I originally intended to post this next Saturday but then I thought: What the heck. Why not announce what I have planed for the upcoming year now? And use the opportunity, to express my hope that all my readers had a peaceful Christmas (or at least some nice days if Christmas doesn’t float your boat), and that you will all have an equally fun celebration when the New Year starts (whenever this will be for you).
This is the start of the new series I mentioned back in November. And as the title suggests: Yes, it is about Comic book based movies and shows. It occurred me that comics have a lot of influence on modern society, especially currently. It itches in my fingers to write something about some of the female character which have graced our screen in this context. But: so far none of them would qualify under my usual perimeters. There aren’t many Superhero movies out there which feature a female protagonists, and those which do exist have one thing in common: They are really, really awful movies. I do feel, however, that in the last five years or so the industry has gone in the right direction when it comes to presenting female characters which deserve the label “well done”. Don’t get me wrong: They are still way away from where they should be, and at least five steps behind what one should expect by now. Still, I think that there is some movement in the right direction should be discussed, even if I have to stretch my usual parameters a little bit in order to be able to discuss most of the upcoming characters.
Thus said, I am very much a comic book dummy. I did read my fair share of them…but none from Marvel or DC. I always like certain European comic series way better, and the concept of Superheroes is not one which particularly interested me, mostly because I think that the moment you have to use force to solve a problem, you have already lost. It should be the last resolution, not the first or the celebrated one. Therefore this series will be written from the perspective of someone who is pretty much clueless. But then, this has the advantage that I can comment on the adaptations as someone who has practically no former knowledge of what might happen, someone who can judge the movies mostly independent from the source material. And since that was always my perspective, I experienced the rise of the Superhero movies a little bit different from the common Comic book fan. The original Superman? Certainly an important movie, but I wouldn’t call it a particularly good one. Nice to watch, nothing more. Burton’s Batman? Visually interesting, but choppily plotted (well, it’s Burton). Raimi’s Spiderman? Great, looks like a comic book, but can I get some character development, too? X-Men? Let’s just say that Fox is lucky that they cast some really good actors who managed to elevate the mediocre script (I haven’t watched the last two entries yet). The Dark Knight rises? Interesting movie, but also very melodramatic. And the MCU? I liked Iron Man well enough, but they needed a few movies to sell me the concept. So liking (really liking, not saying that they are a fun one time watch) Superhero movies is a new experience for me.
I guess I should address the question of all question: Marvel or DC? My answer is: Neither. Marvel has the better name, DC has the better logo (now that they finally settled on one design), but when it comes to content, I think it is just a matter of taste which stories one gravitates most to. Both companies shamelessly steal ideas of each other, and both push each other to do better. I think Marvel without DC or DC without Marvel would make for a very empty comic book world.
Some thoughts concerning Cinematic Universes
The idea of creating an overreaching universe is not as innovative as it seems to be, though normally it works the other way around: First you create a series, and then you add the tie-in movies. What makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe so special is that it was created to be “grander” from the get go. It also takes care to adress a broad audience. More or less each Franchise in the universe speaks to a different kind of viewer.
- The Iron Man movies are Science Fiction with political undertones.
- The Hulk Movie is a Monster Flick.
- The Thor movies are Fantasy, with a little bit of science thrown in.
- Captain America: The first Avenger is a War Movie, while The Winter Soldier is a Conspiracy Thriller (and I got the impression that they really like the more political angle for Captain America).
- Guardians of the Galaxy is a Space Opera.
- The upcoming Ant-Man movie seems to be a Caper or Heist Movie.
- And The Avengers, throwing everything together, is the most straight-forward Superhero movie, mixing Science and Fantasy, but with a strong emphasis on character studies (of the different Avengers).
