Superhero movies are usually a fail-safe Hollywood formula: Money for the studios and a big break for the leading men in tights (and metal suits and ripped shorts and Kevlar … oh, you get it). But the genre has always spelled uncertainty for their most peripheral characters — the women. After years as marginalized plot devices, the women of the superhero universe have evolved into protagonists as impressive as the heroes themselves.
A prime exception to solely supporting women is the “X-Men” series, which from comic book page to screen introduced a host of powerful women in almost equal number to the men. From vengeful combatant Mystique to the shy-but-deadly Rogue, the story has always been about humans and mutants, trivializing further classification. Even Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the obligatory center of a love triangle, is a teacher, scientist and one of the most powerful and volatile mutants alive.
Nothing showcases the evolution of females in superhero movies more than this summer’s fare. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) of “The Avengers” more than holds her own among six male colleagues and the nefarious villan Loki. The most brilliant accomplishment here is that it isn’t even discussed. Her gender isn’t pointed out once in the movie; the writing and performances are so natural that reviewers barely even commented on it. She never uses her sexuality as a weapon, and only mentions romance when remarking that “love is for children.” It didn’t escape my notice that she wears a rather skintight combat suit — but if anything was objectified in that movie, it was Chris Evans’s back in a t-shirt.
It’s no secret by now that the crowning jewel of July’s “The Amazing Spiderman” was its superb lead actors, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Apart from the kind of hypnotic chemistry that can only be described as nerd-porn, “Amazing” completely changed the established on-screen dynamics of Peter Parker and his love interests.
Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) was a classic damsel-in-distress in the early 2000s Spiderman trilogy, placed in peril whenever the writers seemed to run out of ideas. She loved Peter, supported his quest and made him a better man … she also screamed and got kidnapped an awful lot. Stone’s Gwen Stacy is the smartest girl at school (and knows it), sharp enough to befuddle Parker with brains as much as beauty and create the serum that saves New York City by the end of the movie. Now that’s the kind of girlfriend a superhero should be so lucky to have.
With all that, I was anxious to see what was in store with “The Dark Knight Rises,” with a cast list boasting twice as many female leads as its predecessor (so … two). I was not disappointed. Selina Kyle, externally an innocent beauty, turns out to be a remorseless revolutionary, a transition Anne Hathaway conveys literally in the blink of an eye. One of the most chill-inducing scenes in the film features Kyle beating up her opponents, before almost instantly acting the part of a hysterical victim when police enter the scene. The seductive catlike mannerisms can grow irksome, but then she’ll snap a few necks and all is forgiven.
Kyle succeeds, not because of the film’s writing, but because of Hathaway’s superb performance. It’s a remarkable transformation for an actress whose big break was “The Princess Diaries.” Hathaway once became an idol for girls who felt invisible and longed to be pretty. Ten years later, she’s upped the ante, showing girls that the best way to be noticed is to make a killer impression. Kyle is a woman unintimidated by the lowest of criminals who become her new neighbors in prison; a woman who, when the time comes to choose a course of action, opts for the moral high ground and basically saves Batman’s ass.
At first, I feared Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate would be just another woman in need of saving, but Cotillard gives a thrilling performance in the third act that proves she is anything but. Without completely spoiling the movie, suffice it to say that appearances can’t be trusted, and that the gravest mistake any character makes in “The Dark Knight Rises” is underestimating a woman. Christopher Nolan may be disconcertingly unaware of the existence of women, but the few he allows into his hallowed interpretation of Gotham City aren’t afraid to fight for their radical beliefs.
Women have always been present in superhero movies, but contributing minimally to plot and character development. In the modern movie climate, these blockbusters are indispensable, but the old female formula is beyond archaic. The women who were once just barely visible are making their presence known.
Personally, I’ll know female representation in superhero movies is incontrovertibly changed for the better when I see a young girl dressed as Black Widow among all the boys who spend Halloween as Iron Man and Captain America. We may finally live in a society where being Catwoman is as enticing as being a princess — and that’s about as super as it gets.