If we’re being honest, I thought “Captain Marvel” was fine, often good. It’s a bummer in some sense, because if I liked it less, it’d help make my point a little bit easier. There are people, however, who do not like “Captain Marvel” for reasons valid and not. I say this because: I am dying for more mediocre movies to be fronted or made by women. Without them, there’s no way to guarantee more representation and equality — two things women (women of color especially) simply do not have. So if we want movies to get better for everyone, the playing field has to be leveled a bit, and that means I want a ton more totally fine, borderline bad, madly mediocre movies by and about women.
We live in a culture where female fronted/directed movies often stand out as objects of singularity. Just look at how we talk about films like “Marvel” and her ilk. The sheer lack of movies made by and about women forces each one onto a pedestal — the one film that must be 10 times greater than the average male-fronted movie, lest its creators and stars have their careers ruined because they couldn’t make The Perfect Female Movie.
This may be part of why so many are beating the “Captain Marvel” drum, even if they thought it was just okay. The anger with which some male fans react to projects like the all-female “Ghostbusters” makes it abundantly clear: Women doing things that fly in the face of patriarchal standards of femininity, or upend a previously standardized paradigm, make some men very angry. And the level of reaction isn’t just “I’m going to rate this poorly!” angry, it often escalates quickly to “I’m going to find your cell phone number and leave you voicemails that call you a c–t”-level enraged. And that simply is not a normal way to respond to a fictional narrative.
Look at how many mediocre — even downright bad — movies by and about men spawn sequels and lead to more jobs for their directors. And yet, not only aggressively loud avatars on social media but sometimes even creators and executives are heard voicing the line of thought: If you make a woman the star of a superhero or ghostbustin’ feature, an injustice in the universe has occurred.
Just look at how James Cameron responded to the praise around “Wonder Woman.” Back in 2017, Cameron declared that film “a step backwards” because Diana Prince was unattainably beautiful and, because she led with love, was too one-note. “Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit. And to me, [the benefit of characters like Sarah] is so obvious. I mean, half the audience is female!” As if there is only one type of female character — determined and created by his eye — that is respectable, or good enough to exist. Or take the previous CEO of Marvel, Ike Perlmutter, who was outed in the Sony hack as believing all female-led superhero movies to be unsellable disasters.
And yet, Captain Marvel’s opening weekend box office was impressive: it made $455 million worldwide. It’s thrilling, and proof that the executives have been wrong all along. People are dying to see something different. Money talks, and many of us — men, women and everyone else — are more than happy to support a film with messaging beyond the norm if it shows the studio we want them to try more of this. We’re hungry for women to be the heroes of our own stories, supernaturally or not, to exhibit the strength we all know women have within us.
A particular subset of men online declare women-centered projects as proof PC culture has gone too far; they place blame on these “unrealistic female characters” as if men like Captain America, Thor, and Luke Skywalker don’t exist as an obvious counterpoints to criticism lobbed at Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Rey. This has resulted in the harassment of female fans and the creators of these works. It makes some of us lose our cool because this conversation never seems to end.
And still, those in positions of power — the ones who could activate real change — brush off the harassment as merely strong opinions, easily dissuaded by a kind word or tweet. Because that so often works online. There’s a toxicity inherent to the way these responses continue to be validated and enabled through studio and creator responses; there’s power in the eyeroll of a powerful man. Just look at the history and impetus behind Jason Reitman’s new “Ghostbusters.”
The even more enraging question is: How many men have built sustainable, consistent, and oftentimes successful careers after making a few movies critics and audiences didn’t like, and how many women have done the same? One infuriating example: Patty Jenkins directed the Oscar-winning “Monster” in 2003 and didn’t get the chance to direct another film again until…2017’s “Wonder Woman.”
In a smaller sense, there’s Rachel Talalay. As a director, she helmed “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” and “Ghost in the Machine” in the early ’90s and “Tank Girl” in 1995, a wild and subversive comic book adaptation. It, because the puns just write themselves sometimes, truly tanked. And she hasn’t been hired to direct a movie (save a few made-for-TVers) since. Sure, Talalay, like Jenkins, has directed for television — several episodes to acclaim, and some of the biggest series out there in the world: “Doctor Who,” “Sherlock,” “Ally McBeal,” “Riverdale.” But has she been able to direct a big screen movie since? Nope. Talalay herself has been open about the hurdles she’s faced in her career in the past.
Theirs are just two easily identifiable stories from the last few years. Frankly, women are sick and tired of the disparity. It’s so bad that those in power don’t see that what they perceive to be filet mignon is actually barely crumbs. And it’s something this very loud current movement is hoping to bring to its natural conclusion. Because without letting mediocre and/or bad movies for/by/about women exist, we’re constantly setting ourselves and our audiences up for failure. This only changes if we let perfectly decent things by women exist and don’t punish them for it afterwards.
We have to be able to see and learn what works and what doesn’t and why: not just in theory on the page, but in actuality. It’s why failure has always been a vital cornerstone in the art of creation. It’s why, if you didn’t like “Captain Marvel,” I am especially talking to you. The trajectory of better characterization only comes off the backs of the works made before it, and if you only allow producer-and-data-driven-perfection to exist, you’re creating an unattainable measure to which all female creators and films are held. You’re still enabling the narrative that women have to be twice as good, all the time, to maybe get 1% of the pie. Whether you thought “Captain Marvel” or any of these movies was good, or even an affront, is entirely beside the point.
Women deserve an equal slice of the bad movies pie, too.
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