As excited as I am about the prospect of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie actually being a way to introduce Carol Danvers to The Avengers franchise as Captain Marvel, I’m starting to have concerns about some of the casting rumors swirling the movie. None of this is for certain, of course, but the latest buzz has Emily Blunt in talks to play the fighter-jock-turned-superheroine. I dearly love Ms. Blunt, who can do everything from sexy to hilariously, neurotically competitive. But the fact that she’s in the conversation at all raises an issue that I’ve noticed in the conversation about a female version of The Expendables, too: even as we improve the action roles available for women, Hollywood stays rather inflexible when it comes to what kind of female bodies are desirable and viable.
I don’t want to say that there should be strict body-type requirements for certain kinds of roles. But it’s striking that the kinds of shoulders and muscle development that are a prerequisite for male action stars don’t help women land the same kinds of roles. Good fight choreography can help suspend disbelief, which is why it was exciting and upsetting to see Scarlett Johansson face off against a ripped and sleeveless Jeremy Renner in The Avengers. But if the casting in that franchise and Angelina Jolie’s career or any indication, the ability to look great in an evening gown and to miraculously avoid sweating off your lipstick even in tense circumstances is at least as important as the ability to look physically intimidating or land a plausible punch. Blunt can do both of those things. But I’d rather see Sackhoff, who has played a tough fighter pilot before, as Carol Danvers, and to see Hollywood value a woman’s physical strength as much as her face and dress size.
“If we start talking about it we’ll be here all day, making diagrams with straws,” Joe (Bruce Willis) tells Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his younger self, over diner coffee in Rian Johnson’s elegant but ultimately incomplete futuristic thriller Looper. To its credit, Looper spends more time on the uses and moral implications of its time travel technology, which has been outlawed, and is used primarily by a criminal syndicate that sends its victims back in time to be assassinated by young men who must eventually kill their future selves as part of the bargain, than in attempting to make it comprehensible. But the movie ends up split between two equally rich concepts, failing to adequately connect them, and doing full justice to neither.
The movie begins with Joe, a young looper, explaining his work in 2040s Kansas, where he kills people at the edge of a sugar cane field, burns their bodies in an industrial facility, and stops at a diner where he practices French with his favorite waitress, Beatrix. He spends more time on the mechanics and mindset of his job, a profession populated mostly by young men who aren’t very good at thinking ahead, but very much enjoy the lucrative rewards of their work, paid in bars of silver strapped to the bodies of their victims, which allow them to frequent flashy clubs and stay addicted to stimulant eye drops that turn the world pleasantly upside down. Joe’s boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels, vastly more enjoyable here than he is pontificating in The Newsroom), grumbles at Joe that “The movies that you’re dressing like are just copying other movies. Fucking 21st century effect. Do something new,” and suggests that he abandon his plans to visit Paris because “You should go to China…I’m from the future. You should go to China.”
As an aside, Joe mentions a mutation that’s given about ten percent of the population mild powers of telekenisis, a revelation that once lead people to believe that superheroes were about to emerge, but “Now it’s just a bunch of assholes who think they’re going to blow your mind by floating quarters. It’s like this whole town: big heads, small potatoes.” What’s initially an aside, a bit of local color in a glimmering megacity that Johnson builds with the same hardboiled spine and detailed flesh that he brought to Brick, his first feature, also a collaboration with Gordon-Levitt, becomes the point on which the movie bifurcates.
Joe’s routine is interrupted when his friend Seth (Paul Dano) shows up at his apartment having failed to kill his future self, or close his loop. He’s terrified, and with good cause: Abe’s private squad of hitman show up at Joe’s apartment to do the job he couldn’t. Joe eventually gives Seth up in order to keep his secret stash of silver, a not particularly subtle allusion. But before Seth dies, he passes along a warning from his future self to Joe: “He told me there’s a new holy terror bossman in the future and he’s closing all the loops.” It proves prescient. Joe’s loop shows up, but unlike Seth’s, who slips because of Seth’s negligence, he’s prepared, which makes since, because Future Joe is prepared, determined to escape and kill the bossman, known as the Rainmaker, so he can avoid being spent back and live out his life with his wife in China. Read more
I’m not normally sympathetic to movie critics who inherently have it in for superhero and big-budget action movies. But David Denby, in a long piece in The New Republic, has an argument that those of us who love movies in those genres should listen to. He thinks the things that have made action movies big are also making them a lot worse:
Consider a single scene from one of the most prominent artistic fiascos of recent years, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Forget Ben Affleck’s refusal to sleep with Kate Beckinsale the night before going off to battle; forget the rest of the frightfully noble love story. Look at the action sequences in the movie, the scenes that many critics unaccountably praised. Here’s the moment: the Japanese have arrived, dropped their load, and gone back to their carriers. Admiral Kimmel (Colm Feore), the commander of the Pacific fleet, then rides through the harbor in an open boat, surveying the disaster. We have seen Kimmel earlier: not as a major character, but as a definite presence. Before December 7, he had intimations that an attack might be coming but not enough information to form a coherent picture. He did not act, and now he feels the deepest chagrin. Dressed in Navy whites, and surrounded by junior officers also dressed in white, he passes slowly through ships torn apart and still burning, ships whose crews, in some cases, remain trapped below the waterline.
