Whilst spending the week of San Diego Comic-Con at home in Lincoln observing the festivities enviously online, I read the news from the Marvel panel about the new X-Men movie Days Of Future Past and wished even more that I had been there.
I was looking forward to this movie for many reasons; I was happy that Bryan Singer would be back as director, I was pleased it would be including characters from the original trilogy as well as First Class, but mainly I was happy that Ellen Page would be reprising her role as Kitty Pryde and from the title of the movie, it looked like she’d be driving the plot. Full disclosure: I haven’t read many X-Men comics. I’m reading the new all female series, I’ve dabbled in X-Men Noir and the Civil War event and I plan on reading Joss Whedon’s run once I can afford the omnibuses. I’m not well versed in the comic lore but I do make a point to read about the comics’ canon before I watch the movies based on it. So, after the announcement of Days of Future Past as the title of new X-Men movie I did some research and was really happy with what I saw. In the comics Days of Future Past features Kitty Pryde going back in time to warn the X-Men of the Sentinel ruled future so they can manipulate the past and therefore stop the future from happening the way it did. This arc was hugely popular with readers, it seems largely down to the heavily featured fan favourite Kitty Pryde.
The news of this arc being the focus of the new movie was brilliant. Not only would the plot be focused around Kitty Pryde – a character universally loved – but this would be the first superhero movie in recent times to feature a female character in a starring role. Of course X-Men is an ensemble series and has always featured female characters in its films. However, despite the fact that the first film included Rogue, Storm and Jean Grey the events of the plot were inarguably centred around Wolverine. X2 similarly focused on Wolverine as the main hero and his journey to uncover his past, and X-Men: The Last Stand managed again to keep focus on Wolverine and his relationship with Jean Grey despite its overabundance of characters. Every X-Men movie so far has featured a male character who drives the plot along, ending up becoming the lead and leaving the others in the ensemble as back up. X-Men First Class was similarly about the two male leads Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, their friendship turned rivalry and subsequent development into Professor X and Magneto. This isn’t even including the two Wolverine spin off movies; X-Men Origins: Wolverine and this summer’s The Wolverine. If we count those films as part of the X-Men umbrella, Wolverine has five movies where he is either the star or the main focus of an ensemble film, he even stole focus with his brief one line cameo in First Class. So, considering the last female fronted superhero film released was 2005’s Elektra – itself a spin off featuring Daredevil’s love interest in a starring role rather than an original concept – and all the previous X-Men movies revolved around male characters, it was way past time we had an X-Men movie whose plot was driven by a woman. So I was pretty psyched for Days of Future Past a superhero movie with a female lead played by all round badass Ellen Page.
And then SDCC happened and all my hopes and dreams were crushed. You see, having announced that the new film would be adapted from the Days of Future Past arc and let all of Kitty Pryde’s fans believe that she would lead the film, the producers revealed at their hotly anticipated panel that it would in fact be Wolverine who goes back in time in the movie not Kitty. So, Fox/Marvel decided that five films weren’t enough for Wolverine despite the fact that his last two solo efforts bombed both critically and at the box office. The next X-Men movie will be just another male fronted superhero movie. I wouldn’t be quite so pissed off if the writers had chosen a canonical Wolverine arc to adapt. I would have been disappointed, I would have sighed in dismay at the unoriginality and the perpetuation of the cinematic boys club which seems especially prevalent in superhero films, and I probably wouldn’t have seen the movie. However I wouldn’t have been angry. My anger stems from the fact that not only did Fox/Marvel decide to give Wolverine another movie to star in, they stole the storyline from a female character in order to do it. Days Of Future Past is a fan favourite arc and its success is largely down to its focus on Kitty Pryde, another fan favourite. The movie version has taken Kitty’s story and erased her from it, giving the starring role to a male character instead and relegating her to the helper role in his hero story. In the comics it is Wolverine who helps Kitty Pryde travel back in time. In the film these roles are reversed. Todorov’s narrative theory lists “The Helper” as a recurring character in the archetypal hero story. The Helper gives the Hero something they need to succeed in their quest, furthering their development into a hero and helping them achieve their goals. In the comics Kitty Pryde is the hero, going on her journey to save the world. She is helped by Wolverine who assumes this lesser role in order to further her arc. It seems the people behind the film version of Days of Future Past just couldn’t handle a female hero story, so demoted Kitty Pryde out of her own story and gave it to Wolverine instead.
