Thursday, May 22, 2014

Natasha, Pepper, Jane, And The Importance of Not Settling For Less

Privately, I've been very critical about the roles assigned to the womenfolk in the Marvel movie universe. I've been publicly critical on one occasion about the upcoming Agent Carter show. And I have a complicated relationship with the Marvel movies. On the one hand, I think they are the most kick-ass thing since Tony Jaa lost his elephant. On the other hand, I am constantly and persistently frustrated with how safe these movies play it with their cookie cutter villains and tame, boring, setpiece-oriented plots with holes the size of S.H.I.E.L.D. carriers. On the third mutant hand, I think Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger could easily crack my top fifty movies of all time. At the end of the day though, it's a movie series I have given a lot of thought. I dare say at least as much as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw has when she talks about Black Widow and her treatment by the critics.

(Content note: heavy spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers and Thor: The Dark World)

In her post on The Daily Dot, she makes several excellent points.

I agree with her that it's a damn shame that mainstream movie critics still aren't inclined to take superhero movies seriously. I agree that it's frustrating and tiresome to watch them discuss the roles of the the women in these movies strictly in terms of their appearance and ignore their actions and agency. I certainly agree that more can be done to treat the characters, and more importantly than them the actresses who portray them, with a modicum of respect.

But Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not the hill I die on.

I can safely say that when it comes to that movie, I really, really loved all the parts I didn't hate. And when it comes to Black Widow, I'm not exactly giving this movie a passing grade either.

Take the opening scene for example, which I'm going to reconstruct from memory here. The team, headed by Cap, assaults a ship with the goal of taking out the captain and the entire crew. As far as I could tell (and I could be wrong), Natasha is the only woman on this team. Speed and stealth are clearly of the essence here: they need to take out as many crewmen as possible as quickly as possible before the alarm is raised and their targets get away or attack in force. It's a series of stealthy takedowns and quick close quarters fights that had me so giddy I nearly peed. Then we get a quick shot of Natasha behind an enemy. She taps him on the shoulder, smiles, says "hello sailor" in a sultry voice and punches him out.

Why? Why the shoulder tap? Why the sly smile? Why the "hello sailor?" Cap didn't do that. None of the male members of the team felt the need to alert their enemies to deliver a non sequitur. And for good reason. Speed and stealth, remember? You read of this moment may vary, but for me, it sort of told me all I needed to know about how the filmmakers were going to treat Natasha. Who, by the way, is a character I think I'd really like if she had any sort of character at all. I'm proven right when ASS SHOT!

It gets worse for me when it turns out Natasha has a secret side mission of her own, to download some data on the ship. Cap catches her doing this and tells her to stop. She refuses. They argue. He tells her to get out and that she's putting the team in danger. She hasn't even finished telling him that she's fine when he's proven to be absolutely right and some dude lobs a grenade into the room. Cap barely saves her by pushing her away. So for a character whose main character trait is "super spy," she kind of sucks at this spying business. That scene would have been fine without the grenade toss. The point was to establish that S.H.I.E.L.D. is being sneaky and that Cap can't trust them, or Natasha. Why turn it into a moment that shows Natasha is incompetent and needs saving on at least this one occasion?

Much later in the movie, after not having done much at all, Steve and Natasha are on the run and need to escape a mall without being seen.

"Excellent," I think. "Finally, three movies in, that spy thing of hers is finally going to come in handy. Steve is a great soldier, but he's got no idea about modern surveillance and GPS and all the fancy toys the bad guys are using to track them. She does. In fact it's her specialty and entire raison d'etre. This is the scene where we get to see her take the reins of the narrative."

Only, no, not really. She does lead Steve out of the mall and to relative safety, in a three minute sequence that looks kind of thin in a movie that's more than 50% action setpieces. Her modern spy skills that so excellently complement Steve's old world military skills don't come in handy much at all. Ah, but they do pretend to make out to avoid detection. So guess what the conversation in the car ride to their next action scene is about?

"Is this the first time you've kissed a girl since the forties?" she asks.
"BAAAAARF," I deftly reply.

They have one scene together that I would describe as character building. It's very short, and the focus of the scene is that we learn that Steve trusts her now. It's about his relationship with her, not her development. I do have to commend the movie for having a male and female character together in a scene and not have them make out, but at the same time I'm sort of pissed that I have to hand out gold stars for that now.

So apart from the action sequences, that's pretty much what she does in the movie.

Again, while your mileage may vary, this is not the hill I die on.