Now, the admiral’s boat trip could have yielded a passage of bitterly eloquent movie poetry. Imagine what John Ford or David Lean would have done with it! We have just seen bodies blackened by fire, the men’s skin burned off. Intentionally or not, the spotless dress whites worn by the officers become an excruciating symbol of the Navy’s complacency before the attack. The whole meaning of Bay’s movie could have been captured in that one shot if it had been built into a sustained sequence. Yet this shot, to our amazement, lasts no more than a few seconds. After cutting away, Bay and his editors return to the scene, but this time from a different angle, and that shot doesn’t last, either. Bay and his team of editors abandon their own creation, just as, earlier in the movie, they jump away from an extraordinary shot of nurses being strafed as they run across an open plaza in front of the base hospital.
People who know how these movies are made told me that the film-makers could not have held those shots any longer, because audiences would have noticed that they were digital fakes. That point (if true) should tell you that something is seriously wrong. If you cannot sustain shots at the dramatic crux of your movie, why make violent spectacle at all? It turns out that fake-looking digital film-making can actually disable spectacle when it is supposed to be set in the real world. Increasingly, the solution has been to create more and more digitized cities, houses, castles, planets. Big films have lost touch with the photographed physical reality that provided so much greater enchantment than fantasy.
I can buy that argument: two of my action sequences in recent movies are the fight between Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and the foot chase that opens Casino Royale and the final battle in The Avengers. I can’t help but compare the former to the final fight between Batman and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. The battle between Yeoh and Zhang was extended, shot from multiple angles, with the antagonists using multiple weapons. The whole point of it was to explore the characters’ capabilities as fighters and their personalities under extreme stress, and as a result, it couldn’t look fake, and it couldn’t be assembled from extremely short shots. The latter scene, by contrast, was shot extremely close, in part because the Batsuit didn’t leave Christian Bale much in the way of mobility, and its primary quality was brutality. What was supposed to be a titanic contest of wills between very different men came down to which one of them had spent more time recently with a personal trainer.
Both the Casino Royale chase and The Avengers battle are composed of discrete moments, Casino Royale as Bond moves from construction site or construction site or room to room in the building where much of the fight takes place, and The Avengers as it switches from superhero team-up to superhero team-up. In Casino Royale, the transitions matter: Bond’s opponent flys through a vent while Bond himself busts through a wall. The Avengers, by contrast, has a lot of sequences that are shot from far away, and that last only long enough for us to see which superheroes are fighting together and who they’re going up against. It’s a way to convey a sense of scale and to get a lot of information out there, most importantly that all of these people have learned to work together, but it also has the overall effect of making the characters look a little toy-like, of glimpsing struggle as it’s happening more than actually communicating the exhaustion of the fight. The action sequences have been bigger, but the people whose lives are at stake have become increasingly small.
Note: I was out of town during the critics screenings of The Bourne Legacy. Alan Pyke was kind enough to review it for me.
By Alan Pyke
Making a decent fourth Bourne movie is a large lift, but not because franchise star Matt Damon wanted out. The Robert Ludlum books are kind of a mess even by spy fiction’s serpentine standards, to say nothing of the Eric Van Lustbader sequels, and the original trilogy of films set a high bar. The Bourne Legacy clears it, though, with room to spare.
