Give us a female superhero movie, we said, and we got Lucy, a half-assed attempt at delivering a female superhero. I’ve been vocal before about giving us a female superhero movie, because, apparently, if Marvel isn’t going to give us the movie, no one is (DC appears to be finally hopping on the superhero movie series train with Wonder Woman—we’ll see how that goes).
Lucy’s story begins when the title character, portrayed by Scarlet Johansson, is kidnapped and forced to smuggle drugs in her stomach across borders. The drugs start to leak into her system, and the story snowballs from there. Lucy’s superpowers come from her happening to learn how to use more of her brain than the average human. Yeah, we haven’t heard that before. The film goes on to blatantly wave the feminism flag, emphasizing the inherent power of women. Women live longer and are favored by evolution. Women—you guessed it—can give birth to babies. Women can do anything if they apply their minds.
It’s not a bad message, but there’s a reason why reading those last few sentences sounds like a string of clichés: we’ve heard this before.
The key to writers and producers not understanding what a female superhero movie entails is the title. Female superhero movies can’t just be superhero movies. Lucy was clearly set up to appease the feminist masses which the movie doesn’t even try to pretend to understand. The movie’s feminist message comes from a place that is white and biologically essentialist; in other words, the feminist message comes from a very male perspective. The plot is tired and quickly drawn together, and it opened on the same weekend as Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Johansson’s own franchise.
What’s even more ridiculous is that Lucy ranks in the top female superhero movies of the year because the competition in that category is nearly nonexistent. We have movies with female superheroes in them, but we don’t have female superhero movies, let alone those on par with Iron Man or Captain America. It’s a shame, because the female superheroes that are currently being written seem to be meant to do the opposite. They’re supposed to shine and be great role models—in their roles as secondary characters.
Take Gamora, for instance, from the new Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy movie. She’s one of the best examples of a female superhero available presently, intriguing because she, along with the rest of the Guardians crew, straddles the morality line between hero and anti-hero (they self-describe themselves as a group of assholes—it’s great). The choice to have Zoe Saldana, a woman of color, to portray her got a lot of attention, because, in the comics, Gamora has green skin but clearly has white features.
However, Marvel likes to play it safe with its female characters, and Saldana’s Gamora is no exception (is it just a coincidence that the first woman of color who pops up in the Marvel movie series has green skin?). Gamora is tough and sassy, but her pleading declaration of “they made me a weapon” undercuts that characterization almost immediately.
Granted, it aligns her with the good guys, especially since she’s trying to help them bring down her “father,” or the man who killed her whole family before he adopted her. However, Gamora’s characterization in Guardians of the Galaxy seems to come from carefully-selected criteria for making a character threatening but not too threatening. For example, she doesn’t fall prey to misunderstanding Earth idioms like fellow alien Drax does, but listening to 70’s mix tape music gets her all giggly.
Saldana has become somewhat of a safe woman of color choice for movies herself. Once past her features, which are conveniently painted over, she’s a leather-clad woman hero with a gun who gets the B hero job of beating up the other female villain woman (her sister, portrayed by Karen Gillian, who also spends the movie painted—blue). Marvel loves representation within limits. The news was quick to draw attention to the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy was the first Marvel movie written by a woman. However, watching the opening credits of the movie, I noticed that the writer, Nicole Perlman, held the second spot on the writers’ roster, underneath James Gunn, the movie’s director.
Besides Gamora and Lucy, the other women superheroes include Marvel’s Black Widow, ironically played by Scarlett Johansson, the same actress who plays Lucy. Black Widow is the only female hero in the current Marvel movie franchise. She’s tough, but we don’t know why. They haven’t expanded on her too much, and she’s not getting her own movie anytime soon. However, she’s appeared as a supporting figure in Iron Man’s movies and Captain America’s movies. Besides those three, who else do we have? Anna and Elsa from Disney’s Frozen, perhaps? There aren’t a lot.
The appeal of movies like Iron Man is that the superheroes exist separately from their superhero powers and—and it sounds silly to even have to say this—their genders. The climactic moment of those movies doesn’t come from a place where the superhero uses his superhero powers. Rather, it comes from a human place—where Tony, ripped apart from the powerful core that gives him powers in the first place, has to use his human brain to figure out how to fix his situation and save the day.
He gets the job done, with some help from his friends. Tony Stark’s story is as much about him learning it’s okay to need other people as much as it is a story about him being able to think his way out of bad situations. A superhero is defined by who he is without the powers as much as he is defined by his cool suit and nickname.
You’d think that we would be able to expect the same from a female superhero movie, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Female superheroes tend to be leather and weapons first, personality later (some form of an ice queen personality that tends to melt throughout the course of the movie).
To a certain extent, weapons and leather first makes sense. Women superheroes have to prove themselves as strong first to get the approval of their audience, to show they can operate with the boys. That was the point of Xena in the 90’s and a lot of the ball buster women on 90’s television.
As time passed, it became more and more common to write universes that were okay with powerful woman—for a fictional male character to not be okay with women set him up as an asshole. However, women still appear to need to prove themselves, if not to the people around them, then perhaps to the audiences on the other side of the screen.
The concept of a female hero isn’t a new one, but there’s a huge need for creativity within the category. We’re quick to hold up a handful of female hero archetypes as triumphs, but those triumphs are becoming as much an excuse not to progress as they were victories.
What if Lucy’s story had focused less on the fact that she had a womb and more on her role in the drug trafficking system? What if Guardians of the Galaxy had humanized Gamora by going more into how she had worked her father’s system to her advantage, building her reputation and subverting his plans from the inside, instead of going for the “cute alien” angle? Not every superhero has to be a Xena. The point of Xena was to open the door for a new class of women superheroes, so let’s walk through that door and tell those stories.