Columns > Published on March 23rd, 2015

Girls on Film: Marvel vs. DC

It’s tough being a female superhero. You catch bad guys and save lives just as well—if not better—than your male peers, and you’re expected do it all while wearing heels and trying not to pop out of your ludicrously scant costume every time you throw a punch. Regardless of how much good you do, you still get marginalized by society in the exact same way as your non-powered, but no less heroic, sisters. How much superhuman effort does Wonder Woman waste trying not to roll her eyes when reporters and even the people she rescues ask her where Superman and Batman are, as if she were their receptionist? She can decapitate a supervillain live on national television, but the popular debate will still be about whether or not she should wear pants. Whenever she gets a new comic, discussion about the plot and characters has to take a backseat to her latest wardrobe change. It has to be supremely frustrating to know that no matter how many times she single-handedly saves the world, all the media wants to talk about is what she’s wearing, reducing the most powerful woman on Earth to no more than a Super Barbie.

As well-meaning misogynists often point out, the rampant sexism is at least partially a product of comics history. In the beginning, superhero comics were mostly male power fantasies written by old men for young boys. Female superheroes were typically just the love interests or “girly” versions of their male counterparts. But just because something has been traditionally awful doesn’t mean you just throw up your hands and stop trying to make it better. While some great strides have been made, like the all-female Avengers team or Miss Marvel finally getting promoted to Captain, the majority of popular superhero comics still revolve around impossibly muscled men rescuing pinup girls in peril. Just like their printed source material, superhero movies got off to a pretty sexist start. In the X-Men franchise Storm was given little more to do than look good in leather and spout bad weather puns; her longest pieces of dialogue were about being afraid. The most recent installment, Days of Future Past, rewrote its own story to change the female lead into Wolverine’s nurse. Even in the revered Dark Knight trilogy, intelligent, independent women like Assistant DA Rachel Dawes and Catwoman are little more than tokens to be threatened in order to inspire the men to do something.

There are still a lot of improvements to be made, but we shouldn’t forget to give credit where it is due. Hopefully it will inspire [Marvel and DC] to keep creating great stories with amazing characters that all of their fans can enjoy.

But there is hope: this Golden Age of Adaptation has slowly but surely been dealing out a few more well-realized female characters here and there. That’s really important, because as comics readership continues to dwindle it’s become increasingly likely that the film and TV incarnations will be most young fans' introduction to these characters, and quite possibly the only version they will ever know. Because women, and people in general, tend to see and talk about movies and television more frequently than comic books (much to my dismay), it will only be to Marvel and DC’s benefit to present all their characters so they can appeal to the broadest possible audience, thus make obscene amounts of money. So who is treating their women right on the big and small screens—Marvel or DC?

Spoilers for all of Marvel and DC’s movies and TV shows ahead.

While neither the X-Men nor Spider-Man franchises did anything worthwhile for the women in them (and the less said about Daredevil, the better), the output of Marvel’s own studio has been mostly female-friendly. That’s not to say they’ve got a perfect track record. Sure, Betty Ross doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test in either Hulk movie, but that’s because everyone is always talking about the titular male character. Thor’s love interest could easily be replaced by a sexy computer, and even the much-beloved Guardians of the Galaxy tragically turned two of the most dangerous women in the galaxy into a pair of bickering sisters. But it does seem like Marvel is trying to do better, and sometimes it succeeds. In Iron Man, Pepper Potts is presented as Tony Stark’s equal, able to run his company without him. Black Widow’s brief debut in the sequel was its most memorable scene, and she proved to be a superior fighter over every man that wasn’t wearing a suit of armor. She also managed to frequently steal the spotlight on a team of superpowered men in The Avengers, and subvert many of the most tired tropes in the history of action movies at the same time. She’s allowed to show emotion without having a nervous breakdown and doesn’t become irrational just because she’s terrified. Even when captured, outnumbered or outgunned, Black Widow is never helpless, and never needs a man to rescue her (except against the Hulk, but that’s understandable). In fact, in The Winter Soldier she saves Captain America’s life at least three times, and she is the one who exposes the massive conspiracy at the center of the plot and ultimately brings down Hydra while Steve and Bucky try to work out their feelings. All of which makes Marvel’s excuses about why they have yet to give the increasingly popular character her own movie more disappointing every time we hear them. But they have announced a Captain Marvel movie with a female lead, so perhaps some cautious optimism is in order.

