Thursday, May 15, 2014

Side Characters in the Spotlight: A Case for Black Widow (and Other Sidekicks etc.)

Some minor spoilers for Cap 2

So I had a frustrating "conversation" the other day on the comment thread under this share on FB:

In those comments, a dude first used the old "Elektra and Catwoman were bad, so Wonder Woman prolly doesn't deserve a movie" excuse, then said something about how Black Widow is a better character when helping other Avengers and shouldn't get HER own movie, too. The OPer pointed out that Harley Quinn has her own series that's made of awesome, but no matter how many times the OPer said that, and no matter how many times I made my point by rewording, dude just kept saying things like, "Catwoman  is her best when she has Batman to contend with," and, "Harley Quinn isn't interesting without the Joker." Never mind dude hasn't even read Harley Quinn's solo stuff, but whatever.

And so the point I kept trying to make was twofold. That 1) The assumption that a side character couldn't possibly hold their own and a blanket unwillingness to be even open to the IDEA of them getting a solo shot is stubborn and based off of past characterizations that revolved around other characters- and the result of poor writing and the limits of the scopes the writers are willing to give those characters, not the limits of the characters themselves. And it's also foolish, because some of the biggest "solo" characters (ones he said he liked) started out as side characters, such as Wolverine, Thor, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, basically ALL OF THE X-Men*. The line I liked that I repeated the most was, "Characters are only as limited as the people  writing them." And 2) That knowing full-well there are fans too stubborn to see a Black Widow movie because she's "a better side character," comic and film exec use that information for sexist ulterior motives- so even if the dudes saying they don't want spinoffs aren't intentionally being sexist, their attitude is touted for sexist reasons. And those very reasons come from sexist motivations, too- writers and execs aren't willing to write well-rounded female characters (or POC). Being that dickish about it as a "fan"** only perpetuates the cycle. 


So now, since this is my blog, I'm  going to rant about those two points in more detail.

1) Let's lead off with that line I repeated to the dude that was "talking" to me.

"Characters  are only as limited as the people writing them."

I want you to consider that characters like Superman and Batman always seem to be able to get out of scrapes because they suddenly have something they'd need. In Superman's case, it's that he uses a power he supposedly always had but never used; Batman, it's either his utility belt, or it's just assumed he had been able to anticipate the need for whatever gadget, prototype, etc. he had waiting that helped with whatever situation. These "powers" or gadgets are end- and limit-less; they show up and are accepted. Sure, people kind of rag on it in both characters, but the fact that Superman has a power for everything, and Batman has a gadget for everything, is just okay with fans.

So then what happens?

Writers come up with newer, more inventive ways to "trap" the characters, then come up with matching powers/gadgets to get the characters out of said traps. Meaning  what? Meaning the writers are bending over backwards to be creative, innovative, with these guys. That they're creating complex webs of conflict in order for these male characters to get themselves out through some newly-used, made of awesome trick or toy.


So why the fuck can't they do that for female characters?

The reason the guy I was talking to thinks side characters are better as side characters is because they're always written as, well, side characters. But in the sense that they aren't the main active characters in those stories. They may be there with Supes or Bats as things get really bad, but in the end, it's Supes or Bats that does the real day-saving. 


Take what I said in an earlier post about Black Widow vs. Iron Man in The Avengers. She's the one that closes the portal, but he tosses the nuke into space through it, and the way it was filmed and written, we're meant to care and invest more in what Tony is doing than Natasha. That very same scene could have been written with Tony having no trouble at all getting the nuke in the portal and coming  back out, and instead it could have been turned into the tense moment where Black Widow may not be able to withstand the intense energy in the staff long enough  for the portal to close, and then what? Then it would have been more about her, and the dramatic tension would have revolved around whether she could or couldn't finish her job, not whether Tony could. 


She plays a very similar role in The Winter Soldier. She runs around and does a lot of cool stuff, but she gets rescued by Cap more than once in the movie. Like when the secret base gets blown up, she goes unconscious, and this happens:


Sigh

Great, heroic moment for Cap, sure, but c'mon. And of course it's his actions we're meant  to care the most about at the end. Understandably so, as it is a Captain America movie, after all, but that's kind of the point- she's written as a side character in The Winter Soldier, and my deeeeeep critique of Avengers is that she's just a conduit for the males' stories there, too- she's Fury's lap dog and gets the troops together for him, and is constantly under sexual threat in ways that more often than not showcase the males threatening  her- the exception is her opening scene, but how entirely sexualized the whole thing is, it has Male Gaze written all over it. 

I'm rambling...

POINT!


Black Widow will be viewed as a side character until she's written as a main character, as saving herself every time- the gets-self-out-of-scrape-as-means-of-introduction cliche is so, well, cliche and tired. And closed-minded fans won't view her as anything but a side character until she's written as a main one, and written by a writer that's talented enough that whatever issue, story, movie, etc. in which she flies solo becomes popular and gets enough positive buzz to convince stubborn people to "give it a try, even if they're skeptical about it having any shot at being good."*** 

And for God's sake, have some open-mindedness and imagination! Are you that un-creative, that you can't even think outside the boundaries yourself? Even speculate on potential story arcs over someone that's never had their own? Do you really need the writers to do all the work for  you? 