This action speaks volumes about how women are seen by the film industry and, specifically by the superhero film industry. To them we exist as plot points, as side characters to inspire or aid the male hero. We are love interests or sexual objects, we are evil temptresses or damsels in distress. In best case scenarios we are back up, the sidekicks or the people fighting in the background whilst the male hero takes out the main villain and completes his hero journey, usually ending in a kiss of victory from the cardboard cutout female love interest. We are not the heroes, we do not propel the story, we are passive, not active. Things happen to and around women, we do not make things happen ourselves. We do not save the world, we are only there to fuck the men who do.
Even in the last two female superhero movies we’ve seen in the past decade, the main characters have fit these stereotypes. Elektra was Daredevil’s love interest who he tried and failed to save, making him even more determined to defeat both Bullseye and The Kingpin. Her solo movie centred around her crisis of conscience when her job as an assassin after her resurrection requires her to kill a teenage girl. Her womanly maternal instincts take over and she decides to protect the girl instead, then falling in love with her father and becoming a protective mama bear figure and renouncing her former ways. Catwoman is best known as Batman’s “evil temptress” foe turned love interest and occasional sidekick. The much maligned Halle Berry movie featured her discovering her sexuality, turning from bookish, restrained Patience Phillips into the overtly sexualised, seductive Catwoman. She then defeats a female villain – Sharon Stone playing the head of a cosmetics firm who is obsessed with youth and beauty. It seems even in superhero films where a woman is the protagonist, we are still forced into the roles the industry has set out for us.
Not only is the fact that Kitty Pryde has been ousted from her own story arc heinously misogynistic in itself, we only have to look at the character who has replaced her to see that it’s not just a lack of female heroes the industry is perpetuating, it’s the abundance of hypermasculinised ones as well. Wolverine is the epitome of the male power fantasy. He’s testosterone incarnate, a literally animalistic male who seems to only have two emotions – clichéd anti-hero brooding and angry screaming with his claws out. Every movie poster for his films shows off his muscles telling us without doubt that Wolverine=strength, and male strength at that. His claws are obvious phallic symbols and any trace of homoeroticism is denied by the inevitable arbitrary female love interest who exists solely to prove his heterosexuality/ heteronormative masculinity. Wolverine’s films are typical of the superhero movie market today as every film’s narrative seems to be an affirmation of the protagonist’s heterosexual masculinity. They almost all involve big, muscular, often bearded men fighting other big, muscular, often bearded men, blowing stuff up and saving/kissing the girl in the end. The studio’s choice to make Days of Future Past about Wolverine tells us they are happy with the way things are. It says unequivocally that superhero movies are for men, that their storylines are exclusively male power fantasies and that the female fans of such films cannot and should not have a protagonist they can relate to.
I mentioned at the start of this post that the SDCC panel where this news was announced made me want to be at Comic-con even more. I would have loved to be at that panel and to be able to ask the writers and director why they chose to give Wolverine a sixth film instead of doing something new and having a female lead. I would have loved to have seen them try to answer that question without revealing the real reason behind the decision – good old misogyny – and I would have loved to have been able to point out that this is a problem. You see, after this announcement was made I expected to see more outrage. I expected to see more people like me, angry that studios would rather take a popular female led arc and turn it into a male led film than try and make a movie with a female protagonist. I expected more. I got nothing.