I went into the Tony Gilroy adaptation of the fourth book expecting very little, as you may be. But the fourth installation delivers, with compelling photography, tense choreography, and solid performances from Rachel Weisz and Jeremy Renner (as a brand-new uber spy, not an attempt to reboot Jason Bourne). The basics are familiar: One member of an elite, biochemically engineered corp of barely-authorized government spooks has gone off the program, and the shadowy officials who created him determine to get rid of him. But where the Jason Bourne character was made sympathetic through his attempts to clarify his amnesia and hitman’s guilt, Renner’s Aaron Cross is simply presented as savvy enough to escape the termination of the program that created him. We root for Cross only because he’s being targeted by irresponsible bureaucrats because his usefulness no longer exceeds his threat to their position.
Renner starts off tangling with wolves and drones in the Alaskan mountains, and it takes him awhile to get linked up with Weisz’s willfully-ignorant-of-her-work’s-implications scientist. Weisz’s life has just been torn apart by a coworker’s psychotic break (Zeljko Ivanec of Damages and Heroes fame). Renner’s arrival should be just the latest in a chain of pathologically violent controlling forces in her life, but this is a movie, and Renner’s spy is more interested in escape than revenge, so things move in a more predictable direction. But Gilroy doesn’t put his two lovely leads in bed, or even (hardly) in longing eye contact. That’s a saving grace, but also probably born of necessity. The centerpiece here is Renner turning his mental and physical prowess against the paper-pusher spies (led by Ed Norton) who created him.
It’s a hell of a centerpiece. Gilroy shoots the fight scenes in the often-frustrating close-in style of the latter two Damon flicks in this series, but the camera seems to have taken a crucial half-step back. There’s a balance between the digestibility of the movements that made the first Bourne flick so fun, and the crunching kinetics of the Paul Greengrass followups. Renner acts with the same economy of motion that made Damon’s Bourne so fun to watch, and the camera lets you enjoy his precision without letting you voyeurize it. (Damon also pops up– Gilroy smartly layers in snippets of the third flick, to show that we’re operating on a familiar time frame but in a deeper corner of the spookocracy.) Read more
The trailer for Skyfall, Sam Mendes’ James Bond movie, which arrives in theaters in January, sure looks pretty even if it doesn’t give even a hint of what the movie will actually be about, beyond some British flag-draped coffins and a trip to China:
At this point, Bond movies rise and fall for me on the quality of their villains. Casino Royale worked so well because it abandoned Cold War jockeying, something that had translated poorly as the movies tried to substitute China for Russia in Tomorrow Never Dies, for non-state actors like terrorists and their financiers, warlords, and freelance bombmakers. Rather than giant explosions and stupid doomsday devices, we had bruises and blood, crude methods of torture, conversations across tables between bitter enemies. Bond killed face-to-face. He, and we, felt the deaths he caused. After decades of Bond movies distancing us from the conflicts that birthed him, Casino Royale made them immediate and consequential again. Quantum of Solace wasted that momentum with a retreat to the generic, motivationless cabals that dominated the post-Berlin Wall period.
Part of the challenge, of course, is that the big, genuine rivalries in our geopolitics these days (as opposed to our entanglements) are economic rather than military. It didn’t matter if Bond movies demonized the Soviet Union because it wasn’t like the economics of the movie business required Bond to do substantial overseas gross there. Today, as movies jockey for access to the rapidly expanding Chinese movie market, which allows in only a limited number of American movies, studios are willing to bow to Chinese preferences and requirements, ranging from having characters speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese or moving shooting away from dissident-heavy locations. The economic incentives are for integration and collaboration on-screen in service of integration and collaboration in the real world, rather than exploration of tensions and challenges present on a broad scale.
More closely-kept conflicts would solve that problem and preserve a sense of Bond’s capabilities as realistically impressive rather than utterly cartoonish. And if the last decade of our geopolitics have taught us anything, it’s that big things have small beginnings, and the shadowy cabals behind them are lethally specific, rather than blandly anonymous.
Scott Mendelson, writing at Women and Hollywood, spots an entirely fascinating trend: the tendency of movies to treat the death of characters’ fathers as much, much more significant than the death of movie mothers, even if both of a character’s parents are dead:
When Mufasa falls off a cliff at the halfway point of The Lion King, it’s a devastating moment for both Simba and the audience, since Mufasa is a full-blown supporting character who is basically the second-lead for the first third of the picture. Yet the countless dead mothers in prior and future Disney animated films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Finding Nemo, etc.) merit at best a cameo in the prologue before being bumped off before the title card comes up (Bambi is the rare exception, where the doomed mother sticks around long enough to be mourned). Even The Princess and the Frog, another rare animated feature to spotlight a dead father and a living mother, makes a point to keep the deceased dad in the audience’s minds throughout the narrative, including a climactic flashback that concludes Tiana’s character arc.
