Sometimes, all it takes is one man.
Of course The Avengers was made by many men and many women but director/writer Joss Whedon is the one getting all the praise right now, and deservedly so. The Avengers was a stupendous achievement. It did what many thought was impossible, bringing together a huge cast to successfully portray a superhero team with the type of action normally reserved for the comic pages. Record after record in the box office didn’t hurt either.
But where The Avengers really excelled in my eyes was its portrayal of women, and how the film itself wasn’t offensive to women viewers. It’s really no surprise; Whedon is a feminist and a huge supporter of Equality Now, an organization for human rights of women around the globe. I also can’t neglect the fact that he made a name for himself with his creation Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most iconic and popular female characters in the last twenty years.
There was an issue raised not too long ago after Moviefone.com posted an incredibly condescending piece titled, “A Girl’s Guide To The Avengers.” Newsarama’s own Alan Kistler wrote a response piece to it but the gist was, if you were a woman, the only reason you’d be going to see The Avengers was if your boyfriend was dragging you to the theater. You’re reading my column (probably not for the first time) so you know some women like superheroes, but even I was shocked to hear some of the figures revealed from a survey Disney did on the movie. The Avengers made over $200 million opening weekend in the United States, breaking all sorts of records (plus the second Friday, Second Saturday, and Second Weekend record with another $103 million, fastest to $300 million domestic, fastest to $350 million, and of course it's now already made one billion dollars worldwide after weekend #2... it's doing pretty well, folks), and forty percent of those who went to see it were women.
Like I said, even I was surprised by that number. Now you can joke and say some of those women went to see the film specifically for the good looking actors involved, and that may be true for some, but I really see this movie as having universal appeal. Sure, the actors and actresses in the film are attractive to most people but that’s Hollywood for you, they’re not going to cast people who aren’t easy on the eyes. While we’ve had team superhero films in the X-Men and Fantastic Four series, The Avengers is in a different league. These are the big gun Marvel heroes coming together to fight evil. No matter if you are a comic reader or not, that appeals to the masses who may have, at one time in their life, pretended to be a superhero. I really think it’s as simple as that.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT
Of course it helped that The Avengers was an extremely well put together film with great effects, wonderful casting, and deftly-timed jokes. But what struck a cord with me, someone who has a critical eye when it comes to genre projects, was how not offensive this film was toward women. Did I sit back and enjoy the film just like any other comic fan, glowing at the team-ups, applauding when the heroes saved the day? Absolutely. I’m still giddy about Hulk treating Loki like a rag doll, or Hulk trying to pick up Mjolnir, or Hulk punching Thor…ok, pretty much anything the Hulk did. But being a fan, and being a woman who isn’t always thrilled with how women are treated in comics, The Avengers passed with flying colors.
Nothing will ever be perfect, especially not in everyone’s eyes, but Whedon came as close as any superhero director has in my opinion. The women in The Avengers were not only treated with respect, they were integral to the film as a whole. They were not damsels in distress needing to be rescued (which is ok for a character, but probably not if she’s in the superhero business) but neither did they resort to acting like the men surrounding them. They were realistic characters. The main example of this of course, is Black Widow.I’ll be honest, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was probably the person I was least looking forward to seeing in the film. I wasn’t impressed by what they did with her in Iron Man 2 and I wasn’t a fan of her from the comics to begin with. Whedon not only made me care about her, he made me want to know more. And it’s all down to how she was treated. Black Widow’s skills and qualifications weren’t questioned at any point in the film. A lot of the people meeting her were doing so for the first time and not one of them had to ask why she was there or how she could contribute to the team. She wasn’t talked down to; she was on even footing. And pardon my language but she was in an outfit built for fighting, not for f*@$#&*. Did we get an ass shot? Yes, but there’s a different between putting someone’s rear on display and it happening to be in the direction your shot is facing. Captain America had one too, but you may not have noticed because well, people don’t usually call it an ass shot, they just call it a shot.
The other great thing about The Avengers was how they found time for everyone. I thought for sure some characters would draw the short stick but The Avengers themselves all had around the same amount of time on screen. And Black Widow wasn’t at the bottom, she had the third-most screen time of the film, above that of Hulk, Thor, and Hawkeye. Agent Maria Hill, played by Cobie Smulders, didn’t have as much time as I’d hoped but then again, neither did the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. In a cast that large, something had to give but I liked her confidence and authority.
The Avengers is not a “chick-flick” by any means, it just doesn’t do what we’ve come to expect films like this to do and the almost unnoticeable aspect of that to the general viewing audience is what really makes it an achievement. Making a film, or any entertainment for that matter, women-friendly doesn’t mean toning down the action or having everyone sit around and discuss beauty products, it means not making it actively offensive toward the gender. Not having Pepper Potts in high heels or being the one that came up with the idea for Stark Tower may seem insignificant details but as they say, the devil is in the details and they really do make a world of difference in the long run.
Will we see a solo female Marvel film in the next few years? Perhaps starring Black Widow or another Marvel heroine? It’s hard to say. Successes like this year’s The Hunger Games certainly proved female action leads can be profitable (even Whedon said so), if done right, and The Avengers proved Whedon is one who can do it right.
Kelly Thompson wrote a piece on Whedon saving the superheroine on Lit Reactor in which she wrote, “There exists this bizarre knee jerk reaction in comics, television, and film, when a female led project isn’t successful, to blame the failure on the fact that it’s female led. But that’s ridiculous. When a male led project fails, we don’t say it’s because it had a male lead, we say it was for any number of reasons, which have nothing to do with the protagonist’s gender.”
True, films like Elektra and Catwoman failed to captivate viewers but that’s because they were really bad films. End of story. When the first Hulk movie didn’t do as well as they’d hoped, they made another one. When the Superman reboot didn’t take, they started work on another. Yes, the Marvel women aren’t as well known by the public and that’s certainly a road block, but it’s also an easy fix as we’ve seen proof of with The Avengers and the movies leading up to it. There’s already a Thor 2, Iron Man 3, Captain America 2, and The Avengers 2 in the works. Start introducing characters like Janet van Dyne (who Whedon had originally wanted in this film), Carol Danvers, Jennifer Walters, or Jessica Drew just like they did with Hawkeye and Black Widow. It will give them a chance to appear in the next The Avengers film while also feeling out who would be the best choice for a starring role in their own film.
Bottom line? Whedon has shown that putting women in your film who aren’t half-naked doesn’t mean people won’t go see your film when it’s a good film to begin with. I’m not opposed to seeing skin or nudity as a whole but let it be there for a reason. Emma Frost was in lingerie for most of X-Men: First Class and I didn’t care because that’s her character. In The Avengers Bruce Banner/The Hulk was the only person who went shirtless. And that’s because it happens all the time to him. It makes sense. Whedon knows sexuality serves a purpose but he knows when to use it. He knew it would be unnecessary to have Agent Hill’s costume rip to reveal her midriff during the attack on the helicarrier so he didn’t do it. And were you upset something like that didn’t happen? No, you were too busy watching an awesome movie.
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