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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Comic Book Movie Women of 2017

With the full force of both Marvel and DC movie campaigns raging with their spectacular, firework-laced steam, comic book women have been more prominent on cinema screens in 2017 than ever before, showing that they are “wanted, needed, and can be successful.”

Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman and Justice League) and Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) return from 2016, while Valkyrie (Thor: Ragnarok) and X-23 (Logan) join MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Atomic Blonde), Major Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell), and Sergeant Laureline (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) as central, strong, and powerful characters, irrespective of age, race, or planet of origination.

This is the year in which Wonder Woman was not only praised for having a female director with Patty Jenkins, but the film became the highest-grossing, live-action, female-directed film of all time, setting Jenkins up to become the highest-paid female director in history at the helm of Wonder Woman 2, expected in late 2019.

Although 2016 ended with Wonder Woman losing her “job” as a UN honorary ambassador on the grounds that she represented the wrong sort of moral values, by the end of 2017, Jenkins is paving the way for more female directors in Hollywood, while Israeli actress Gal Gadot and her Amazonian women have shown that they are more than capable of disrupting and dominating the Americanized Justice League ensemble, and by extension, Hollywood’s expectations for a female-driven action film. (Joss Whedon was one such director, who had been famously trying to make a Wonder Woman movie since 2006, only to find himself continually blocked by the system.)  
Except, for as unequivocally progressive as 2017 may initially appear to be on the surface, the films of the past twelve months have also been both positively and negatively framed within not only the continuing debates and discussions of recent years, such as those that were raised by female actors playing Ghostbusters and the #OscarsSoWhite movement of 2016, but the emergent moments and movements of 2017. In this respect, the two key comic book films of 2017 are Wonder Woman and Ghost in the Shell.  

The Wonder Woman Wednesday series of articles by Michael Fitzgerald Troy of Fanbase Press are a fantastic example of how Wonder Woman can be positively evaluated in terms of empowerment. Other writers examine how Wonder Woman has turned many conventions on their head, alongside a seemingly never-ending litany of online articles about how Wonder Woman is a good role model to follow. Yet, while Google might auto-complete the phrase “Wonder Woman is a good role model,” it also recommends the search option ‘Wonder Woman is a bad role model.”

Leaching out into some of the media analysis that surrounded the May release of the Origins trailer, the feeling that dissent was in the (h)air started with a discussion of Wonder Woman’s (lack of) underarm hair. Things got more interesting as the trailer was digitally fixed in later versions so that her skin tone was color-matched. Crucially, this issue should not be conflated with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o hitting out at Grazia magazine over the “Eurocentric” airbrush hairstyle she was given or Solange Knowles fighting back after her hair was cropped in the magazine shoot, both of which also happened in 2017. Nyong’o and Knowles’ issues concern ownership of their own ethnic representation in the media, whereas, the Wonder Woman “controversy” was centered around the will of the vocal fans projecting their own ideals of what a Wonder Woman can and should be allowed to be.   
The same distraction (from the presumable intent of the marketing team) took place with Justice League in November, as this time the promotional shots were analyzed and the Amazon characters were criticized for having sexy, bare midriffs and leather armor in a film now designed and directed by men. Compared to the concerns over Wonder Woman’s armpit hair, which appeared to be more of a character continuity/logic oversight rather than a hidden agenda to reveal Wonder Woman’s tanning-bed conventions (although the official response was pretty telling), these later conversations are not a distraction in that they more greatly serve to uncover hidden biases and assumptions both by and about the Hollywood machine.

Director James Cameron was quoted as saying, “All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards.” Cameron’s comments were countered with a cogent explanation by Jenkins herself, which in turn generated further debate from all other vested contingencies. It’s equally significant that in the last month of the year, Jenkins and her film are also being used as prime examples of how the Golden Globes, and by extension Hollywood itself, in not nominating them within any award categories are still attempting to shut out female directors and female-driven films.

With Wonder Woman, the quality of the film seems to now be secondary to the debates that it engenders. Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman are being held up as an inspiration, but then criticized and torn-down for being “inauthentic” by any metric within grasp. The online counter-response is to then follow the path of believing the issue to solely be about gender. Nobody seems to be saying that Wonder Woman wasn’t nominated for a Golden Globe because it weakly ends with a terrible CGI Big Bad, reminding everyone that the comic book adaptation can’t quite carry and deliver the same emotional heft in the narrative through-line as the source material.

While Gal Gadot seems to have escaped the brunt of the whiplash, Scarlett Johansson was less lucky this year, being loudly and very publicly accused of directly colluding in whitewashing over her role in Ghost in the Shell. With Wonder Woman, the debates essentially stem from whether a woman is capable of playing a sole lead role in a major action movie, and if so, then how “feminine” can she appear to be. With Ghost in the Shell – and a number of other films to release in 2017 – the discussions center more on what type of woman is qualified to fit a certain role.    

