2015 was a really good year for female superheroes on screen. The rise of the superhero genre in cinema over the last 15 years, and the momentum of that success, from the X-Men through the Grimdark Batmans to the dominating force of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been dogged with a lot of… well, problematic gender issues.
Let’s be clear here, problematic gender issues have always gone hand in hand with the superhero genre, no matter the medium. A lot of the ‘ow, just got punched in the face’ gender problems of cinematic or TV adaptations from the comics are reproduced directly from the original source material – and it doesn’t help that while comics themselves have been developing new, diverse and interesting modes of storytelling that are far more inclusive of women, people of colour, alternative sexualities etc, the media adaptations often reach first for the original, very white, very male-centred versions of the stories.
(The only second generation super hero to make it to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a ‘first’ movie, for example, was Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang/Ant-Man who was amiable enough, but so generic a character that I kept mistaking him for Chris Pratt whenever he put the mask on)
Still, we can’t blame it all on Seventies Stan Lee. Hollywood and TV production being what it is, modern media has a way of punching female audiences in the face in new, interesting and entirely canon-non-compatible ways. Women get fridged in new and interesting ways. The Phoenix Saga ends with Jean Grey’s sacrifice being 99% about Wolverine, because Hugh Jackman is the breakout star of those movies. Rogue’s storyline is literally excised from the most recent X-Men movie, even though there are enough fans to justify releasing a secondary DVD that still includes her. Gritty Batman Trilogy creates an original love interest only to horribly murder her in order to accentuate Bruce Wayne’s Man Pain. The first seasons of the TV adaptations of The Arrow and the Flash go to extraordinary lengths to prevent Laurel Lance and Iris West being useful, trustworthy or likeable, because future love interests don’t have to be real people. The plot of Ant-Man actually revolves around the way that women are overlooked in superhero stories. Gamora gets called a whore, in a line that contradicts the established characterisation of Drax, in order to get a cheap laugh.
Ahem. But. But. In all this, with all the problems, the movie and TV adaptations have managed to bring some iconic and legendary figures to the screen. And… it does feel like it’s getting better. If progress has been made in this pop culture battle about treating female characters with respect, then it feels like it happened in 2015.