Making the rounds of social media lately is the Daily Dot’s article “Why we may never get a Black Widow movie.” Some highlights:
As Andrew Wheeler of Comics Alliance pointed out, Marvel Studios will soon have made 10 movies starring blond men named Chris before it has made a film with a woman or a person of color in the lead role.
The most obvious explanation for Marvel’s lack of a female-led superhero movie is, of course, sexism. The explanation for the lack of a Black Widow movie specifically is rather more complicated.
… Johansson reputedly signed a six-picture deal, but after Avengers: Age of Ultron and presumably Captain America 3, she only has one movie left. If Marvel wants a Black Widow franchise, then they’ll have to renegotiate and pay her more money. And because Marvel Studios is known for paying its actors as little as humanly possible (unless they’re Robert Downey Jr., who can demand the big bucks), they’d probably prefer to launch a female superhero movie starring someone much cheaper.
The whole question of diversity in superhero movies frustrates me. Fans act like major studios like WB (DC Comics) and Disney (Marvel Studios) give a damn about representation on its own merits, because we — the non-white, non-straight, non-male, non-abled, non-Chris comics reading and movie watching population — give a damn about representation. We want to see ourselves represented, obviously! Not just as (admittedly compelling) secondary characters like the Falcon and Nick Fury, or (admittedly compelling) romantic partners like Pepper Potts and Peggy Carter. We want to put on the capes, punch the bad guys, embrace the tragic backstories, and kick ass as headliners.
But we’re fooling ourselves if we think that studios, especially major ones, are going to prioritize anything over the bottom line. As Baker-Whitelaw points out above, Marvel in particular is notorious for penny-pinching with its talent*. And there’s practically no economic incentive for them to “take a risk” on a non-white non-male lead, when we all plunk down our dollars to keep Guardians of the Galaxy at the top of the box office for three weeks during the summer’s slowest period. (I put it in scare quotes because come on. Marvel made a tree the most heartwarming character of the summer season and an economic success. A Luke Cage or Wakanda movie is not riskier than that.)
Thinking about it is just kind of — grinding, you know? The blockbuster movie industry is essentially conservative, much as we’d all like to think otherwise. That’s why book properties get optioned over and over again instead of original stories getting put on our screens; it’s why there will be a new Fast and Furious installment every year or two until the sun burns out. A proven concept is always going to get the greenlight faster than an unknown one.
So increasingly, when articles decrying the state of the Big Two come across my feed, my reaction is “Well fine, screw ’em both, let’s talk about Painkiller Jane.“
There’s a whole universe of comics and superheroes and potential outside Marvel and DC: offshoot imprints of those houses like DC’s Vertigo, independent publishers like Image and Dark Horse, and of course the vast numbers of excellent comics currently being published online. Almost anything we’re demanding from the Big Two exists in the independent world. Gritty bisexual female superhero? Painkiller Jane. Lesbian romance with a plus-sized lead and lots of action sequences? Strangers in Paradise. Diverse all-female ensemble fantasy series? Rat Queens (in development as a cartoon!). Diverse all-female ensemble teen series? LumberJanes. Raunchy and inclusive interracial romance among the stars? Saga. Et cetera, et cetera.
It’s not that I don’t want to see Marvel and DC do better on these issues. I do. It’s frustrating to feel like my interests and desires don’t matter to these companies whose work I love. It’s just that I could spend all my energy on tweeting about a Black Widow movie I’m never going to get and trying to get two absolute juggernauts to change their directions — or I could spend more of my energy and money supporting independent artists who are, in fact, telling the kind of stories I want to see.
The stories we want do exist, and the people telling those stories can be successful if fandom supports them. Take Welcome to Night Vale (another fave), a piece of media that is completely independent, undeniably niche, aggressively and explicitly diverse and inclusive, and scheduled to go on a European tour. Take Noelle Stevenson and the Soska Sisters, female artists who started with cult success in comics and film and who are rapidly parlaying that into opportunities to tell progressive stories with large companies like Disney and Lionsgate.
Moreover, independent artists tend to be more open with their fans, and more agile, more able to respond to feedback. Night Vale is very involved with their fanbase, often promoting fan artists, and paying close attention to what succeeds in the story with the fans. And my friend and I were able to have a real conversation with the Soska Sisters about creativity and inspiration and where to get their work at Crypticon, plus they regularly interact with their fans on Tumblr; they’re super accessible in a way major studio artists just aren’t. I don’t think Zac Snyder or James Gunn are going to react to pushback about sexism in their work the way an independent artist might — even if they wanted to, they might not be able to because of the studio system in which they’re working.
Look, I still want a Black Widow movie, and a Captain Marvel movie, and a Cassandra Cain movie, and a Wonder Woman movie. I’ll still reblog fan posters and tweet my grievances. I’m still mad about Marvel leaving Janet van Dyne out of the cinematic universe and I’m mad that NBC won’t let John Constantine be bisexual. I’m still excited about Agent Carter and that Aquaman is (probably?) being played by a Hawaiian actor!
But I’m also really excited about Painkiller Jane. And I really, really want a Rat Queens movie.
So let’s get on supporting those guys, too.
*Sidebar: it seems to me that Marvel is basically following the guidelines Jeffrey Katzenberg laid out in his “Some Thoughts on Our Business” letter of 1991. They’re “a place where new talent can be recognized, where old talent can be rejuvenated and where current reigning stars can come to be both protected and try something new.” Witness Captain America: The Winter Soldier, starring Chris Evans, who was making a lot of goofy rom-coms before being tapped for Cap, Scarlett Johansson, an indie darling, and this guy you may have heard of named Robert Redford. Or Guardians of the Galaxy, starring that dumb guy from Parks and Recreation, a pro wrestler, a couple of sci-fi and genre veterans, and Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper as a raccoon. They’ve clearly taken to heart the principle that ideas and stories are king.
This has nothing to do with anything else, I just think it’s interesting.