Where Are All the Great Female-Led Genre Movies?
Midway through Disney and Marvel Studios' new Captain Marvel, the first superhero movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature a female protagonist, it hit me: I had seen this movie before. Not literally, of course, but it gave me the same sinister feeling that have came from watching a slew of other movies just like this one: Modern-day studios have yet to give us a female-led blockbuster that's truly great.
This all seems to begin with and revolve around the 2016 "reboot sequel" of Ghostbusters -- with an all-female, mostly Saturday Night Live-alumni squad of comedy masterminds -- that immediately ignited the ire of many male "fans" who had chosen to make the quality of a movie like Ghostbusters their hill to die on. Childhoods ruined, they yawped from the rooftops as they campaigned to collectively downvote every clip posted on YouTube and sabotage the film's Rotten Tomatoes score. Months before the movie itself was actually released, the opposition rose up in favor of female-led blockbusters, claiming that anyone decrying the quality of this movie simply because of the gender of its cast was anti-feminist. (Which, it is.)
And then, Ghostbusters came out. And, let's just be honest with ourselves here: It is not a good movie. The contingent of critics and fans who were genuinely excited for an all-female genre comedy and who had spent so much time defending it against a horde of people who decided to immediately hate it on principle bent over backwards to find things about it to praise. Ticket sales fizzled, and hopes of a new franchise were dashed. Plus, Jason Reitman (son of original Ghostbusters director Ivan), who is directing yet another new Ghostbusters movie -- a direct sequel to the original that ignores the 2016 version -- hasn't been subtle about who he considers the "real fans."
Then came Wonder Woman, the Warner Bros.-DC Comics filmic universe's trump card against Marvel Studios: In 2017, they were getting to the female-led superhero movie first. Marvel, for all its fan and critical adoration, had spent nine years making superhero movies led only by men, despite having a wealth of heroines to choose from -- many of whom were relegated to love interests and secondary characters in those same movies. Wonder Woman starred the fan-favorite Gal Gadot, who breathed joyous life into the last portion of Batman v. Superman while that movie was in its death throes. Additionally, the film was directed by Patty Jenkins, a woman herself, who had a very distinct vision of what kind of tone she wanted to strike with her movie: Celebrate powerful women without making them infallible, and ignore the gloominess of previous movies in the series. Wonder Woman was a jolt of electricity to the DC movie universe, earning more than $400 million as the third highest-grossing film of 2017, but it still ascribed to a familiar formula. There were the fun and games, and when those were done, our heroine had to suit up and fight a giant CGI shape just like every other male hero who came before her.
After that, Atomic Blonde, a month after Wonder Woman came out, and Ocean's Eight in 2018 both attempted to reclaim traditionally male genres for themselves. Atomic Blonde, nicknamed "Blonde Wick" by some before its premiere, sought to emulate the spy games and intrigue and neon-lit action of Keanu Reeves' John Wick franchise, and Ocean's Eight was basically "an Ocean's-style heist film, but with ladies." Both were stylish, fun takes on male-led mediums, and great ideas on paper. But neither went further than "girl John Wick," or "girl Danny Ocean," opting instead to retread the same paths as their male counterparts, rarely stepping outside the bounds of surface-level feminism to reckon with what it actually means to be a female-led action movie. In Ocean's Eight's most egregious scene, Sandra Bullock tells her crew, "Somewhere out there is an 8-year-old girl dreaming of becoming a criminal. Do this for her." The filmmakers wink at the fact that they're groundbreaking without actually breaking any new ground at all.
Back in October 2014, Marvel Studios finally announced their very first female-led superhero film. Captain Marvel would premiere more than 10 years after the company began the huge undertaking to turn a relatively obscure bunch of comic book characters into household names. Obviously, this move provoked the usual "fans" to wage yet another campaign against the film, citing a "feminist agenda" that big studios were trying to cram down their throats. To combat this, Rotten Tomatoes abolished the pre-release audience review feature to deplatform trolls who give movies bad ratings before they even premiere. (Still, Captain Marvel was "review-bombed" within hours of its release.)