One aspect which certainly helped Marvel, even though it might have looked initially like a disadvantage is the fact that the heroes involved in the Movie Verse are what I call “second tier heroes” – meaning they have been around for some time, and are famous enough that their names are still recognizable, but they didn’t star in various instalments already the way Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four did. Hulk is a little bit the exception, because there was a fairly successful TV Show in the 1970s and an animated series in the 1980s. Ironman also got his own series in the 1990s. But I mostly knew the heroes thanks to the fairly shitty “The Marvel Superheroes” Show from 1966, which featured Captain America, Hulk, Ironman and Thor. With limited animation and an annoying voiceover it was less a TV show and more a reading of the comic books with pictures. Thus said, if you saw it that way, it did have some merit. It certainly did a good job to present the basics about the various heroes.
Working with lesser known heroes allowed Disney to take the first stab on a proper appearance for the big screen. Now their version of the heroes is the version for non-reader of the comics, and they did a lot of improvements on the source material which made even the more boring franchises interesting. And Disney/Marvel has a lot of good material left to pick from. To summon up the current situation: 20th Century Fox owns the rights to X-Men (and by extension Wolverine and Cable) and The Fantastic Four (and by extension the Silver Surfer), Sony Entertainment own Spiderman (and by extension Venom), Lionsgate Entertainment owns the Man-Thing (I admit, I have any idea why someone would want the rights to it – despite being the rip-off I believe that the Swamp Thing is way better known) and Namor is apparently entangled in multiple contracts between Marvel, Universal Pictures and a third party which puts this particularly property firmly into the limbo for now. And to make the whole thing a little bit more complicated, there are characters which can be used by multiple right holder, due to the “assorted characters” rule. The most obvious example is Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who turn up in both the X-Men and the Cinematic Universe, but as totally different characters.
Which brings me to the attempts of other studio to copy Marvel’s concept. Fox, Sony and the DC studios are currently all trying to catch up, which creates a situation in which there are no less than ten superhero movies announced for 2017. Some of them have to flop. So, let’s take a look on the different offerings.
The fact that Fox and Sony is owning some Marvel properties is a bone of contention for some fans. I admit though, I am actually glad the X-Men are not an option for the MCU. The concept that a world which cheers on Superheroes would hate mutants never made any sense to me (some people have tried to explain it to me with the different nature of a Superhuman who got his powers via experiment or accident vs. a new race of humans, but how can you tell the difference if someone suddenly displays unusual powers?). I very much prefer the X-Men in their own little universe, and not mixed up with any of the other franchises (plus, there are so many characters in X-Men, they can easily fill their own reality, and would most likely overwhelm the MCU).
Thus said, I was never a big fan of the X-men movies. It is funny but when they made the first trilogy, I never really could get into it, because I actually expected them to make movies which each concentrated on a different X-men character (in short, I wanted a connected universe before it became a thing), but instead they offered construct which left every character not Wolverine, Xavier or Magneto with a short stick. “First Class” was the first movie I actually liked, mostly because it spend a lot of time on Mystique, who is a truly fascinating character, and Beast. But considering that it is basically the prequel for the movies I don’t like, mostly because they depowered Rogue before they actually depowered her by making her a teenager with all the downsides of her abilities but none of the upsides, I will most likely never get into this universe (which is more a collection of prequels and sequels with a spin-off series thrown in).
Still, the X-men are standing on a strong foundation and have a dedicated fanbase. The Fantastic Four movies have not, and unless the reboot gets really good review, they are on the top of my list of possible flops. I already hate the actors they picked (not because of skin colour, but because I always saw the Fantastic Four as more middle aged), and considering the first attempt Fox did on this franchise did not meet expectations at all, this one looks doomed to me (pun intended). All in all, I think they would fit better in the MCU than in the X-Men, but I don’t particularly miss them either. It’s more all the characters connected to the Fantastic Four which would be a good addition to the MCU. Just imagine having their rogues Gallery in Guardians of the Galaxy.
The current Spider-Man on the other hand I would love to see in a crossover with the current Avengers, but I have also some reservations. The thing is: I really liked Andrew Garfield as Spider-man, and I would love to see how his story continues. But I also like the idea of a Teenager Spider-man. In Marvel’s hands, they might finally create a proper version of the Green Goblin. For Sony a partnership with Marvel might be the only way to survive the upcoming battle of the Superheroes, especially now that the leak has put the company even more on the spot than beforehand, and while Marvel will easily get away with introducing a new Spider-man, Sony wouldn’t. In any case, they really should forget the idea to create an own Universe just based on Spider-man. The material they have the rights for is enough for a Cinematic City at best.
