Former Marvel chairman Stan Lee recently announced that Black Widow, the fierce Russian spy and agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. played by Scarlett Johansson in the current Marvel movies, might be the subject of a feature film. That would be really brilliant news for female superheroes ... except Lee doesn't expect Marvel Studios to bring Natalia Romanova's story to the big screen until after the company completes work on lesser-known heroes like Doctor Strange, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man.
Not familiar with Ant-Man? Well, he's a scientist, capable of shrinking in size, armed with a helmet that can control ants, and -- spoiler alert -- a straight, white, male.
When you think about it, most superheros fit the demographic portion of that description. Of course, on some level, this reflects the fact that macro culture is defined by the straight, white, male. Yet, the trend is especially problematic when it comes to superheroes, because of the way in which superheroes are defined. For an archetype driven by the concept of strength in otherness, superhero legends have quite the problem with others.
Pragmatically speaking, the straight, white, male superhero thing is working. In the past year alone, Iron Man, Superman, and Wolverine "have proven to be," as the BBC put it, "just as adept at pulling in audiences as they are at saving the world." And, while we're on the subject of numbers, one could just as easily look to the failures that were "Elektra," which cost $43 million and grossed just under $25 million, or the larger-scale flop "Catwoman," which had a $100 million budget and made only $40 million. Although, that's not enough evidence to claim women aren't a big enough draw for the genre, because both also happened to be pretty bad films (scoring, respectively, 10 percent and 9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
Yes, "Iron Man 3," "Man of Steel" and "The Wolverine" pulled in the big bucks this summer, but those films were all also, flaws aside, generally great. ("Man Of Steel," scoring the lowest of the three, still came in at 56 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) Box office numbers and critic ratings are two distinct measures of success, but we can't really determine the effect of female superheroes on the former, until there is one that draws praise in the latter. There's no arguing that there has yet to a be a critically acclaimed, female superhero film.
Helen O'Hara of Empire magazine argues that "these films are all based on the very best-known and most-popular characters who are, for the majority, men." A fair and true statement, but was Iron Man well known before "Iron Man"? Is Ant-Man well known now? Certainly not more so than Black Widow, very recently popularized by Joss Whedon's blockbuster "Avengers" films (not to mention Johansson, a household name in her own right). Speaking of Whedon, where the hell is our modern-day Wonder Woman movie? (Whedon, of course, had the script for a Wonder Woman film all written out, but Warner Bros. executives rejected it.)
See, despite comprising 50.8 percent of the population, films for women are still considered part of a niche market. There have been successes with female protagonists (like "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games"), but the market has predominantly found the largest profits when geared toward the straight, white, male. Even Black Widow's creator Stan Lee is less than excited for his Russian badass to to take center stage. He said of creating the film:
Well probably at one time, they'll make a movie of the Black Widow. But you see, the thing is the women like these movies as much as the guys, so we don't have to knock ourselves out to find a female.
The implications of Lee's statement transcend the lack of female heroes and extend to the lack of minority one, because, in short: Hey, all these marginalized people are already watching the straight, white, males, anyway! Obviously, as discussed, there is a largely economic factor in driving the executive decisions to create and spotlight the straight, white, male superheroes that it seems everyone will continue watching. But the real tragedy is that the genre has been not used to empower the minority strength, which it exemplifies in the first place.
Superheroes are defined, in all cases, by their otherness. In understanding ourselves as part of a societal group, we sort the world into categories of "us" and "them," with minorities that don't fall into our "us" grouping designated to the "them." Minorities are consequently alienated, simply by virtue of being different. This is a cognitive reality that informs the formation of prejudicial constructs, and leads to much of the discrimination minorities face.
Like minorities, superheroes are classified as "others," specifically non-human others. As a result of this automatic aspect of the genre, superhero protagonists are often persecuted and feared, because of the assumption that being different is dangerous. The beauty in that default aspect of any super plot line, is that superheroes ultimately persevere and understand that the very quintessence of their otherness comes with an obligation to actionable goodness; they get over the Daily Bugle's smear campaign, strap on the tights, and save the day.
In the sense that superheroes personify otherness as a source of (literal) power, they are arguably the most poignant minority protagonist. What a shame, then, that almost all of them comprise a demographic group that absolutely never has to suffer from the limitations of otherness. Since their inception, superhero films have succeeded economically and provided another example of the battle of good and evil, but they have yet to tap their most positive moral market. Ironically enough, all the non-white, non-straight, non-males, will have to sit through the entirety of Ant-Man long before superhero films do anything to help them feel less small.
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