And again, I agree with Gavia Baker-Whitelaw's assertion that it's reductive and downright sexist to review her performance in terms of how she looks and dresses. I agree fully. But I also agree with the sentiment behind these sexist and reductive remarks, which is that when it comes to the Marvel movies, Natasha isn't much of a character at all. Sure, she has her character moment in Avengers, but that was just part of her ploy to trick Loki, it wasn't genuine at all. And sure, she tricked Loki, but "tricked Loki" is superhero resume filler, not a character trait. The scene where she talks to Hawkeye is just about the only one I can remember where she showed something genuine and real. In three whole movies with her as a character, that's just not enough.

I can be very brief about the Iron Man movies: I find it tiresome and cliche and boring that the main female character in that movie series has to be the girlfriend. Sure, she is more than that and does more than that, but what does the romantic involvement between Pepper and Tony add exactly? Not a damn thing that I can see. In fact, I found Pepper much more engaging as the cool and efficient Alfred to Tony's rapidly deteriorating Bruce. And I don't see why she would even fall for Tony, knowing him and his faults as intimately as she does. Once she became the girlfriend, because of course she does, a lot of her character was lost. We've already got eleventy dozen Spiderman movies and they all drone on forever about how hard it is to be the girlfriend of a superhero. Fucking yawn. 

And I don't think the critics are frustrated that Jane in Thor: the Dark World fainted because she was ill and in pain. I think many of them, like me, were frustrated that Jane spent most of the movie's runtime either being dragged around by men, looking bewildered or just passed out cold so the dudes could have an adventure with her as the central MacGuffin. This isn't a documentary about the Life and Times of Thor and His Lady Friend. This is a piece of fiction created in a culture that is crying out for respectful representation, by writers who chose to have Jane unconscious or scared and under threat for most of their movie. I don't care what Jane does and I don't care if anyone is mean to Jane. Jane isn't real. I care what the writers do. They're the ones who gave Jane that role. Jane has no agency, because Jane doesn't exit as a human being.

I don't think the critics discussed in the original piece are being fair to the women of the Marvel movies, and they're being especially unfair to the actual living breathing women who play them. But being fair to the critics, they are not given much to work with.

Call me a cynic, but when it comes to female characters, I am sensing just about zero goodwill from the minds behind these great movies. And I do mean that, about them being great movies. Even the ones I didn't like still hold a bit of a special place in my heart, and all of them have bits I love to death. Peggy Carter was great, but she's just about the only character with... character. I hope to see much, much more of Maria Hill, but we don't learn much about her as a person either.

And that's my point, at the end of the day. What do we know about these women? When I think about Thor, a thousand adjectives spring to mind. Thor is brave but foolhardy, he has a core of pride that never quite goes away, but when he applies himself to channeling that pride with restraint he becomes a true hero. He is kind, he has great compassion and loyalty, he is a good friend, he is active and hotheaded and flawed and smug and endearing. Steve Rogers is brave too, but it's a bravery that comes from strength of heart instead of status and innate power. He doubts himself sometimes, but he is committed to what he believes in to the point of being willing to risk his life. Steve is respectful and ambitious and confused and loyal.

Can you really do the same for Natasha? For Maria Hill? (For Pepper Potts, I can actually sort of see it, if I squint, but only from the first movie.) All these men have their character and personality and past mined so deeply you'd think there's gold at the bottom. That's because they're the main characters. All those things I said about Thor and Steve can be illustrated with multiple movie clips. This isn't something the audience intuits or fills in from their knowledge of the comics. We see it. The movie is about them. Or at least the moment between ten minute action scenes are.

Describe Natasha for me, without referencing her job, her actions or, indeed, her looks. I'm not being facetious, I personally just can't. I guess she's fearless and a good fighter. Sort of dubious morality, but I'm honestly not sure about that either. I don't have a clue who Natasha is. And what she does on screen doesn't fill me with pulsating cores of wet sloppy respect either. And that's not the character's fault, and it's definitely not misJohansson's fault.

And you know what? It's not the critics' fault either. Because I can't exactly blame them for having noticed.

I don't think we should set the bar this low. I don't think "having female characters who are active" is a thing we should settle for. Because it's just one measly step above "female characters sitting in the corner," and it's a step Thor 2 couldn't even manage.

I think we deserve better than just "active." I think we deserve to taste the motherfucking rainbow of female characters in all its shiny glory. I want a camera fixed on Wonder Woman so we can see into her wonderful mind. I want Miss Marvel to have a character arc that is as complex as these movies can manage, and they can manage quite a bit don't you know. I want a Catwoman movie that isn't utter asswipe.

What I don't want is for Black Widow to get the participation trophy and see that applauded. I don't want Pepper Potts to be the girlfriend. I don't want Jane to get the At Least She Knows Science accolades. I want a whole stinking lot better than that. Because I deserve better than that. Natalie Portman and Scarlet Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow and Gal Gadot and Halle Berry deserve better than that. And so do you.

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