The recently deceased mother of Super 8 merits a photo and a name, while the dad in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is played by a major star (Tom Hanks) who has a supporting role throughout the drama despite dying on 9/11 in the opening moments. Bruce Wayne loses both of his parents in Batman Begins, yet it is only his father (Linus Roache) who gets a real character to play and more than one or two lines. It is his father whom Bruce Wayne holds as a role model and his father who Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) constantly refer to when discussing Bruce’s actions and his moral worldview. Martha Wayne is played by Sara Stewart, but that’s all I could tell you about her.
I think that’s one of the reasons Brave feels so striking, something Lili Loofbourow lays out in a terrific essay about Brave and the need for a Disney princess who thoroughly vanquishes the ghosts and tropes of her predecessors:
I wonder, though, whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named. And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge…for our hero, Merida, courage doesn’t achieve the victories we expect fictional bravery to produce. She doesn’t slay Mor-du. She’s no Mulan; her archery, despite her skill, is unhelpful. All this, in a story featuring a warrior princess, should make the mind boggle: Why would a studio create such a character in order to make her real crisis be her relationship with her mother?
The corollary to Disney’s—and animated movies more generally—dead mothers are the fathers and father figures who fill in for them. Rather than female mentors, or aunts, or grandmothers, or older cousins, women with dead mothers in animated movies often are often coached in strength and femininity by men. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s father fills the place of her absent mother as best he can, and when he is unable to protect her, her allies and companions in the Beast’s castle include a male clock, candlestick and teacup, matched by a motherly teacup and a feminine wardrobe who doesn’t speak. Cinderella treats male mice tenderly, and they are more personified, even if female mice help make her ballgown. In Anastasia, after Ana loses her family and her memory, it’s men who teach her how to be both an elite woman in general and a specific woman in particular. Animated orphans don’t lack for surrogate parents, but there’s a strain running through them that suggests men can teach women both how to be strong, and do just as good a job handling femininity as their absent mothers. Learning courage and the skills to implement it are hard, the kind of things that can only be imparted by a male master. But learning to dress well, be confident, present yourself like a lady, these are all apparently things that men can pick up on the side and pass along to a woman.
It’s one of the reasons I love Mulan so much—it’s one of the only movies where a heroine, after learning from a bunch of men in her military camp, gets to teach them something in return. Specifically, she gets to teach them that femininity, subtlety, and social blending, feminine values that are placed in contrast to brute force and direct confrontation, are enormously valuable, something Mulan has been able to repurpose from her training in how to be an acceptable bride, and something the men around her wouldn’t have just picked up intuitively thanks to their smart maleness:
It’s awesome to see women get molded into action stars and superheroes and unconventional Disney princesses. But once we’ve got a cadre trained up, once we’re used to the sight of action princesses, once Chloe Grace Moretz and Saoirse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld are all grown up and acknowledged both as beautiful women and hugely credentialed action stars, can’t we let some of them live to pass their wisdom down to their daughters—and to their sons?
According to Latino Review, there’s going to big event movie before we get to The Avengers 2: it’s confirmed to be Guardians of the Galaxy, a team-up that will elevate a range of smaller-scale heroes and have them get with the Avengers to fight aliens. I’m enjoying Marvel’s commitment to do some of the more fantastical elements in its arsenal, especially because I hope it might empower other comic-book franchise, like Judge Dredd, to do some of the weirder stories in their catalogues.
But I have to admit, I’m sorry we’re not getting at least some contrast to these big pictures with smaller movies that are focused either on urban crime and urban blight, as Luke Cage could have been, or focused on characters with more singular problems like Deathlok, or frankly, that star a woman with actual super-powers. It’s telling that we live in a world where Marvel will dig into the weirdness of its back catalogue before making a movie or a television series about one of its recognizable, established female heroes, something Manohla Dargis pointed out this weekend was ludicrously old-fashioned in a world where the two most powerful Americans are a black man and a woman in late middle age. This big, galactic formula is comic book-y and it’s produced a lot of tremendously fun movies. But as I’ve written before, and I’m sure I’ll write again, it would be really nice to see Marvel diversify both to pull in new audiences, and to hedge against a day when their formula gets stale.