Personally, I think it is a little bit funny that now everyone is clamouring for all properties falling back to Marvel and by extension Disney, considering the uproar when Disney bought Marvel. I was not worried at all. What people tend to overlook is that Disney has produced a lot of live action movies under the touchstone and other alternative labels which are far removed from what is usually considered Disney family entertainment. And, as I have pointed out multiple times, they have produced more movies with female protagonists than all the other animation companies in the western world. Therefore I was pretty sure that if they would take Marvel in hand, the result would be impressive, and there might be a slight chance for some decent female characters.
To be upfront: Superhero stories tend to be sexist. One only has to take a look at the covers to realize that. There is a distinctive difference between the way females are portrayed and the way males are shown, as the Hawkeye Initiative, which draws Hawkeye in the same poses heroines are forced into, cleverly demonstrates. Not that there aren’t instances in which male heroes are sexualized. I think the most blatant example was the advertising campaign for Arrows second season, which basically consisted of showing off all male characters shirtless. The difference is in the way of the portrayal and the quantity. While with male Superhero the more sexualized portrayals are the exception, they are the rule for female ones. And even a Superhero which shows off his aps is still portrayed as strong and impressive, while the females are forced into impossible poses (often with a “don’t you want a piece of me” undertone) and useless costumes. As long as female heroines are forced to fight in high heels while their shining cleavage presents a perfect target in the night, comic books have a long way to go. Not that Superheroes don’t wear impractical costumes sometimes (No Capes!!!!!) , but none of them is forced into a costume which emphasises their balls or have to pose looking over the shoulder so that the reader gets a nice view on their butts and abs at the same time.
I think one can discuss to no end if this is the case because comics are written to appeal to the mostly male readers or if the readers are mostly male because comic books really don’t have female readers that much to offer – if the cliché of the male reader is even true, recent studies show that there is a sizable number of female comic readers, and it is high time that the publishers start to pay attention to this particular demographic.
Naturally there are exceptions to the rule. But fact is that a lot of Superheroines are essentially simply female counterparts to pre-existing male heroes, only a few have their own titles, and they are often shoved in the role of the love interest.
There is a lot of this attitude still left in the Marvel movies. Most of them don’t pass the Bechdel test, and those who do only get said pass by a very small margin – not that just passing the test makes a movie feminist, or that not passing it make a movie automatically not feminist, but it shows very well where female characters figure in the franchise. The movies are very found of the smurfette principle. There is exactly one female character in every group. One female Avenger, one female warrior in Thor’s war band and one female Guardian of the Gallaxy. It is somewhat sad that Marvel gets so much credit just for creating female characters which are not totally awful when what they do should be the expected minimum. Nevertheless I think it is time to take a good look at the characters which might be the first step to a more gender-equal presentation in superhero movies.
What I really want to see from Marvel is a Spy-Movie featuring the Black Widow. Why? Because she is an already established and popular character, and a movie which is part of the MCU should be successful. Yet another failure at the box office would put the female heroines back on the shelves for years to come. Their decision to go for a Captain Marvel movie instead honestly worries me a little bit. And yes, I might be overthinking it. Comic book fans are certainly clamouring for this movie. But they are not the general audience, who (like me) has no connection at all to the character. Black Widow on the other hand is well known now, and played by a currently very popular actress. To me she looks like the safer choice.
To explain why that is so important, consider the following: Since the Christopher Reeves movies proved that Comic adaptations can make a splash at the box office, there have been exactly five high-prolific comic adaptations with female leads. Five! Supergirl, Tank Girl, Barb Wire, Catwoman and Electra (The likes of Buffy doesn’t count because the franchise didn’t start out as a comic, plus, that movie was awful, too). During the same time there have been (not counting TV-movies) among others six Superman movies, seven Batman movies, five Spider-man movies, three Blade movies, three Wolverine movies, three Captain America Movies (one in the 1990s), three Iron Man movies, two Hulk movies, two Thor movies – even the Swamp thing got two movies. Four talking turtles got as many movies as all the female Superheroines got together.