At first I thought Marvel’s reticence on a Black Widow film was because they knew they’d done a good job so far and were afraid of screwing it up, but they’ve continued to create and develop well-written, realistic female characters for both of their television series. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. presents a variety of women who are strong without being stereotypical action heroines. Agent May, a.k.a. “The Cavalry,” plays the team’s tough heavy-hitter, but isn’t just another alpha male cliche grafted onto a woman. Although Skye was frequently captured and threatened in the first season, she didn’t crumble under the pressure and pray for rescue—her ordeal inspired her to take combat and weapons training to make sure no one would ever have to risk their lives to save her again. The villainous Raina is a master manipulator of both sexes, and never has to trade on her “feminine wiles” to make someone do exactly what she wants. The excellent subversion of terrible tropes continues on the show Agent Carter, which gives us Peggy, the ass-kicking spy who can still shed a tear for a lost love, partnered with Jarvis, a timid domestic servant who is useless in a fight unless he’s hitting people from behind with kitchen implements.  It really will be a shame if she never gets a second season.

By comparison, DC’s adaptations have been much more erratic in their treatment of female characters. The classic Superman movies didn’t give Lois Lane much to do except get into trouble so the plot could move along. Superman Returns is still the worst in every conceivable way, but it was equally terrible to all of its characters regardless of gender, so at least it was fair. The Smallville series showed some signs of improvement. While the first few seasons are practically unwatchable high school melodrama, the latter half of the series did a good job developing the women of the cast into interesting, multi-faceted people. We get to watch Lana Lang grow from the “girl next door” into an independent woman who is able to outsmart Lex Luthor, establish her own company, and even give herself superpowers. Chloe turns herself into an exceedingly competent intelligence operative, capable of matching wits with Amanda Waller (one of DC’s most formidable females) and making the hard choices that kind-hearted Clark can’t. Even Martha Kent, who was practically excised from Man of Steel, goes from the farmhouse to the Senate House on Smallville.

DC’s animated series and movies continued to showcase compelling women who were not only equal to the men, but often took them to task for their sexism, whether intentional or subconscious. On Batman: The Animated Series we met Harley Quinn, a victim of her feelings for a terrible, no-good man, who was eventually able to break the cycle of abuse and would have totally murdered her tormentor if she wasn’t on a children’s cartoon. There’s a great scene in an episode of Justice League Unlimited where Vixen explains to Hawkgirl that men have fragile egos, and it’s easier to get what you want if you talk to them nicely. The episode “Grudge Match” showcases a diverse group of female heroes that love fighting and competing just as much as the boys, and who are ultimately able to save themselves and get the bad guys without any male assistance. Another episode sees all the men incapacitated by a magical plague, and it’s up to the women, both superpowered and ordinary, to keep the world safe. Women get things done in the DC Animated Universe.

Sadly, for reasons unknown, two out DC’s three latest series are simply unwilling or unable to invest the same effort into making their female characters anything more than plot devices. While Arrow seems to think it’s enough to make all of its women into capable combatants, at least once an episode one of them will break down into hysterics and do something dangerously stupid, forcing Oliver Queen to shake his head and lecture them about letting their emotions dictate their actions before he stoically cleans up their mess. Gross. The Flash is even worse, filled with women who are all totally lost without a man’s help. For example: Iris West keeps telling everyone she’s a great reporter, despite a complete lack of evidence and the one pathetically weak blog post read on the show. But when she finally gets a chance to display her journalistic prowess in a press conference with scientist Harrison Wells, she simply repeats the same question her male coworker already asked. Wells only answers it this time because he knows she’s the Flash’s love interest, then the music swells and Iris beams as the men smile and nod their approval, as if that moment somehow proved her worth as a reporter.

It seemed like DC had forgotten what it used to do so well, but then they introduced us to scenery-chewing crime boss Fish Mooney on Gotham. Sometimes gender equality is not about portraying women in a positive light, but rather giving them a fair shake at whatever role the character is filling. If every female character is a saint, that neglects their development just as much as using them as scenery and plot devices. Fish is just as clever and vicious as the male mafiosos, and though she frequently allows her foes to underestimate her to gain an advantage, there is never any doubt as to who is in control. She’s tough enough to take a bat to a disloyal minion, laugh in the face of torture, and carve out her own eye to spite her enemies. Not since Heath Ledger’s iconic turn as the Joker has it been so much fun to watch someone be so bad.

It looks like Marvel and DC are finally listening to their legions of female fans and making the effort to treat their fictional women better. Marvel seems to be a little more consistent than DC, but both are still occasionally guilty of undermining and mistreating their fictional women on film and television, sometimes repeating the same mistakes as the writers of bygone eras. After nearly a century of comics, they really should know better. There are still a lot of improvements to be made, but we shouldn’t forget to give credit where it is due. That’s the only way they’ll know what they’ve done right, and hopefully it will inspire them to keep creating great stories with amazing characters that all of their fans can enjoy.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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