And I’d hate to think they were sticking with galactic stories because, at least as they’ve been executed so far, they’re a way to avoid political allegories, and to stay as broadly appealing as possible. Wacked-out gods don’t have much in the way of real-world analogues. A.O. Scott, in his chat with Dargis, said something about the rise of superhero movies in the eighties and their role today that I thought was telling:
It’s telling that Hollywood placed a big bet on superheroes at a time when two of its traditional heroic genres — the western and the war movie — were in eclipse, partly because they seemed ideologically out of kilter with the times. The studios turned to fantasy, science fiction and a kind of filmmaking that was at once technologically advanced and charmingly old-fashioned. Along with “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones there was Superman, played, starting in 1978, by the square-jawed, relatively unknown Christopher Reeve…Perhaps this is a reflection of the state of the world after Sept. 11, 2001. Certainly the superhero movies of today are, like the gangster pictures of the Depression and the westerns of the ’50s, a screen onto which our society projects its fears and dreams. But I also think that the grimness arises from another source. When hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, it is never a laughing matter.
Politics sneak in, of course, whether its in the willingness of a shadowy council to destroy New York, a superhero who asserts an old-fashioned belief in monotheism, or a woman who gets more out of a skillful interrogation than a man would out of torture. But while science fiction and fantasy are powerful tools for creating metaphors and exploring ideas, they can be used to create utterly detached threats and villains, which look good, but are as flat as the screens they’re projected on.
Jaclyn Friedman has a fascinating column in the Guardian about the fact that even empowered princesses don’t do as much for girls as ordinary-boys-turned-heroes do for boys:
The studio whose most iconic heroes include a toy cowboy, a rat, a fish, a boy scout, and a lonely trash compactor (all male-identified, of course), couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about a human girl without making her a princess. That’s the problem in a nutshell: if the sparkling minds at Pixar can’t imagine their way out of the princess paradigm, how can we expect girls to?
The past decade may have seen a welcome increase in on-screen female action heroes, but we’re still far from gender parity in the genre, and even when they’re not princesses, they’re nearly all trained assassins or Chosen Ones. Joseph Campbell wrote indelibly about the power of The Hero with a Thousand Faces – an ur-hero who’s living a mundane life when he’s faced with a challenge through which he can discover his greatness. It’s easy to see why this matters: everyman hero stories teach every boy that he can make himself great through his own actions, regardless of how dull or difficult the lot in life he’s been handed.
Princess stories – even Action Princess stories – inherently fail the Conrad test.
I do think there’s something really important about teaching girls that the gender norms laid out for them are add-ons, rather than restrictions. Leaching the meaning out of a word like “princess” is a task that has value. But if we’re ascribing strength to states that girls in the audience think don’t apply to them, if the lesson and Brave and other movies is that if your father hasn’t hooked you up with weaponry and training as a child that adventure is still out of site, then we’re winning one battle at the expense of another. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case—the little girls in the audience at the screening I attended didn’t seem to have trouble identifying with Merida. But there’s nothing wrong with empowering girls who aren’t princesses, in making the journey to heroism a little longer, but proving it can still be traveled no matter where in the process you start.
I caught up on Avatar: The Legend of Korra, the sequel to the critically acclaimed and totally awesome Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, about a world where certain people can manipulate the elements, yesterday. Overall, The Legend of Korra is a fantastic second series, and does an excellent job of moving the concepts that the original series laid out so well—that there are benders who can manipulate one element and an Avatar who can control them all—from a feudal setting into an industrialized future, and in giving the original characters descendants who share some of their characteristics while standing fully on their own as characters. One real standout for me was Lin Beifong, the chief of Republic City’s police force. And her arc at the end of the season embodied what I’ve seen as a small trend in female action stars: sacrifice, and a recognition that not everyone can get out alive.