I can imagine the kind of reasons the studios would give. I can imagine the bullshit they’d roll out in defence of this move, it’s the exact same crap we’ve been hearing for years. It’s the same reasons DC give for making a Superman/Batman crossover movie before giving us a Wonder Woman film. “Women don’t read comics/watch superhero films”, “Female led movies don’t do well at the box office”, “A Wonder Woman movie would be tricky to do”. It’s all lies. Women read comics, women see superhero films. We’re 51% of the population and we’re at least 50% of the comics buying, cinema going audience. Female led films do just as well as male led films at the box office, there are just a hell of a lot less of them. Studios will use films like Elektra and Catwoman as examples of how female superhero movies don’t do well. They’ll ignore films like Daredevil, Superman Returns, The Green Lantern, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3 and the two Wolverine solo efforts as just bad films, as the exception rather than the rule. Two bad female led superhero movies means all female superhero movies are bad whereas nine terrible male led superhero movies (and countless others I haven’t mentioned) are just mistakes. Non genre female fronted successes like Bridesmaids or Pitch Perfect are largely ignored as exceptions and one offs rather than as examples of how hungry female audiences are of representation. The studios will do anything other than admit that they should be making more films about women, even ignoring the success of female led films in favour of trotting out the same old clichés.
It’s the last quote about Wonder Woman though that pisses me off the most and that I think really gets to the core of why we aren’t seeing superhero movies with female protagonists. That quote is paraphrased from something a DC exec said at SDCC about why we have yet to see a Wonder Woman movie. If I remember correctly “tricky” was the exact word he used. The male executives, writers and directors of superhero films (because, yes they are almost all male) genuinely don’t know how to present a woman as a hero. They can’t imagine how a female might save the world, how a woman could fight bad guys and protect the innocent, how a male character could be the love interest instead of the hero. The thing they think would be “tricky” in making a Wonder Woman movie is essentially how they can create a female character who stands on her own, whose story doesn’t revolve around a stronger male, who isn’t there to be objectified. The men in charge of making superhero movies do not know how to create a female subject. The idea of a film where the men in the audience are asked to identify with a female hero instead of to objectify a female love interest is terrifying to them. They can’t see themselves identifying with a female protagonist so they can’t imagine any man doing so either. The studios don’t dare make a female superhero movie because they’re terrified they’ll lose the misogynistic male comics reader fanbase they imagine they have. The studios think their audience is full of MRA, fedora wearing douchebags who complain about “fake geek girls” and “getting friendzoned” and they know that asking those people to identify with a woman would horrify them. The fact is they’re wrong. That section of the superhero movie fanbase is very small and the audience they might lose in confronting that section’s misogyny would be outnumbered by the audience they would gain by offering female viewers a woman to cheer for. The studios would rather play into that kind of misogyny and alienate female viewers than challenge it and try to change the discourse.
Days of Future Past has now not only followed the trend of guy centric superhero films, it has actively chosen not to feature a female lead in her own story. I was excited not only to see Kitty Pryde head up the first female focused X-Men movie, but also to see Ellen Page be the star of the first female led superhero movie in an awfully long time. It would seem apt for Page to take on this role as she’s an outspoken feminist who has frequently spoken out against the male domination of the film industry. She recently worked with Brit Marling another actress who was so fed up with the lack of decent roles for women in Hollywood she decided to just fucking write her own and she does it damn well too. I was psyched to see a feminist in a role which would counter the overwhelmingly male trend and stand up as an example of how to write female heroes. And yeah, I was excited to see Ellen Page kick some ass. But, of course, that would have been too good to be true, and instead we have yet another X-Men movie of Wolverine being angry, yet another superhero movie perpetuating heteronormative masculinity and yet another movie with a male lead. If I had been at that SDCC panel, I would have liked to ask Ellen Page how she felt about this. I can’t imagine she was all too pleased to find out her character was being side-lined in her own story arc to make way for another male centric movie.
And so I will probably be avoiding Days of Future Past when it is released in cinemas next year. Although I usually aim to see all of Ellen Page’s movies at the cinema and I’d love to see more of Halle Berry’s Storm and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, I don’t know whether I can bring myself to give money to a film which screwed over its female audience so blatantly. I imagine I’d spend the whole film mourning what could have been if Marvel’s properties weren’t split and Joss Whedon was overseeing this film as well. I can’t see Whedon, a champion of female heroes and a noted fan of Kitty Pryde let the film demote her to a secondary helper role. Just think, we could have had a Kitty Pryde movie written, directed by and starring proud feminists leading the charge into female fronted superhero films. Instead we have this. Wolverine stealing the spotlight for the sixth time.
I can’t be the only one bored of this.