Being a geek has never been cooler.
Not being an actual geek, of course. The socially awkward, the ugly, the pedant, the obsessed – they are still likely to be social outcasts. Liking Harry Potter might be considered normal, but my encyclopedic knowledge of Harry Potter trivia, my shipping and fanfic writing, the Ravenclaw flag hanging in my room – those are all weird. But geeky interests – those are certainly “in”. The most popular TV show – Game of Thrones – is a fantasy epic^. With the advent of Netflix and other streaming services, cult shows and movies are getting a new audience. And the biggest blockbusters are comic book movies – superhero movies, of all things.
Superheroes are possibly the ultimate geek niche. There’s decades of material, some of it incompatible, some of it outright contradictory. One can’t possibly hope to catch up on all of it without years dedicated to it. It’s a community practically predestined to gatekeep.
But when the MCU premiered in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, superhero fandom could simply no longer be an insular community – it was impossible. This isn’t to say that superhero fandom was, previously, an unknown niche, frequented only by those ‘in the know’; Superman has been a universal icon since his inception in the 30s, first getting a radio show, then animations, and his own blockbusters, way before the current superhero fad. But it was specific heroes who had crossed into cultural awareness, the Big Names, in a way. You could not successfully market a Guardians of the Galaxy film in any previous era. This is the era in which doing nothing but watching TV all day is considered normal and cute, something to list on a dating profile, a legitimate way to spend your time; this is the era where hipsters and cheerleaders own the same t shirts; and you can find anyone at a comic book shop, absolutely anyone.
One of my professors (I’m currently studying Film & TV in university) put it this way: Classic Hollywood had Humphrey Bogart. We have Thor. Superhero movies aren’t just cool – they are part of the zeitgeist. We are reflected in them.
And that’s why it’s so important that they be good to us.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Captain Marvel premiere in my country. I got the tickets for free in exchange for writing an honest review within a week, and even though it was one of the busiest weeks of my life, getting free tickets to see a movie I was going to see anyway with a friend I was going to see it with anyway wasn’t something I was going to say no to. I liked it a lot – my little brother called it the best Marvel Movie yet, which I appreciate on principle, but also, Thor: Ragnarok is, like, right there.
Going a little further back – I did not see Black Panther on premiere night, mostly because if I don’t get free tickets, I’m not going to choose to be in a room with that many people, I’m just not gonna.
And even further back – I saw Wonder Woman twice, one of the only films I’ve ever seen more than once in theatres. Once was with the friend I saw Captain Marvel with, and the other was my dad. This movie coincided with my entrance into the blogging world; one of my earliest posts to get any attention at all was about Wonder Woman. It’s impossible to start this conversation without discussing Wonder Woman at all, so that’s where we’ll begin, for chronology’s sake.
So let’s go back to 2017 for a minute. The MCU has existed for nine years and had some incredible success stories – the Iron Man trilogy is complete, and so is the Captain America trilogy. Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies are out. People are still sort of vying for a Black Widow film, but pretty much everyone has lost steam on that one, thanks to Age of Ultron’s awful Bruce/Natasha storyline, including some real spicy takes on what makes women human. We know Captain Marvel and Black Panther are coming, but we also know another Spider-Man is coming, and it has delayed the release of both those movies. On the other hand, we have exactly three DC movies, all of which are various shades of awful. From the dreary Man of Steel to the ridiculous Batman vs. Superman to the uneven Suicide Squad, hopes for Wonder Woman were mostly based on the “female empowerment” angle, and less on the “it might actually be good” angle. The group of friends I saw Suicide Squad with debated even bothering with Wonder Woman.
I’m still baffled by how successful Wonder Woman is. I’m not in any way referring to its box office success, which, as far as I was concerned, was a given – maybe not on that scale, but every single DC movie thus far made a lot of money, and whether or not it lost money for starring a woman, it was still going to be a mainstream comic book movie in the 2010s, and it was going to succeed. By successful, I mean its quality – it’s a good movie. Not a good superhero movie, not a good movie in the pop-culture sense, I mean it’s a really good movie. The script, the acting, the design, the directing, the editing, and the subtext that derives from all of these are fantastic. I could cry talking about the color schemes in this movie, I really could. (I could also scream about unnecessary Christian imagery, but that’s beside the point.)
And the thing about Wonder Woman is that we didn’t even know it was just the beginning. We didn’t know that representation could be so good before; we didn’t know that a superhero movie could do that. And we certainly didn’t know – how could we have possibly known? – that it was going to get better.
I feel a little uncomfortable talking about Black Panther, because it wasn’t made for me. The intended audience for this movie might’ve been Marvel fans in the broader sense, but the subtext in the film was intended for black audiences, especially that in the US. Wonder Woman used scenes like no-man’s land and the strategy conversation to show how a woman unburdened by the limits placed on her by men would act; Black Panther used the conversations between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger to showcase much the same thing for racial minorities – what a prosperous black culture would look like without the limitations placed on it by colonialism and white people. This conversation does not affect me the way it does black people, but it is incredibly important to have. Killmonger is a compelling villain not because he is irrational, but rather because his pain is very, very real; it’s his obsession with revenge, and the way he goes about it, that makes him a villain.
Once again, I felt like it should’ve been obvious how successful this movie would be. The audience was hungry for this story. Any Marvel movie will receive millions of dollars; when you add the so-far untapped black market, there was no doubt it was going to make much, much more money than the skeptics wanted us to believe. What it did show, however, was that the skepticism regarding stories about oppressed sections of the population wasn’t going to go away without a fight.
