot more girls than people realise. After all, if the toy ain’t there, it can’t be played with, can it?
A quick glance at eBay and Amazon listings for the Black Widow Infinity figure shows that there may be some evidence to support this – she’s sold a lot more cheaply than her fellow Avengers (on average, anyway – Infinity prices are all over the place). Marketing types will likely tell you that she’s not popular because ‘women aren’t popular’. But I have another theory to offer.
She’s really dull to play.
Yes, I play Disney Infinity from time to time. It combines video games and action figures, what’s not to love? Plus, it’s something that my wife and I can play together – Dark Souls doesn’t appeal to her (not enough carnage). Even some of the technically limited 1.0 characters like Jack Skellington are more interesting than Nat – or at least more interesting than you might think (then again, who doesn’t love flaming pumpkins?) However, I’ve a bunch of Avengers, and Black Widow is just… boring. She shoots, she kicks. None of it’s terribly impressive alongside characters that can fly, throw lighting and so on.
Now, this isn’t entirely the developers’ fault. Black Widow’s skill set is pretty limited. Even in the Russo-helmed Marvel films, she’s not as much fun as the out-and-out super-powered folks. I’m not apportioning blame, I’m just saying that she’s dull compared to the others, and dull characters are never going to outsell popular characters. But you know who isn’t dull? The shield-sculpting, telekinetic, density manipulating, mind-controlling Scarlet Witch, that’s who. Throw on a great sculpt (the Black Widow one is… okay) and it’ll sell. It really will. Not just to thirty-something men who worry about these things a little too much, but to the girls you supposedly want playing your game. The girls who, at the time of writing, have a choice between two superheroines: Black Widow and Gamorra (I’ve not played the latter, but I suspect she’s not much more interesting that Nat). And Disney do want girls playing Infinity – their more traditional princesses are well-represented. They even include Tron’s Quorra who, as far as I’m concerned, is a superhero Disney Princess.
Or let me put it another way. Do we think that a Scarlet Witch figure will sell better or worse than Yondu, Iron Fist or Nick Fury? (All of whom are available.) I know what my answer is.
Come on, Disney. Your films are creeping into the 21st Century – time for your toy lines to do the same.