Captain Marvel marks the first female-led movie within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s a strange thing to write in 2019, especially when the MCU has been around for more than ten years, but here we are. Despite this major step, though long overdue, the film is already facing numerous hurdles and pressure to succeed. It wasn’t long ago that Wonder Woman faced the same pressure, as did Ghostbusters and other films like them. The common denominator here is they all happen to be sci-fi/fantasy films headlined by or starring women. On one hand, succeeding means opening the doors for other female-led films like these to get greenlit by Hollywood. Realistically, however, succeeding at the box office and even receiving glowing reviews from critics doesn’t make it any easier for women in the industry and while there’s a demand and an audience for these films, the double standard still exists.
The 2000s ushered in Catwoman and Elektra, two of the first examples of women finally headlining their own superhero films. While both of these films were considered failures at the box office and were largely panned by critics, “we’ve had roughly 40 major superhero movies starring men,” wrote Mashable’s Angie Han, between them and Wonder Woman. So, while films like Green Lantern, 2004’s The Punisher, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of the Vengeance got to be made (and flopped at the box office and with critics), we suffered a drought of female-driven films until 2017, when Wonder Woman hit theaters.
Even then, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot were under scrutiny over every little thing and had to answer questions about the pressure of bringing a female-led movie into the theaters, audience reactions, and whether they considered themselves feminists. Gadot was specifically body-shamed for not looking exactly like her comic book counterpart, a ridiculous and unrealistic notion. After its release, the film even faced criticism from director James Cameron, who spoke as though he was the only one who knew how to write female characters within sci-fi and that Wonder Woman was a “step back backwards.” It was an unnecessary comment and furthered the myth that there can only be one or, at the very least, one type of female lead in the genre, whereas that’s never the case for other films. It’s comments like these that make it harder for female-led films. The Hollywood elite–made up of mostly white men–act as guards to what is and isn’t, what should and shouldn’t be, without much thought of the targeted double standard they embody.
Beyond experiencing insurmountable pressure to succeed financially and receive positive reviews from critics, the odds are stacked against Captain Marvel and the like from the moment the films are announced. The all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, for example, faced vitriol for two years before its release, specifically from male fans outraged that women could also–gasp!–be Ghostbusters, too. This led to targeted sexist attacks, review-bombing campaigns, and disgusting racist comments that specifically took aim at Leslie Jones and caused her to leave Twitter for awhile. Director Jason Reitman’s recent statements didn’t help when he declared that his version of Ghostbusters would hand the reins back to the “fans,” as though women aren’t, and couldn’t be, considered “fans.” The exclusion cut deep.
Female-led films also don’t get a lot of space to exist on their own. Captain Marvel has already been compared to Wonder Woman several times over, fueling the competition between them, whether over box office numbers or a plethora of other reasons, while the same thing rarely happens with male-led movies. “Why is there pressure?” Brie Larson asked, when the inevitability of comparing her movie to Wonder Woman came up back in 2017. “I don’t understand why there’s pressure put on women as if it’s the most shocking concept ever that a woman can open a movie — it’s like, it’s kind of a tired concept.” Simply put, female-led films already have it hard and there’s no point in pitting one against the other when they aren’t the same thing.
Films with male leads can have and be anything they want without worrying about facing the same criticism, the fan rage, or even being compared to other male characters. After all, Thor, Batman, Iron Man, and Superman all get to exist on their own, even though anyone can argue that their stories of heroism aren’t unique to them. Not only do films like Captain Marvel face every kind of hardship before hitting theaters, but internet trolls–which include racists, sexists, and every other bottom-dwelling human–have made it even harder because their relentless hatred, comments, and attacks never cease. When the first trailer was released, several fans thought Captain Marvel needed to smile more, a phrase no one has ever uttered about Captain America and other male heroes.
Larson has also made it a point to stand and fight for more diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. This includes inclusion in the media. Larson felt the press covering her films to be largely white and male and she wanted to ensure that access was also being given to media of color, who don’t have the same opportunities and are often not granted the same access. For that alone, she’s been called out by raging fanboys, ready to take her and her film down before it even debuts onscreen. The backlash from fans even made its way over to Rotten Tomatoes, where sexists and racists created a targeted campaign that included writing negative “reviews” of the film to lower its user score and make it look bad. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, of course, Black Panther, and others have faced these kinds of attacks (take a guess as to why), but it’s gotten to the point where it’s easy to spot. Thankfully, Rotten Tomatoes has since rectified this situation, making it harder for fans to give negative reviews before a film’s release.
People have always fought against change. Somehow, audiences, critics, and artists clamoring for more inclusivity–to simply be seen in an artform that so often neglects women (especially black women and other women of color) or stereotypes them–has become a thing to be hated by those who would rather maintain the status quo. Wanting more women in front of and behind the screen has been misinterpreted as wanting to get rid of all white men instead of, I don’t know, making space for others. It’s not a hard concept to grasp and yet so many fail to do so.
Captain Marvel marks a first for the MCU, but the true tragedy is that the film has and will continue to fight a battle of hardship and double standards. Any perceived flaw will look like a failure in the eyes of sexists, even when they’ve surely given lesser Marvel films the benefit of the doubt simply because they were about men. Despite the struggles these films face, Captain Marvel and the female-led movies that have come before it, will continue to pave the way for the genre in the hopes that, one day, they won’t be considered one-offs and will be normalized enough to be on a level playing field in the industry.