It’s a fun popcorn flick, with a charismatic lead, some witticisms, and fun supporting characters. What it doesn’t have is a convincing romance. Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth have plenty of romantic chemistry with various characters in the movie, but not with each other. So making romance a primary motivation for either of them is unconvincing, to say the least.
Likewise, Thor’s godly buddies ramble around the movie, in a generally supportive way, and near the end, one of them confesses love for him. Surprise, it’s Sif, goddess of war, the only female member of the gang. Her romantic interest in Thor adds absolutely nothing to the story, and makes her about 200% less interesting.
Meanwhile, Kat Dennings’ cute as a button sidekick character (yes, the lead female character gets a female sidekick, like I said, the movie doesn’t suck!) gets most of the best lines, is fun and entertaining on screen in her limited role, and doesn’t have to kiss anyone. Her character emerges with the best integrity, apart from Frigga (Rene Russo) who is rather awesome, but also Thor’s Mum, therefore does not have to be hot for him.
All this made me think. Because I’m a fan of romance, kissing and smut, on general principles. I do tend to think that throwing those things into the mix often makes the story more interesting. But here’s the thing… sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it just makes things weird. And I find myself noticing more and more when snogging, for instance, is thrown into a story that isn’t asking to be kissed.
There’s an assumption, I think, that all the shooty bang explodey gosh wow punching people and general banter in action movies is all for the men, and the snoggery is for the ladies who have come along to the movies with their blokes, so they don’t get bored. Which is… well, for a start, it’s a very old fashioned view of who goes to the movies and why. But it gets particularly interesting, when you find yourself, as a woman watching action movies, complaining that the kiss got in the way of the story.
Kissing is fine, it’s bad kissing I object to.
And I suspect that many women, like me, don’t require a romantic subplot for an action movie to be appealing. Going to an action movie for the romance is kind of like going to a pizza restaurant because you like its chairs. I suspect that a big reason why test audiences etc. have told Hollywood over the years that action movies need romance for women to care about them is because IT’S THE ONLY WAY WE GET WOMEN IN THE STORY AT ALL. And yes, there are a handful of exceptions to that rule, but only a handful.The Green Lantern movie, which was generally pretty awful, included a subplot about a great female pilot who had a snarky sense of humour, was in a difficult position trying to run her father’s aeronautics company and not being taken seriously, and had sacrificed her brilliant flying skills in order to don a business suit and do the right thing. She’s better at her job than all the male pilots, and they refuse to take her seriously Unfortunately, because the story had decided she was the love interest, once all that was established, all she got to do was roll her eyes at Ryan Reynolds and wear cute dresses, which… WHAT A WASTE.
(she did however get to participate in the only awesome 30 seconds of the film, where he turns up on her balcony playing the Mysterious Stranger and she laughs at him because “I’ve known you all my life, I’ve seen you naked, you think I’m not going to recognise you because you’re wearing a tiny mask?”)
Too often, female characters are in the movie because of romantic subplot, to give the male protagonist something to fight for, something to get angry about, or someone to feel superior to despite being lesser than her in every way (I am looking at you again, Green Lantern). Sometimes this works – the love interest in Captain America is cute and sweet, but the only reason she’s there is to fall in love with Cap and for him to lose her. That’s okay, because the story works as a credible romance. It doesn’t matter how tired the trope is, if it works on screen. That’s how tropes become tropes.
But it’s quite nice to have a variety of tropes, if you see a lot of movies, otherwise you start yawning and checking your email, which is apparently not advisable in cinemas because people might throw popcorn at you. What would be REALLY nice is if we got a different range of things for women to do in action and particularly (as they are the hot thing right now and I want to like them more than I do) superhero movies.
It’s sad that, as a female superhero fan, I get so much more satisfaction from the animated series and movies (designed for children!) which explore the genre. The creators of Teen Titans, Justice League Unlimited, the Animated Batman series, and the various animated Avengers and X-Men cartoons, are far more female-positive and balanced than the Hollywood movie versions of often the same characters.
For a start, they usually have multiple women in their super teams as a matter of course, the benefit of which is that you don’t have 100% of your female castmembers shagging and/or sighing romantically over one of the male leads. You also have so many more well rounded, interesting female characters (again, usually more than one) who contribute something substantial to the story, and get to do the cool blowing stuff up things AS WELL as the men.
Comics are not always great at this. The recent Justice League reboot featured Green Lantern (yes, him again) greeting Wonder Woman (who didn’t turn up at all for a couple of issues) with the ever so charming line, “Dibs.” But for all the bad treatment of women in comics, it’s getting better. Meanwhile, in movies, it’s getting worse.
And cartoons are all “we figured all this out twenty years ago, where are the rest of you??”
The thing about the Thor movie is that, all the women in it already had a reason to be there. This is called plot. Jane and Sif’s behaviour would not be changed one inch if neither of them were in love with Thor, and the lack of the sighing/snogging scenes would have freed up like 30 seconds extra to show us Thor rolling around in the mud some more. Which is, um, possibly of GREATER interest to many female members of the audience.
I’m not calling for a ban on kissing in movies or anything like that. I’m all for the romance and the sexytimes in stories. (heh if you have read my books you might well be adding an “AND HOW” at this point) I love the way that sex, romance and even the odd bit of snoggery can reveal new layers and depths to characters. But so often in action movies, there isn’t time to reveal layers or depths, and it’s all about the shiny bright lights and the banter. In which case, imposing a romance on the story is going to take time away from necessary plot… whereas merely factoring in a few cool female characters to drive said plot might be just as useful in making your movie seem worthwhile to the women who buy movie tickets. And, shock, maybe some of the men too.
Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a superhero movie or two which included women NOT because of how they felt about the male lead, but because they had a job to do? Apparently the upcoming Avengers movie has two, Black Widow & SHIELD Agent Maria Hill. Only one officially counts as a superhero according to the posters, though, and she’s also the one who was introduced to the Marvel Movies Universe as “the love interest” in an Iron Man movie. (remind me, did they actually shack up together in Iron Man 2? I can’t remember for the life of me, but I do remember how much ‘ooh romance, love interest, GIRL, tight costume’ was emphasised in the promotion leading up to the movie, which seems tacky since he has obviously been married to Pepper Potts for a decade)
Can we get through a whole Joss Whedon movie without Maria Hill kissing anyone? Or at least, kissing anyone in order to promote THEIR story? Do we need a new variation of the Bechdel Test, to see how many women in action/superhero movies are given functions beyond kissing the hero?
In a hypothetical universe where we are allowed to play mad science social experiments with Hollywood, if a rule was set that for a whole year there was to be no depiction of romance, kissing or sex in any movie, would we suddenly see a greater and more interesting range of narrative roles for women on screen? Or would women simply vanish from movies altogether?