New films Captain Marvel and X-Men: Dark Phoenix are helping pave the way for increased representation of women in the industry.
In September, the first trailers for two hotly-anticipated superhero movies were released within just over a week of each other: Captain Marvel (2019) by Marvel Studios, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) by 20th Century Fox. Both films are slated for release next year, Captain Marvel on March 8th and Dark Phoenix on June 7th. Captain Marvel, which takes place in the ’90s, is the story of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as Captain Marvel, who has been called the most powerful character in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Meanwhile, Dark Phoenix, the sequel to the 2016 film X-Men: Apocalypse, is more of an assemble film that tracks how the X-Men respond when the full power of one of their own — Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) — is unleashed as a kind of alter-ego: the Dark Phoenix.
The proximity of these trailer releases, as well as the mega blockbusters that they advertise, reflect a recent shift toward increased female representation in the entertainment industry—an industry that, until recently, still featured on average only one woman for every 2.3 male characters. This shift has been a long time coming, and is characterized by both setbacks—such as the critically divisive and commercially disappointing Ghostbusters reboot (2016)—and triumphs—namely the wildly successful Wonder Woman released last summer.
As arguably the best film to date in the DC Extended Universe, Wonder Woman paved the way for the superhero genre to embrace more female-centered stories. In fact, Captain Marvel and Dark Phoenix can be seen as respective efforts by their studios to create their own female headliners—ones that can both rival Wonder Woman at the box office, and ensure the progressiveness of the franchises in the eyes of popular culture.
Possibility for Error
As a long-time fan of the superhero genre, my excitement when plans for these films were first announced was tinged with a hint of worry.
What if the MCU grossly mischaracterizes Captain Marvel in an attempt to deepen her backstory, as they did with the character of Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and believe that a love story is the only way to add stakes to her journey? What if Dark Phoenix treats Jean Grey as a plot device, as was done in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) when her comic book storyline was last brought to the silver screen? While I am incredibly glad that major Hollywood studios had finally seemed to realize that female-led superhero stories can be just as commercially and critically successful as male-led ones, I can’t help but be concerned that they will once again miss the mark. After all, the genre of the female-driven superhero film has a very questionable history, ranging from the poorly written to the outright sexist. With the recent release of these trailers, however, my worry has been finally, somewhat, assuaged.
The trailers filled me with a renewed thrill for both Captain Marvel and Dark Phoenix. The special effects were polished and beautiful; the costumes looked promising in styles and characterizations; the stories — as far as I can tell from a few minutes of spliced footage — were complex and interesting. What I was really happy to see, though, was that despite being their respective franchises’ first female-centered movies, there was no attempt to gear them toward a stereotypically female audience. Captain Marvel retains the MCU’s irreverent yet sentimental tone — filled with bathos (Brie Larson punching a old lady in the face!) and Pop Culture references (Blockbuster!), as well as dramatic shots of the hero in her various uniforms (a rousing staple of the superhero genre). Meanwhile, Dark Phoenix is just as dark and intense as the previous X-Men films, focusing on the themes of mutant angst, complex moral dilemmas, and powerful internal conflicts, which are presented through emotional close-up shots and haunting musical scores.
The Future of Superhero Films?
The differences between the two movies were what truly made me excited for them, and for the future of female representations in superhero films overall.
Captain Marvel is shaping up to be a nonlinear origin story, intended to reveal who Carol Danvers was as a pilot on earth, who Captain Marvel is as a kick-ass space soldier, and how the former developed into the latter. It is an inspiring and intriguing story, and is even more refreshing as it will be one of the first times this kind of story is told about a female hero. The film is already drawing comparison to the first Captain America movie—Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)—and many fans are expressing enthusiasm at the prospect.
In contrast, Dark Phoenix seems to be much more of an antihero story. As the premise states, a space mission causes Jean Grey to develop great new powers, which threaten to corrupt her and destroy the world. While the film showcases the ensuing conflict between her and the X-Men, it also focuses on her history and relationships, as well as her complex emotions and internal struggles. It is a movie that is as much about the journey of Jean Grey as it is about those around her. As the pain of other major X-Men characters (the conflict between mutant leaders Charles Xavier and Magneto, the indestructibility of Wolverine, etc.) have already been dutifully explored in other installments, I find the story of her pain, and how she might or might not conquer them, much more compelling.
Granted, the trailers are not always representative of the final movies, and we are still a long way off from the releases of Captain Marvel and Dark Phoenix. Marvel Studios has a history of not committing to their more explicit championships for gender equality (such as LGBTQ representation), and 20th Century Fox could once again merely use Jean Grey as a plot device. However, I am still optimistic about the future that these trailers signal, especially beyond these two films. Wonder Woman 1984, the sequel, is slated for a June 2020 release. A solo Black Widow movie in the MCU and a DC Extended Universe movie on an all-female superhero group (tentatively titled Birds of Prey) have signed on female directors. A slew of other female superhero movies are rumored or confirmed to be in development.
Change might be slow, but it is coming.
There is more than one way to give female superheroes the spotlight, just as real women have a variety of backgrounds, struggles, and victories. It is important that women everywhere are allowed to explore their powers and pains through the fantasies of the superhero films, just as men have long be able to. It is important for girls everywhere to be able see themselves in and look up to a variety of powerful heroines, just as boys have long be able to. In fact, research has suggested that the presence of female superheroes and leading characters in movies plays a large role in empowering women, and fostering confidence in young girls in particular.
As Captain Marvel and Jean Grey confront the respective evils within their stories, we are shown how to be strong, brave, and above all, resilient—come what may. I, for one, cannot wait.
(Illustration: Sophie Lee)