via Flickr by marvelousRoland
With several superhero movies premiering this summer, dominant male roles abound on screen. The superhero genre needs more females worth admiring, and “The Avengers” delivers.
(Note: Yes, I’m tardy to the Avengers party. It’s taken me this long to solidify my opinion about it.)
It’s difficult to be a woman who enjoys superhero stories. The genre isn’t exactly known for challenging stereotypical gender roles. Anyone familiar with the term “fridge girlfriend” or the infamous Starfire comic reboot knows that the superhero genre tends to relegate female characters to supplementary roles designed to support more powerful and psychologically complex male characters, always while titillating male readers.
So when I saw the trailers and promo images for “The Avengers,” I was worried we were getting more of the same shallow female characterization we’ve come to expect. Seeing Scarlett Johansson in her skintight bodysuit standing alone as literally the only female in every trailer had me on edge. And while every fan had opinions about the authenticity of Captain America’s costume, the logistics of Iron Man’s weaponry and the social complications of including the volatile Hulk in a team dynamic, the only opinion anyone cared to form about Black Widow seemed to be, “Scarlett’s hot!”
My apprehension skyrocketed when I found out Joss Whedon was directing. Don’t get me wrong, I actually love the man’s work. But the “fridge girlfriend” treatment he doled out in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” hurt me to my core, and after he pigeonholed his female characters into offensive stereotypes in “Cabin in the Woods,” he was certifiably in the doghouse. I didn’t trust him to write Black Widow in any way that didn’t boil down to fan service.
So I was surprised when “The Avengers” featured not one, not two, but three fantastically written female roles. Two of them are clearly stuck in supporting roles, but all three beautifully subvert traditional stereotypes and serve unique roles in the story. And surprise, they all came from Joss Whedon.
Pepper Potts makes her debut in “Iron Man” as Tony Stark’s secretary, personal assistant, voice of reason, sounding board, and all-around life partner. By “The Avengers,” she’s added “girlfriend” to her list of epithets, and she usually appears at Tony’s side. It would be easy for a writer to make Pepper into Tony’s cutesy arm candy, waiting for her man with a drink and the newspaper whenever he comes home. Instead, Pepper has friends outside of Tony’s social sphere, a professional life requiring public appearances and bureaucratic skill, and an ego-deflating quip ready anytime Tony needs to be taken down a peg.
Maria Hill bursts onto the scene in “The Avengers” with a steady gun hand and a no-nonsense attitude. Reporting directly to Director Nick Fury, Hill is the go-to woman when crap gets real and we need a reliable, effective soldier on the case. In a clumsier movie (say, “G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”), the writers would task a male hero with breaking through Hill’s frosty demeanor and unearthing the softhearted damsel underneath. Instead, Hill kicks butt and takes names throughout the entire movie and is raring to go for a sequel.
The crowning achievement is the refreshing portrayal of Black Widow, who first appeared in “Iron Man 2.” Comic writers have burdened the genre with a superabundance of femme fatale assassins clad in black leather who exist only to give male fans something to look at, and Black Widow could easily have been assigned the same role. However, Johansson instills in Black Widow a complexity hitherto unseen. Her military bearing and believable action scenes draw the viewer’s attention to Black Widow’s success as a fighter and away from her sex appeal, and her subdued delivery fills her lines with quiet intensity.
On top of everything else, Black Widow gets to give a big middle finger to the standard “damsel in distress” routine when she saves a male teammate from villainous mind control. And he’s not her boyfriend or anything! Ten points for female power!
The superhero genre is still sorely lacking in female heroes, and even well-written supporting females are in short supply. But for featuring more great women in one movie than many comics can muster in their entire series, “The Avengers” gets major props.
And Joss Whedon is out of the doghouse. Still sleeping on the couch, but at least he’s indoors.