Who would win, Captain Marvel or Superman? Gender in Superhero Movies

By Michael Nacey

In the wake of the first trailer for Captain Marvel, the Marvel movie which stormed theaters on March 8th, a controversy began regarding the fact that Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), never smiled. In the posters, photos, and footage from the film, Captain Marvel wears a serious expression while performing her duty. Nevertheless, the fact that she didn’t smile while shooting beams of light from her hands or punching Skrulls disguised as old ladies in the face was enough to cause some fans to digitally cement a smile onto Brie Larson’s face. To respond, she did the same to male superheroes like Captain America and Superman, promoting the difference in expectations between female and male superheroes.

At this point, Captain Marvel stands as the second major successful female-led superhero film. In 2019. But Captain Marvel is not the only superhero film with a female lead. Disregarding Razzie-winner Catwoman (2004), and other unremarkable movies, the only other major, successful female-led superhero film at this point is Wonder Woman (2017). Thus, after the release of Captain Marvel, it may be worthwhile to analyze the portrayal of men and women in superhero films.

Male superheroes are “meant to be physical specimens,” suggests Mr. Lum, “Their physicality needs to look like they’re super, right? Like when we see Captain America punching a punching bag, his muscles need to be enough that we’re like, ‘Oh my God, I could never do that.” Male superheroes consistently display idealized men. Men who show themselves to be superheroes based on their bodies, regardless of their powers. As Mr. Lum asserts, “Tony Stark is a built man. In the comics, he’s a nerdy scientist…he’s not portrayed in that way, but since every other superhero is portrayed that way” Iron Man, who’s superpower is effectively his mind, has the similar physical features as Thor, a god. This stems from the idea that men require strength, and from that strength comes their effectiveness as a superhero, as well as their attractiveness. The opposite is true for female superheroes.

As opposed to men, women are “portrayed for their strength, but they’re also very much portrayed from their attractiveness,” says Mr. Canavese. Placing value on the strength of a character’s attractiveness relegates them to a lesser role within the story in male-led superhero movies. This dynamic leads to characters such as the Wasp in Ant Man and the Wasp (2018) or Black Widow in Iron Man 2 (2010), who are supporting characters and who appeal to the fantasies of men, a phenomenon which occurs in many forms of media. An interesting note is that, in recent years, some of these characters have been depicted as stronger than the main, male superhero (an example would be the Wasp), while still being relegated to the positions of, as Mr. Canavese describes, “second class characters.” This reflects a process where, as Mr. Lum says, “marketers have realized that there is [such] a large group of young women who read comics and who are interested in video games and are interested in films that they have begun to fix it. The problem is that a lot of it feels like tokenism. A lot of it feels like, oh, you just change this one thing. And now we have this character. And we can say we changed it. And we’re done, right? As opposed to real change.”

Real change has been elusive for women in superhero films. Movies and TV shows based on comic books started in the early 20th century, from the silent The Mark of Zorro (1920) to Batman (1943) and Captain America (1944) during World War II. As Mr. Canavese describes, TV shows soon joined the fray: “Superman had a TV show in the 50s. Batman had one in the 60s.” A common trend throughout this movement towards comic book-based films and TV shows was that women were far from its forefront, partly because of the way society viewed women at the time. Superman and the Mole Men (a real movie, believe it or not), the first Superman movie, came out in 1951, before the civil rights movement inspired campaigns for women’s rights that captured the attention of the USA. “It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 70s that Wonder Woman was ever on screen,” mentions Mr. Canavese, referring to the show that bolstered Wonder Woman’s popularity in the 70s. Even so, Wonder Woman left the small screen in 1979 in an America where Hollywood strayed far from the idea of a female-led action movie or a female-led superhero movie.

In the iconic Batman, Superman, and, of course, Swamp Thing movies of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, women play characters whose primary role is to be secondary. Lois Lane must be rescued by Superman, for example. Even the exceptions, such as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992) or Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin (1997), were portrayed with their dominant trait being their attractiveness rather than their power and their strength. A few years later, some of the first female-led superhero movies (Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005)) entered theaters and left soon after; Catwoman landed star Halle Berry a Razzie a year after an Oscar, while superhero movies began to become more popular and mainstream. Despite increased popularity, the superhero genre remained “based on the old-school gender role notion that action is for boys and relationship-themed stuff is for girls. Barbie versus GI Joe and going all the way back to that sort of thing” in the words of Mr. Canavese.

