Joss Whedon wants more female superheroes

If Joss Whedon wants better female superheroes, he should have put some in Avengers

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in 2012's Avengers Assemble
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in 2012’s Avengers Assemble

Asked by The Daily Beast about the lack of superhero films with a woman front and centre, Avengers Assemble director and geek godhead Joss Whedon replied:

“Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, You see? It can’t be done. It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, ‘My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,’ and I thought, Yeah, of course they were. I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’”

He’s thinking of 2005’s grossly stupid Elektra, 2004’s dumb and offensive Catwoman and perhaps even Adrianne Palicki’s boobular Wonder Woman jogging between parked cars in ill-fated pilot, but if Buffy and Firefly creator Joss Whedon really wants to see better female superheroes, or at least greater female participation in superhero films, well… he should have put some in Avengers Assemble, then.

Whedon’s point about the economics is no doubt spot on – superhero movies with women in the banner may well be a hard sell in the shady backrooms where Hollywood deals are brokered and careers are crushed, but if anything, that makes ensemble pictures the best place to begin the revolution against gender disparity.

Bryan Singer’s X-Men gave us, in the first film at least, Anna Paquin’s vulnerable Rogue as the audience identification character, Halle Berry’s elemental Storm as the heavy hitter, and Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey as the emotional centre.

Over a decade on, and the best Whedon could do was make Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow less exploitative – think back to the plunging cleavage and dominatrix power fantasies of Iron Man 2 – and draft in Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill as a supporting character so emotionally blank and featureless as to be a near cypher. At one point Whedon was reported to be considering Wasp for a role, when he feared Johannson was unavailable…

Is this what it’s come down to? The greatest ensemble writer in geekdom building a team in which there’s only one position for a woman?

Cobie Smulder as Maria Hill
Cobie Smulder as Maria Hill

That he was hamstrung by what had come before is clearly a factor – we’d spent half a dozen films establishing the core cast, so there’s an obvious limit to what he’d have been able to sneak into Avengers Assemble. But even then, we expect more, especially from a self-declared feminist and one so willing to bemoan the lack of decent female-led superhero movies as if he wasn’t part of the problem.

Black Widow isn’t yet a well rounded female character.

The use of her sexuality or apparently vulnerability to manipulate is appropriate to her super-spy persona, but of the scenes she dominates those make up an uncomfortably high proportion, as well as alluding to her relationship with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye which seems to suggest part of her character’s definition is rooted only in relation to the men around her. She also fails the Bechdel Test, by exchanging no lines with Maria Hill or any other woman on screen.

What confuses the dialogue about Whedon’s feminist credentials is people mistaking physically strong women with strong female characters, as if being able to hold their own one-on-one with a man is what makes them remarkable. No. Being anything in relation to the men in the film still means your character is defined only by the men in the film.

Both Hill and Widow are physically strong, and emotionally capable, but both are also catsuited. Bryan Singer bedecked his XX-Men in formfitting black leather, but he did it with the XY-Men too – it was a uniform. Maria Hill’s ‘uniform’, a figure-hugging dark blue unitard isn’t worn by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) or by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson).

There’s no doubting the significance of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in offering up, along with Xena: Warrior Princess and The X-Files, a overdue subversion of the traditional roles, but over a decade on and this looks tired and cliche.

Whedon, once the smasher of tropes is now the enabler of them – women in combat must be lithe and acrobatic, experts in leggy kicking and using their opponents strength against them,  whereas men are brutish and slow. Women in combat must dual-fire handguns because assault rifles and submachine guns are too big and ugly for Black Widow’s aura of teenage sexual fantasy.

You want to see more well-written women in superhero movies, Joss?

Well write some into Avengers 2, then.

You can buy Avengers Assemble on DVD for £10.99 or on Blu-ray for £14.99 from Amazon.co.uk.