By Lisa Anderson
As fan of comic book movies and of Joss Whedon, this is a great summer for me. I’m thoroughly enjoying all the buzz over The Avengers, which opens in the US at midnight tonight. Every once in a while though, I’ll come across something that I can’t get on board with, even though it’s essentially positive. A recent piece by Bill Gibron at Pop Matters is a good example.
In the interest of full disclosure: I have written for Pop Matters a couple of times. I even have a piece in their recent Joss Whedon anthology. Pop Matters has a lot of good content, and I’m grateful for the opportunities it’s given me. I’m also not trying to indict Gibron personally; I haven’t delved into his work and I don’t know him as a person. All of that being said, this particular article doesn’t measure up to Pop Matters’ usual standards of intellectual rigor, and traffics in some assumptions that need to be discarded.
The trouble starts is the second paragraph. “[Whedon] has done something . . . unheard of in the echelons of superhero movies,” Gibron writes, “he’s managed to make something that just might capture the female demographic.” He says later on that that “Gents will get the mandatory bang for their buck. The ladies, on the other hand, get all the emotion and male eye candy they can handle.”
First off, I’m not sure where he gets the idea that women haven’t been going to see superhero movies all along. I saw many of the films he mentions—both of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, both Iron Man movies, Watchmen and Thor—and saw them with other women. For better or worse, I’ve seen every Batman movie (and Superman Returns) in the theater with female friends. In fact, one of my earliest experiences with grown-up, blockbuster movies was seeing Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman with my sister.
I’m not trying over-generalize my own experience here; I’ve never noticed any shortage of women at superhero movies. Gibron himself admits that his wife had seen The Dark Knight and Watchmen, even if she hadn’t seen any of the Avengers lead-ins. (Guess she’s a DC woman rather than a Marvel one.)
One thing that Gibron says makes The Avengers a “chick flick” is the fact that it has five attractive male leads. First of all, Robert Downey, Jr. and company are hardly the first good-looking guys to play superheroes in movies, so let’s clear that up right away. Then there’s the condescending, head-patting tone with which Gibron discusses the possibility that women want to watch handsome actors. It’s almost as if we’re aliens . . . or as if beautiful women aren’t cast in movies to draw in men.
Most importantly, eye candy is not the main or the only reason women go to comic book movies. We enjoy many of the same things about them that men enjoy: thrilling action sequences, eye-popping set pieces, and epic storylines. If nothing else, the sexist portrayals and storylines that we sometimes have to wade through in action movies prove our devotion to these things.
On the flip side, Gibron thinks that men don’t care about the other thing he believes The Avengers offers to women: emotionally nuanced characters. It is true that the the protagonists of the film are complicated, fallible, and occasionally even vulnerable, and that their individual circumstances are emotionally fraught. Between the trailers and the lead-in movies, you know that going in. But that’s the way comic book movies are done these days, not a concession to draw in female viewers. Christopher Nolan may have brought this type of story into vogue, but it certainly hasn’t been confined to his work. As far as I can tell, both men and women enjoy this relatively new approach. To imply that men are just in it for the explosions and are indifferent to fully drawn characters and relatable feelings is actually pretty insulting.
Gibron makes other assumptions about what people like, however. In talking about “eye candy,” he completely erases gay movie-goers. Some of the women going to see The Avengers will prefer Scarlett Johansson to Jeremy Renner on that level, and some of the men will feel the opposite way. I’m sure that Gibron knows this, and may not hold that against anyone . . . but it doesn’t fit into his theory, so he doesn’t bring it up. He also doesn’t mention Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury as someone that people might find attractive, but that’s a whole other article.
If I know anything about Joss Whedon, The Avengers really is a woman-friendly movie, but it’s not because it stars hot actors playing angsty characters. The secret to making a woman-friendly movie is writing women who are strong and three dimensional; who don’t end up in refrigerators or given as romantic prizes to the male leads; who are in equal relationships if they’re in one at all; who have conversations which pass the Bechdel test; and so on.
The most convincing argument Gibron offers for why The Avengers will appeal to women is the importance of Black Widow. If she’s as important to the team as he says, and her point of view is central to the film, then that means a lot. Those are also the kind of things that Whedon’s audience expects from him. That doesn’t make it a “chick flick” though, either in the traditional sense or the way that Gibron means it. Nor should it deter men from enjoying the film.
The whole concept of a “chick flick” is pretty dismissive anyway. Hopefully, with women fronting action movies like The Hunger Games and Hanna, and men headlining more emotional fare like Cedar Rapids or Up in the Air, such rigid distinctions are shifting, evolving, and dissolving. I could end up very disappointed in The Avengers as a movie (I seriously doubt it), but I will walk in the theater Friday night trusting that I won’t be insulted. I wish I could say the same about reading the reviews.