Harley Quinn: model female superhero?

Avengers vs. Suicide Squad: fixing the female superhero

Screen

Looking back at the first Avengers film, it is sometimes hard to believe how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed. In the six years since 2012, Marvel Studios has produced thirteen more films and a franchise that is unlike anything cinema has seen before. Perhaps even more shocking is how much the women of Marvel have come on.

Avengers Assemble, for all its explosive action and snappy quipping, was woefully lacking in female characters – especially those not wearing cat suits. Pepper Potts had the obligatory cameo, SHIELD operative Maria Hill had a small role, and, of course, there was Black Widow. Our sole female hero, Black Widow spent most of the film crushing men between her thighs or flipping around the battlefield with her apparently military-issue costume unzipped half-way to her belly button. To be fair, the character did have more depth to her than that. There were hints at a tragic guilt-ridden backstory and a deeper friendship with teammate Hawkeye but, as the primary means of female representation, Black Widow left a lot to be desired. And that’s not even to mention the marketing that had Scarlet Johansson constantly pouting at the camera while twisted into the infamous “boobs-and-butt” pose.

With that in mind, Avengers: Infinity War is a triumph: on Team Avengers, Black Widow has been joined by magical power-house Scarlet Witch; Black Panther has introduced a cast of fantastic and complex female heroes of colour, with the fearsome Okoye and teen genius Shuri stealing every scene they’re in; the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise adds Mantis and the sister assassins, Gamora and Nebula; and in a nice gesture, we even got a female villain in the forgettable shape of Proxima Midnight. Moreover, the film’s marketing was respectful and completely lacking in any wince-inducing poses. For the most part, our heroes are dressed both stylishly and practically – even Black Widow, if she hasn’t zipped up her cat suit, has at least dug out a tactical vest. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Marvel is over its problem with sexualising women – only this week Elizabeth Olsen said in an interview that she would quite like her character, Scarlet Witch, to lose the corset – but we’ve certainly come a long way since 2012.

…the mainstream response, from fans and critics, to films of all genres tends to be very aware of the hyper-sexualisation of women but less so of female agency.

A few years ago, a friend asked me what I would prefer to see in films: female characters with agency and narrative drive, or female characters who are allowed to exist free from hyper-sexualisation. At the time I spluttered out an answer about how it shouldn’t be too much to ask for both – male characters seem to manage it all the time – but it’s a question that deserves proper consideration. In general, I find that the mainstream response, from fans and critics, to films of all genres tends to be very aware of the hyper-sexualisation of women but less so of female agency. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the reaction to Suicide Squad.

Released in 2016, Suicide Squad was part of DC studios’ somewhat hit-and-miss attempt to challenge Marvel’s dominance of the superhero genre. Filled with pop songs, neon-bright colour, and huge name actors (Margot Robbie, Will Smith and Viola Davis to name but a few), the film raked in enough cash to be counted as a box office success but was almost universally panned. The film is bad on several levels, and an element that attracted a lot of criticism was its depiction of its female characters. In one particularly harsh review, The Telegraph called Suicide Squad a “crushingly puerile semi-pornographic slog”, while Vox amusingly likened the film to a “misogyny smorgasbord”.

To be quite clear, I wholeheartedly believe that Suicide Squad deserves this kind of criticism and more. Our villain, Enchantress, wears a metal bikini which allegedly led to the supermodel actor, Cara Delevingne, being digitally slimmed-down in post-production. The camera slavishly follows every curve of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, whether she’s performing impromptu strip teases or fighting off rock monsters in high heels and booty shorts. And that’s not even touching on the film’s racism and extremely dubious portrayal of the abusive relationship between Harley Quinn and the Joker. Certainly, no one will be calling Suicide Squad a feminist masterpiece anytime soon.

…the most bombastic action scene in Suicide Squad comes down to Harley Quinn killing Enchantress on Amanda Waller’s orders with Katana’s sword.

And yet, despite its many, many flaws, when Suicide Squad came out in 2016, it was the most relentlessly and unabashedly female-driven superhero film I had ever seen. In fact, even now in 2018, it still holds that title. I have seen Wonder Woman with its leading lady from an island of Amazonian warriors. I have seen Black Panther with its range of complicated, opinionated and kick-ass women. Those are both wonderful films but when it comes down to who is driving the narrative, Suicide Squad beats them both: the conflict is kicked off by June Moon, a female archaeologist, who accidentally awakens an ancient and evil witch; the response to this threat is organised and directed by the uncompromising Amanda Waller; the team she ends up gathering, while led by a man, has two prominent female anti-heroes, one of whom, Harley Quinn, is arguably the film’s lead; and the most bombastic action scene in Suicide Squad comes down to Harley Quinn killing Enchantress on Amanda Waller’s orders with Katana’s sword. That is a whole lot of women.

I certainly don’t think that anyone at DC was pushing for a female-driven story. What happened was just the inevitable result of having a lot of women in lead roles. Now, let’s take another look at the women of Infinity War.

Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, and Pom Klementieff at San Diego Comic-Con
Gage Skidmore

In the lead up to the film’s release, the directors, Anthony and Joseph Russo, told their eager fans that the characters with the biggest roles would be Thanos, Thor and Gamora. Thanos and Thor clearly have fairly large roles – Thanos’ mission drives the whole film and Thor has his own subplot to find a new weapon – but what about Gamora? A breakdown of screen time per character has found that she has an impressive 19 minutes, second only to Thanos’ 29 minutes. Gamora was evidently on screen for a lot of the film, but what she did with this screen time illustrates the massive limitations placed on her character. Rather than an active role, Gamora plays a reactive role, in which she is constantly forced into decisions and situations by other characters. After a poorly thought through attempt to kill Thanos, she is made to reveal the location of the Soul Stone, dragged to Vormir, and killed by her abusive father.

Her final scene is tragic but not, I think, in the way Marvel had intended. Over three films, we have watched Gamora grow and develop as a character in her own right, learning to trust, building herself a new family, and repairing her relationship with Nebula. After all that, it smarts to see her die in a way that adds nothing to her own storyline – even worse, to die in a scene that so robs her of her agency. Her struggling is useless against Thanos’ strength and the Stone itself proves her wrong when she tells her father that he does not understand love. There is a frustratingly common trope in action films called ‘Women in Refrigerators’, wherein female characters are killed solely to advance the story of a male character. In Infinity War, the sad truth is that Gamora’s death is about humanising Thanos. When compared to the stories of the male leads, this is fairly disappointing. When compared to the stories of the other female characters, it reveals a pattern wherein even the most visible among them have precious little drive in the main narrative.

Okoye and Black Widow both have some great fight scenes and a few snappy one-liners but neither has a real impact on the plot. True, Scarlet Witch does have a slightly larger role. She is clearly a very powerful character – one scene where she holds off Thanos with one hand and destroys an Infinity Stone with the other is particularly memorable – but this only makes her lack of battlefield participation all the more conspicuous. While these women might be treated with great respect, they simply have very little active role in the plot. This approach is the complete opposite to that taken by Suicide Squad.

There is, of course, more to films than who is driving the narrative, and I certainly would not want anyone to take Suicide Squad as a model of exactly how to create female characters. Yet the fact remains that Marvel could and should be doing better. It is long past time to be producing films that feature women who can both dress practically and play major roles in the narrative. Here’s hoping that Avengers 4, with its rumoured focus on Nebula and Captain Marvel, can learn from the mistakes of its predecessor.