None of the five Superheroine movies were even remotely a success. Sure, if you look a little bit earlier, Barbarella (which is based on a French comic) has become a cult classic with time, but less because it is such a good movie, it’s more a “so bad that it is good” movie, and nobody watches because Barbarella is such a compelling character but because Jane Fonda looks hot in skimpy clothes. Superheroine movies tend to turn up on “worst movie” lists for a reason. Catwoman is just offensive on ever level, Electra has some interesting visuals but nothing else to offer, Supergirl is an incoherent mess, Barb Wire is a sexist version of Casablanca and Tank Girl – whatever Tank Girl was trying to do, it didn’t work out. In fact I feel that there might have been the possibility for a good movie in that one, and I am not sure where exactly it went wrong, aside from leaving the impression that the movie is offensive for the sake of being offensive (which might be true to the source material). The other movies though are a very good study of “how to not write a female character”. But every time one of those movies fails, they are seen as a confirmation that the audience doesn’t want to see a female lead. To be fair, a bad Superhero movie might also mark the temporary end of a franchise (*cough* Batman and Robin *cough*), but it never leads to the conclusion that the gender of the hero has anything to do with the lack of success.
Wonder Woman has been in development for decades and she is not just a well known heroine, she is one of the best known comic book characters in general. She is part of the trinity DC is built on. Now DC finally gave the fans what they were asking for a long time by announcing the presence of Wonder Woman in the upcoming Superman vs. Batman movie, following by her staring in her own movie. But to be honest I am even more worried about this movie than I am about Marvel’s plans. Like I said, I am not particularly partial of either company, but to me it looks like DC is rushing things in order to somehow keep up with Marvel. Plus, they have this “gritty and dark” tone going on, which worked fine for Batman, but certainly not for Superman and Wonder Woman. Also, while I like “gritty” I am not a fan of “totally hopeless”.
DC currently tries to run in all directions at once, instead of building up on what they already have. They could have built the Universe on “The Dark Knight”. They could have built it on Arrow, considering the success of the show (even though CW is a fairly small network). But instead they have movies and shows which connects with each others while other don’t, which makes the whole matter just confusing. “Man of Steel” was a financial, but not a critical success (I hated this movie…not because of the controversial ending, but because it is an incoherent boring mess which constantly monologues about the problems of being Superman without ever bothering to create one single interesting character), “The Green Lantern” did even worse and now they want to put the Justice League movie out there without spending the care Marvel did on their characters. They have some really prolific characters to built on, but I don’t trust them to do properly.
Marvel on the other hand will survive the upcoming “battle of the superhero movies” for sure. Now, not every instalment in the universe is necessarily a good movie – I will discuss this at length when I get into the different franchises – but currently it looks like Marvel hit a stride. Marvel has built up so much momentum and good-will with the fans, they would have to dish out at the very least three disappointing movies in a row before they are even in danger to struggle. And just seeing what they have planned – adding Iron Man to the upcoming Captain America Movie, the Civil War storyline and naturally the expansion of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, which might become its own universe within the universe – makes me pretty excited for the future. Even Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D has hit its stride now, and if Agent Carter takes (I am very optimistic about it), it will be the first successful comic show starring a female lead since the Wonder Woman show from the 1970th.
To summon all this up: DC has the more prolific heroine, but Marvel has the more successful Universe. DC is still way ahead of Marvel when it comes to animated shows, but the field is evening out concerning the TV shows, and the Marvel movies is currently blowing the DC ones out of the water (as is the Marvel marketing, they really know how to put on a show). Because of this, I will first discuss Marvel movies. but don’t worry, I’ll get to DC eventually. Hopefully with an article about an awesome new take on Wonder Woman.