It's not that Captain Marvel presents itself as such an inexorably, overwhelmingly female experience, but the "female" experiences it addresses are little more than #MeToo buzzwords. At one point, a sleazy nameless male character on a motorcycle tells Carol Danvers to smile. In an early scene, Carol's mentor Yon-Rogg advises her that she'll never be able to control her powers if she can't get a hold of her emotions, a clunky metaphor for the decades women have spent being counseled not to act too angry or "shrill." Captain Marvel -- and any female character, for that matter -- would have been better served by a film that actually examined what it is about little moments like these that rankles so much: Why it's inappropriate and invasive for a man to tell a woman how to act, why the optics of a man telling a woman how to control her emotions are coded in centuries of misogynistic disdain for the female mind. In 2019, it's not enough to just check the boxes anymore.
One could certainly argue that it's not fair to put the burden of our hopes and dreams on these movies, that just doing so is sexist in and of itself, considering that holding women to an impossibly high standard is just as troublesome as considering them less than human. But the fact remains that, because of decades of male-led stories being the norm, these female-fronted films are the first in their class, and are going to be scrutinized to an unrealistic degree. And when they fail to deliver, fans and haters are forced into unfair conclusions about just how popular a female-led film could ever be. They have the misfortune to shoulder the full weight of our expectations, and they should.
Their creators have the misfortune of being fully aware of this as well, and trying much too hard to infuse their film with a perfect, glittering message of female empowerment. The thing is, though, that transparently trying so extremely hard to make a feminist film about "powerful women" -- for example, having a climactic fight scene set to a booming rendition of No Doubt's "I'm Just a Girl" -- comes off as talking down to the very demographic these films are supposed to support. There are some great moments in Captain Marvel, like a scene post-battle where Carol Danvers tells a major character, "I have nothing to prove to you," but they fall flat when everything else in the movie feels so rote. We ought to be able to make a genre movie about a woman and about womanhood without that very compulsion hamstringing the entire effort. We ARE able to do that. Contact exists! So does Arrival! So does this little indie called Alien, ever heard of it? None of these films have that gooey "yas kween" posturing that the female-led blockbusters of today do their best to wallow in, and they're so much better for it. Ellie, Louise, and Ripley are treated simply as human beings -- fallible, ambitious, complicated -- and not as aspirational girl power figureheads that strip their characters of all their complexities.
It's also worth taking stock of the fact that most of these films are led by and branded with a very specific kind of white feminism that can be immediately alienating to "othered" groups. Captain Marvel, Ghostbusters, Atomic Blonde, and -- for all its intersectionality -- Ocean's Eight are led by white women, and their back-patting "you go, girl" messages of empowerment are more "digestible," in the minds of studio execs, because of how milquetoast they are. There is a fleeting, low-stakes effortlessness to the messages of these movies -- "take charge," "be loud," "punch your enemies with your laser fists" -- and the breezy ways in which their protagonists exemplify those messages just isn't the norm for any woman of color.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule -- the Hailee Steinfeld-led Bumblebee was one of the best movies of 2018, and Daisy Ridley's Rey has almost singlehandedly marshaled forth a new generation of Star Wars fans. Neither is it anti-feminist to enjoy Captain Marvel, or Ocean's Eight, or even the Ghostbusters reboot. If any one of these gives a bunch of little girls a new Halloween costume to try, or a new hero to look up to, that ought to be celebrated. But it also shouldn't be considered "anti-feminist" to criticize these movies for being "flawed" or "just fine," either, or to get frustrated when we see the same formula repeated over and over when we have seen all of these filmmakers and studios do so much better. Whether it's either feminist or anti-feminist to support or criticize a movie like this is a ridiculous debate that only exists because there are barely any to choose from, so supporting a big movie led by a woman practically feels mandatory. And yet, Hollywood has yet to give us a female-led superhero blockbuster film we can truly be proud of. We've come too far to accept the bare minimum anymore.