That arc is as follows: Lin, having started the season skeptical of Avatar Korra, who’s been a somewhat disruptive presence in Republic City, has become Korra’s strong ally. After the forces controlled by Amon, a radical who wants to forcibly eliminate the powers of all benders, take over the city, Lin flees with Master Tenzin’s family, determined to protect the last surviving airbenders. And when it becomes apparent that Amon’s forces will overtake them, Lin sacrifices herself. She takes down one of Amon’s ships in a colossal act of metalbending, and when she’s captured, she refuses to compromise. In one of the quietest sequences in the show, Amon takes Lin’s bending from her, the lull in the soundtrack a powerful representation of the sudden absence that has made Lin much of who she is.
The sequence actually reminded me of what I thought was one of the most misunderstood elements of Zack Snyder’s fantasy action movie Sucker-Punch. That film, about girls confined to a 1960s mental institution where some of them are forced to undergo transorbital lobotomies, contains two major sacrifices. In one, Rocket (Jenna Malone) suffers a double death, protecting her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) from the blast of a bomb in the movie’s fantasy world, and stepping in front of a cook’s knife to save her in the world in which the girls are actually living. And in the movie’s conclusion, Baby Doll (Emily Browning), submits to the lobotomy she’s loathed and feared so that Sweet Pea can escape the asylum. It struck me at the time that there was something uniquely female about recognizing how tightly the jaws of the system were clamped around these girls, the tremendous effort it would take to free just one of them, and the decision by the main characters to prioritize the love between sisters and friends rather than themselves. The uniqueness of that perspective seems to have gotten lost in other critiques of Sucker-Punch, but it’s stayed with me, a specific rebuke by Snyder to the rather manly idea that competence and bravery will see all the main characters through to the end of most action movies, no matter the odds.
Lin has a happier fate in Korra: after communing with her past lives, the Avatar is able to restore her lost powers, and to a certain extent her lost self. But there was no such guarantee when she lept from her safe perch to go up against a system more powerful than she was, and in defense of something other than herself.
I’m normally of the belief that in pop culture, equality comes in two stages. First, members of a minority group, or of a group like women that are a majority but are poorly rendered in that space, get to be presented as admirable. Second, when they’ve achieved enough penetration into the culture, every portrayal of members in that group can stop being limited by the need to be admirable, to represent for everyone else. I tend to be impatient to get to the second half of that stage, because it’s often more interesting. The current Avengers continuity’s found ways to make Captain America melancholy and funny, but I’d probably rather spend time with Tony Stark.
Over at Women and Hollywood, Inkoo Kang argues that we still don’t have enough female action heroes to be at that second stage, and points out that at least some observers are still stuck on analyzing action heroines’ bodies rather than looking at their personalities:
It must be granted that many of today’s action heroes are largely immune from the moral scrutiny that accompanies the arrival of most action heroines on the big screen. People love Iron Man for being a self-absorbed grumposaur, but Katniss Everdeen has Manohla Dargis, arguably the country’s most important female critic, wringing her hands about how the actress who plays her might be too curvy. But a playful superhero figure like Iron Man comes after decades and decades of “role model” action heroes like Superman, Spiderman, and Captain America. Iron Man, Hancock, and their snarky ilk are counterreactions to the square, goody-goody “role model” heroes of yesteryear. Hence, contemporary male action heroes are, in a sense, excused from having to be role models, since so many other characters already fit that niche.
I wonder if part of the challenge here is that while male action heroes are heightened version of ideals and traits men are already supposed to aspire to—strength, decisiveness, acting as protectors. If you’re going to put women in those roles, you’re both having female characters take on male-affiliated traits, and then heightening them.
And that raises the question of if action heroines are supposed to be role models, what, overall, are they supposed to model? Should female action heroes just fit into the same sorts of slots represented by men, whether it’s the teenaged glee and snark of Spider-Man, the struggle for self-control of the Hulk, the patriotism and ethics of Captain America? Or should we argue that, just as action choreography for women would be more interesting and creative if it draws on different styles and acknowledges differences in strength between men and women, action heroines should model different behaviors and priorities, too? The Alien franchise got a lot out of portraying the redirected maternal force as a tremendously powerful force of nature. And in The Avengers, Black Widow’s the person to recognize when force is no longer the solution, and to use tact and cleverness to turn off the source of the attack at its spigot—violence is useful in that it helps her get where she needs to go, but it is not actually the solution to the attack. The Avengers don’t beat Loki’s forces: they out-manuver them. It’s terrific to model that strength and protectiveness are qualities that don’t belong solely to boys or men. But more thoughtful movies about what femininity brings to the table in fraught situations would make for more interesting storytelling, and more nuanced role models.