And so this leads into how 2) Execs use that very stubbornness on the part of fans to perpetuate the mediocrity of side characters like Black Widow- side characters that are women. Men and women often get their own spinoffs, sure, but if you compare the way some of the women's spinoffs play out versus the men, you'd notice the women are still very much more beholden to the male characters from the originals. So they're still written as side characters, just with, like, their own episodes. Like the "Ghostfacers" in Supernatural- we all know it's really the Brothers Winchester doing the work in their episodes, but the Ghostfacers think they're hot shit.  


Batgirl, for example, keeps taking orders from Batman. Whereas Nightwing does his own thing, goes on his own missions and even, gasp, clashes with Bats sometimes! 

Look, I'm not going to repeat what I've said before about executives being resistant to female leads. But what I haven't emphasized enough is that while some of the excuses they make are pretty thin, at best, this idea that fans wouldn't want to see a spinoff because side characters are just that, side characters- that it's extremely harmful because it means a lot of dudes are unwittingly contributing to the lack of well-written female side characters, let alone females as leads. 

I'd like to think unwittingly, but here's the thing- I also think some of them use it just knowingly as the same executives.

And let me demonstrate this by commenting on this guy I was "taking to"'s behavior as allegory. See, he kept focusing on side characters and how Wonder Woman is better in the Justice League and more interesting when she's supporting Batman and Superman.


But, wait a tic... Why bring up side characters?
WONDER WOMAN IS NOT A SIDE
CHARACTER, WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK!?!?!
?
The fact that he views fucking Wonder Woman as a side character? I think that says a lot about what he thinks "real" lead characters are like. Meaning he thinks they have penii. Not ovaries. Wonder Woman as a side character?




Wonder Woman did not, in fact, start as a side-character in the Justice League. Her first comic was in  1941 and didn't join up with anyone else, as far as I know,  until she was part of the Magnificent 7 in Justice League of America's first issues in 1961. Which means she was a solo character for twenty fucking years before being part of a team. Yet this guy is saying she's a better side character? My guess is that, much like with Harley Quinn, he hadn't read any solo WW stuff, and was just paying lip service because he knows Wonder Woman is basically in the Holy Trinity of DC characters (the other two being, of course, Bats and Supes). Everybody, even if they've never even read the comic page in the gorram newspaper, knows who Wonder Woman is, and that if any female comic hero deserves a movie,  it's her.

Also, she had more independent beginnings than a lot of her fellow Justice League-ers that are now considered independent. JLers that are men.

So I can't help but think  this guy is/was more sexist than he was willing to admit- to me, to the OPer, and most importantly, to himself. I mean, I agreed with him when he said he didn't want want a WW move simply because she's a she, and that he'd want it to be good, but he was so against it in the first place, coming up with any excuse as to why she shouldn't have a movie, I can't help but think his motivations are at least subconsciously gendered. Because even if a body doesn't like a character as popular as her, they should be able to acknowledge that she's long overdue  for a movie, especially amidst stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy and the two Thor movies from That Other Comic Studio, and the now eighth movie with Batman/ seventh movie with Superman from her own. 


He was being  deliberate. Using any excuse to be anti-Wonder Woman movie. Every  excuse in the book. Which is exactly what the executives do.
And so this, of course, relates to male nerdery in general. I think a lot of these guys are more sexist than they are willing to admit. Because they're okay with gimmicks involving male characters and ridiculous "plot" ideas involving men- like a talking raccoon and tree are fine because that's unique! But a woman? Oh, HELL NO. It just doesn't make any sense why there's always this huge battery of reasons as to why a Wonder Woman movie isn't a good idea or would be difficult to write or what the fuck ever, when you don't hear that about other movies being made/in the works. Why did everyone get all excited over the first Thor movie, when his backstory is even hokier than Wonder Woman's, as the comic strip at the beginning of this post points out? "I can't wait to see what they do with it!" all the time over Fabio, Jr., but the mere prospect of Wonder Woman gets the fanboys' panties all in a twist. Why does the "I'm wary because I'm afraid they'd do a bad job" thing get used for her but nobody else? 

Because the plumbing of the main character looks like this:



And again, I don't think all of these guys even realize they're doing it- which makes it  worse, I think, because like the "not all men do it" thing, like the pervasive "nice guy" thing, they don't think they're contributing to the problem with their attitudes toward female characters. But they harp on the female characters and let all kinds of bullshit slide for the males. They hold female characters to entirely different standards than male ones- standards that are nigh impossible to meet. And they just inherently view female characters differently- talking about them in ways that have nothing to do with their actual characterizations, ways that leave no room for the women to actually shine. 