Change is coming to gender in superhero films, and films in general. Continues Mr. Canavese, “I think we’re starting to see the kinds of films where the men are playing roles that traditionally were played by women…I think of a movie like The Favourite (2018, a comedy set in Queen Anne’s court in England in the 18th century)….the leads are three women (Oscar-winning Olivia Colman alongside Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, who were both nominated), three powerful women and the men are kind of like their sexual objects or their pawns that they push around or brush aside. So, I just think that we’re starting to see a bit more of a balance, but who knows if it’ll continue that way.” Moreover, action movies have begun to include strong female side characters (as in Sicario (2015)), and stars (à la Miss Bala (2019)), not to mention the induction of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel into the hallowed halls of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. Change is in progress, but the main goal is still the same: to make money. The only difference now is that a market of female superhero fans has been discovered by movie studios. Mr. Lum sums it up by saying that it’s “a marketing ploy, and I also think it’s tokenism…there was enough criticism about, ‘Hey, there are no female leads in these, etc.’ And it was like, ‘Okay, okay, we’ll do it.’ I think those drove it more than any desire to change anything within the industry…They fear the backlash, not from women. They fear the backlash from men.”

Female leads in superhero movies don’t yet have a formulaic depiction, as many male superheroes in the MCU do. Iron Man is a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Thor is a God with a surprising sense of humor, Captain America scoffs at the word crap, etc. etc. But many of these depictions are unique simply because of a difference of powers. For example, Iron Man is Doctor Strange without magic, and Peter Quill is Spider Man with guns. To go even further, some of these depictions are not favorable in the least to women. For an example, watch Tony Stark in the first Iron Man (2008) movie or Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Nevertheless, the depiction of female superheroes is essential. Gal Gadot was a perfect Wonder Woman. She was a combat trainer for the IDF (Israeli Defense Force), she carries an authority in her mere presence, and she perfectly promotes feminism on and off screen. Meanwhile, Guardians of the Galaxy has Gamorrah, conveyed by Mr. Lum as “a trained assassin, capable of beating the main character,” although “she must wear skin tight clothing. She must be sexy regardless of her powers.” This appearance alludes to the fact that, as Mr. Lum says, movie studios “fear the backlash from men.”

This phenomenon has been the cause of controversies in franchise movies with female leads. Most of this controversy has sprung from the Internet. As per Mr. Canavese, “there’s a lot of trolling by men, about women in what they consider to be their entertainment. Not all men, of course, but there’s a vocal minority of men on the Internet who are very sensitive, like about Star Wars, for example, right? When Rey became the lead of the Star Wars movies that was very upsetting to a lot of people.” Another example of this type of reaction by male fans is the Captain Marvel “smile” ordeal, responded to with vicious tact by Brie Larson. That doesn’t excuse the fact that these events never occur for movies like Captain America. Fans easily accept male leads but have to adjust to seeing female superheroes with power exceeding their male counterparts. This kind of psychology begs many questions. Will women ever be portrayed as simply strong, rather than strong and attractive? Does that occur with men? Will all female-led superhero movies in the future have to star actresses that can deal with anonymous ridicule from the Internet? Will female superheroes always be judged more than male superheroes? Many of these questions boil down to the reality of sexism in America. The fact is that superhero movies can do more in response.

Captain Marvel is a Marvel movie, so it comes with some limitations. Adds Mr. Lum, “Marvel tends to be very controlling of their directors, right? We don’t see a lot of stylistic flourishes between the different films because they want them to feel like they’re in the same universe, and so they sort of handcuff their directors.” There is, however, an exception, which is “Ryan Coogler. Black Panther, right? He was free to do basically whatever he wanted, and so he was free to confront racism in a way that I don’t think other Marvel films could have ever done.” Captain Marvel may have the same purpose, and although Black Panther and Captain Marvel are two very different superheroes, recognize that “the 90s are an age where, when Captain Marvel is set, are an age rife with sexism. I mean, the fact that, and I’m included in this, the general public did not turn on Bill Clinton for his sexual harassment or sexual abuse of Monica Lewinsky says a great deal about that era,” says Mr. Lum. So, as opposed to the Ice Bucket challenge, or the Tide Pod challenge, or the Siberia challenge (where you walk across Siberia barefoot like Rasputin) which is definitely not made up, challenge yourself to search for some significance in your blockbuster entertainment when you see Captain Marvel.