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.