And in the end? They're the ones missing out. Because holy shit, if you're a straight dude that doesn't think two hours of this would be entertaining, not even taking into consideration that a Black Widow movie would be a kickass military-espionage-martial-arts-fest (come on, she's Jason Bourne with tits), then you really don't have a pulse:


I'm a cis female, and I totally
recognize the hot-and-bothered
potential of this woman
There's speculation that because she's wearing an arrow necklace in The Winter Soldier, she and  Hawkeye  may be a "thing."  Or at least that this may end up being important in The Avengers 2. Okay, fine. That doesn't mean she can't star in her own movie. I've said before, I'm not against romance- not in the slightest. I was totally shipping a Cap-Black Widow pairing by the end of The Winter Soldier. But a Black Widow movie has the potential to be  both gritty and  witty, if in the right hands, even with a subplot of romance at her fingertips. Because she can kill a dude with her own hands, and yet she's sharp as a tack and doesn't take bullshit. She can hack computers, use all sorts of weaponry, knows myriad hand-to-hand fighting styles, and can improvise a weapon out of you-name-it. Again, she's Jason Bourne with tits- she could totally do any of the improvised, MacGyver-esque things he does. 

A Black Widow movie, in the right  hands, could be a fucking amazing movie. Fast-paced, entertaining, easy on the eyes, and what with the backstory being built for her in the Marvel movies, that "red on her ledger" could make for some very in-depth characterization and dramatic moments. But she won't get a movie until stubborn assholes in the fandom get off their asses and at least become open to the idea of it.

And that would mean them acknowledging that they're biased, that they've been duped by the straight, white men in charge of the comic  and movie industries into believing that Black Widow can't carry her own weight. And they need to start voting with their wallets by buying more comics starring female characters, and going to see movies starring women on opening weekend, even if they aren't entirely "sold" on the idea of either.


The main fear I have for Black Widow, just as I've said before about Wonder Woman, is that she'll get a bad script that'll be used against her and any other female character in the same way Elektra and  Catwoman are still used. I don't want the sexist dochebaggery to have any more fuel in its fire. Another bad female-starring superhero movie will only  put  things that much further behind. So no, I don't want a Black Widow movie for the sake of diversity per se. I want  them to invest in it the way  they invest in the movies starring male protagonists. I want them to come up with a script that  makes for a good movie, not just a good comic movie. Something people could enjoy even if they aren't into comics, the way (most of) Batman's movies have been, the way the first Iron Man movie is, the way Cap 2 is. You don't really need to know much about those characters, let alone comics in general, to enjoy those. Get a script that good, and you'll get butts in the seats.


Now, of course, it'll also show the true colors  of fanboys. Nitpicking it and saying it doesn't deserve a sequel when it prolly does, objectively, would be a good cue. Let's be honest, if  it's better than fucking THOR, it deserves a sequel.  
I mean I know the fanboys pick any comic movie  apart, but I imagine the nature of the critiques  given would be a good indicator of how that person really feels about having women star in comic movies. Refusal to see it would be a big indicator, too- since the usual behavior is, "It's a movie starring a superhero, I'll see it," if their 'tude there suddenly changes and they, out of the blue, develop some high moral standard and say, "Oh, I refuse to see it on principle because I know they'll ruin Black Widow." Yeah, bullshit. 

But I mean it when I say it. I felt this way before I saw The Winter Soldier, and seeing that (twice) only solidified my belief that a Black Widow movie is a potential gold-mine with enough going on in it that it could draw in a huge crowd. And Black Widow would be really easy to transition into her own movie- she's been in now three Marvel movies, and we've had lots of hints  about her backstory before, so my God, just have an opening sequence from her past that acts out something she's talked  about before, then jump to now, and bam, you have your exciting first ten minutes and we're totally absorbed. You get all this talk about how Wonder Woman's backstory is "tricky," right? How fucking  tricky is a backstory we've already heard huge chunks of? Seriously, she's a shoe-in, and the fact that there aren't even any really substantial rumors of a Black Widow movie  (the most you get is that Marvel is considering it, that they're speculating or think it is a possibility) is  highly indicative, and disappointing.
And on a final note- I think ANY side character could be a lead, as long as they  were written as one. It would just take the same kind  of creativity and effort already given to the main characters from whom they'd be jumping off in order to get there. 

*I mean yeah, I'm exaggerating, but for real, dude was talking like Green Lantern started out as individually as Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman, when HE DIDN'T. 
**Yeah, I'd call him a "fake nerd boy" if he hasn't even read 'Batman: Year One'- I asked if he had, as an example of a great book about a side character, or at least as equally, and he had a comeback about how what really made it compelling was the Batman stuff... I mean come ON, really? Any comic fan with an iota of creativity and appreciation for storytelling recognizes the most compelling stuff in that book is about Gordon. So he either has NO TASTE or hasn't read it. And if he's bitching about how "Catwoman's most interesting when she has Batman to play off of" then I'm guessing he's only seen the animated series and Nolan movies, at best, maaaaybe the Burton movies. Has he read any? Doubtful.
***What that guy said about the HQ comics after condescendingly saying we had a "good back and forth" right after saying one of my points was "BS." Right. "Your argument is bullshit. Good talk!"  Uh-huh, yeah, sure. I went  back to the convo later, and he made fun of me for not being able to handle swearing after I called him out on saying something I had said is "BS," so yeah, he proved my point, that he was never open to discussing anything. 

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