By the time Captain Marvel came around, we all knew that it was going to be a massive success. Black Panther and Wonder Woman proved that movies like this were not only successful, but wildly so; people want to see stories about them, and when more than half of the population in the world is female, when their story has been so far ignored in one of the biggest franchises ever, if not the biggest franchise ever, it was always going to make loads and loads of money, even if it wasn’t half as good as it was.
Captain Marvel’s subtext wasn’t much different than that of Wonder Woman, with a few additional elements thrown in: the first, the lack of a love interest, had almost escaped my notice until I started writing my review. The second was the emphasis on female friendship, and Carol’s relationship with Maria – the found family aspect, especially – was beautiful and extremely well done. The third was the way it was much more grounded in reality than Wonder Woman; true, both of them are epic stories about bad ass chicks with superpowers^^, but one is set in World War I, and doesn’t even spend much time on day to day life in the beginning of the twentieth century, and the other takes place only twenty years ago, and spends a lot of time discussing the way sexism, institutional and personal, directly affected women living at the time, giving commentary at the same time on the way sexism affects women now.
In both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, men’s opinions are something to be fought against and/or ignored; but one of the final scenes in Captain Marvel drives that point home in particular. Men want to inflict their standards onto women, but women have a power that is entirely their own.
Let’s not forget that Captain Marvel is the most powerful person in the entire MCU. And this pissed people off – because her story isn’t a metaphorical rags to riches. She has power, and her story is about her no longer letting people (who represent the patriarchy, y’all) tell her what to do with it, how much she’s allowed to have, whether or not she deserves it.
I want to talk about erasure.
Before we had any super-hero movies focused on women or black people, minorities existed in the MCU. Black people existed in that world as side-characters, and even though some women were extremely capable and even powerful, they were never in the spotlight. Avengers: Age of Ultron introduced us to some new characters, most notably the twins: Pietro Maximoff, better known in the comics as Quicksilver, and Wanda Maximoff, better known in the comics as Scarlet Witch. Joss Whedon fought hard to get them included in AOU, but what he did with them was absolutely revolting.
In the comics, the twins are half Roma and half Jewish, specifically Magneto’s children (or at least, they have been for the majority of their existence; comic canon is weird). Their identity was completely erased in the film, but not just that, they were made to join a pseudo Nazi organization. Willingly. Then Whedon killed Pietro off unceremoniously.
Now, there’s a lot of problems with approaching this simply as “removing the context of the comics”. One of the reasons that Whedon had to fight to get the twins in the first place is because of their association with the XMCU; Quicksilver, in particular, already exists in the XMCU, and his death in the MCU was probably at least partially caused by his presence there. But it isn’t like the XMCU is free of criticism. It doesn’t acknowledge Kitty Pryde’s Jewishness, and effectively limits Jewish identity to that of Magneto’s Holocaust trauma. Magneto is also a villain; especially in the original trilogy, but also now, in the new timeline.
So we don’t see any explicitly Jewish people in the MCU at all, and in the XMCU, there’s Magneto – who’s a villain – and Quicksilver, whose identity as Magneto’s son is only barely alluded to, and he was certainly not raised Jewish. The fact that his mother was Roma is not even mentioned. The existence of Nazis in the MCU is a major plotpoint in several films – the Captain America movies especially deal with them – but we don’t get any Jewish voices in the mix at all, even when it would be easy to include them.
Although it would be nice, I’m not asking for a film like Wonder Woman or Black Panther or Captain Marvel that specifically analyzes Jewish identity. All we’re asking for is something. Comic books are Jewish in a way that often goes unacknowledged unless you’re promoting conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media. I’m currently in the process of translating a lecture I wrote about this topic into English; my main argument is that Jewish traditions were essential to the creation of the superhero genre. There’s a reason Captain America’s first cover had him, the model of Aryan perfection, punching Hitler right in the jaw, and there’s a reason that Superman fought Nazis, and there’s a reason The Thing is seen celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, and there’s a reason Magneto is one of the most complex villains in the Marvel universe, and that’s because Jews created the industry, an industry that was at the time new and therefore not restricted. And now we have Nazi Captain America and goywashed characters.
When discussing an issue as complex as representation in comic book movies, there’s going to be things I’ve missed. Comic book movies are both a new genre and an old genre at the same time, and the Marvel movie especially has a freshness to it that the other cinematic universes lack – it started with independent films that were good or bad in their own right, and only connected them after they had built the building blocks. DC tried to skip straight to the second phase, and failed miserably. The XMCU is older, and therefore has a very different history; it depends on ensemble casts, even if Wolverine was always the main character, and it didn’t have a successful solo film till Deadpool in 2016, 16 years after the release of the first X-Men film. But there’ve been superhero films for decades, and any comprehensive discussion of representation in comic book films is going to be much, much longer than this blog post. What I’m hoping I’ve done is have a (somewhat) thorough discussion on what kinds of representations we actually have, and maybe give you, the reader, something to think about yourself. I’d love to see some more diverse characters get their own movies, something I didn’t discuss because, well, there’s so much ground to cover there; I’d love to see Kamala Khan AKA Miss Marvel get her own movie, for example, and I’d love a Hawkeye movie with both Hawkeyes. I also didn’t discuss the absolutely fantastic Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, mostly because it doesn’t actually belong to any of the major cinematic universes, and it sort of does its own thing. Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. I read every comment.
^ At least in popular opinion.
^^ Couldn’t help but sneak a Buffy reference in there.