Echoing the critique of Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One in 2016’s Doctor Strange, Johansson was considered by many to be the wrong ethnicity to play Major Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Japanese graphic novel, Ghost in The Shell. By way of comparison, though, the same issues were seemingly not raised when Johansson played Russian spy Natasha Romanoff in the Avengers series of Hollywood movies, a role that non-Russian Emily Blunt, “Jessica Biel, Gemma Arterton, Natalie Portman, Jessica Alba, and Angelina Jolie were all considered for” without public disapproval.

This year also saw Zoe Saldana reprise her part as the strong-willed Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, continuing to demonstrate how commanding female figures (including Saldana’s Uhura of Star Trek and Neytiri of Avatar) can provide role models within sci-fi films, no matter their skin color. But even then, this follows the condemnation that Saldana received for her portrayal of Nina Simone in 2016’s biopic, Nina, being “appearance-wise … not the best choice.”

Tessa Thompson, who played Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, says that, “Val is Bi in the comics & I was faithful to that in her depiction” – which was widely applauded – and believes that “the color of the Valkyrie’s skin is the least important thing about her.” Likewise, when Zendaya’s casting as MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming was met with a racist backlash, director James Gunn replied:

“For me, if a character’s primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks. For me, what makes MJ MJ is her alpha female playfulness, and if the actress captures that, then she’ll work [….] Whatever the case, if we’re going to continue to make movies based on the almost all white heroes and supporting characters from the comics of the last century, we’re going to have to get used to them being more reflective of our diverse present world.”

One might argue then that this is an issue of cultural providence, with the authenticity that comes from the source material being a key determining factor. MJ is “alpha female” playful, Kusanagi is quintessentially a product of her post-war Japanese origins, while Romanoff may simply be a pretty foreign spy designed to sell stories. But then English actor Ed Skrein was widely praised for pulling out of the forthcoming Hellboy on the grounds that he wasn’t comfortable playing a Japanese American character adapted from Mike Mignola’s American comic in the very same year that “Marvel Comics’ new editor-in-chief, CB Cebulski, has come under fire after it was revealed that he had written under the alias Akira Yoshida” and Marvel’s vice president of sales, David Gabriel, said, “People didn’t want any more diversity.” Oh, and they also “didn’t want female characters out there” either.

Hence, 2017’s theme, therefore, is one of cultural sophistication concerning issues of ownership and appropriation, but as we have seen, while 2017 certainly posed the questions, it failed to really answer them.

Yet, there was some further complexity tucked beneath the surface of comic book films in 2017. Karen Gillan, who plays Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, pointed towards the possibility that women on screen don’t have to all be of one type: “There’s just a great array of women in [Guardians Vol. 2], and different types of women [….] Yes, there are females in big action, sci-fi movies, but we were sort of in danger of them becoming stereotypical in the sense that they’re ‘badass’ and ‘super strong’ and ‘sexy.'”

X-23 in Logan is once such example of a female character not having to be an exact replica of their male counterparts. Even though she literally is a clone, she’s also a child with a little more about her than her “father,” signalling that while Wolverine is largely incapable of change, X-23, or Laura, represents that future development. There’s also the reflexive irony within the reviews for Valerian that have praised singer/actress Rihanna for playing a shape-shifting dancer who is forced to accommodate her audience’s wishes, while they largely criticize model/actress Cara Delevingne for not being convincing enough in her standard “badass” and “sexy” role to satisfy the increasingly complex demands of the viewer.   

And, 2017 also ends with one significant event to shape cinema: the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. We’re now hearing from directors such as Peter Jackson of how their own opinions of female actors were colored and shaped by Weinstein and his various enterprises. On Weinstein’s advice, Jackson discounted both Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd from roles within The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Furthermore, before Jenkins was signed on to direct the Wonder Woman sequel and Brett Ratner was being floated as a possibility, Gal Gadot was telling press that she would only reprise her role if he was removed from the project, due to his own history of sexual harassment with women.

The Guardian declares “2017 has been the year of the asshole,” and looking at people like Weinstein, it is a summation almost entirely impossible to disagree with. Nevertheless, while comic book women in film increasingly continue to represent difference or at least factor within the contested spaces in which the status quo is traditionally held, perhaps the best kind of heroes can also be found circulating the smaller screen.

When Lena Waithe became the first woman of color to win the Emmy for best writing in a comedy series for her work in Master of None, she said, “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers [….] Every day you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.” Maybe we’re not all assholes after all, and, hopefully, these voices will be better heard in 2018.

Carl Wilson, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor



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