This week Entertainment Weekly released an issue celebrating the twentieth anniversary of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a cult hit that launched the career of Joss Whedon, a writer and director who in the late ‘90s rivaled George Lucas as the household name in nerd culture.
“Buffy’s” success defied television patterns at the time, particularly in how it framed its female-heavy cast, who were smart, strong, resourceful, and funny. Even more than that, they felt genuine. “Buffy” gave the world a cast of female characters portrayed with care and authenticity. Remember, this was two decades ago, when representation and equality in entertainment was yet to be even a blip on the radar of mainstream culture.
Whedon’s penchant for creating strong female characters has been a hallmark of his career ever since, so you’d think him directing an adaptation of DC’s “Batgirl,” not to mention Whedon’s directorship of the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time, “The Avengers,” would be a match made in heaven.
Well, if you think that, you’re wrong. If you care to peruse Twitter or Mary Sue (or any other “news and culture” site) you’ll find a good amount of people upset over Whedon’s hire as “Batgirl” director, citing his sex and, alarmingly, his status as a feminist. Again, this ignores the fact that Whedon created not only “Buffy,” but also “Dollhouse” and “Firefly,” which all featured strong female leads.
Whedon has also been an over-the-top flack for progressive causes, including Hillary Clinton. Even so, his indulgence payments to the church of secular progressivism are not enough for the angry Internet social-justice-warrior activists. Yet the outraged have foolishly pinned their cultural expectations on a movie genre that isn’t designed to tell the deeply personal stories about identity they’re looking for. Superhero flicks are all about broad-based entertainment.
Superhero Movies Aim to Go Blockbuster
The superhero movie is just a hero’s journey. That’s pretty much it. Every Marvel movie follows a simple template with a few different variables plugged in, creating broad-form entertainment. It’s not a cultural meditation or about anything deeper than “this character who was wronged became a hero and started beating bad people up.”
Based on box office tallies, this structure undeniably works, and there’s nothing wrong with it as a business model. Studios like Marvel and Disney make movies to entertain and bring in money by the cargo-ship-load, and it works like a charm.
Here’s the thing: The structure of these stories, and of the businesses that finance them, are meant to appeal to as broad an audience as possible (see: cargo ships of money). Everything beyond their tried and true formula, and some high-octane action pieces, drops far down the depth chart of priorities. These movies are ad-libs that plug in a few different riffs here and there to keep the system familiar and sorta fresh at the same time.
Take what is arguably the peak example of the genre, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. These are not culture-specific stories, but broad tales about good versus evil and how society copes and reacts to it. There are no specific cultural touchpoints to relate to because that’s not what they’re about.
Bruce Wayne himself has no real heritage beyond what’s necessary for plot. He’s rich, his parents are dead. He had a weird encounter with bats. Is Bruce Wayne religious? Vegan? Doesn’t matter. He inherited a company and watched his parents bleed out in an alleyway, used their fortune to train himself to fight crime, and dresses up as a bat to do so. His story is not a personal one.
Superhero Directors Are Hired to Play the Hits
Marvel’s heroes tend to be more specific New York stereotypes, but rarely rise beyond stereotypes. Iron Man and Iron Fist are the same character: rich dudes who have a life-altering experience that leads them to become heroes. One goes with machines, one with martial arts. Both have “Iron” in the name.
A Bronx Tale will never come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’ll be no Joy Luck Club, no Boyz in the Hood. Those types of movies require a specificity that the superhero genre isn’t meant to support. So it isn’t any wonder that Ava DuVernay pretty much had carte blanche to make a superhero flick, yet turned it down. She likely saw how stifled her unique point of view would be in the confines of the superhero genre, and wisely walked away.
The question of who directs what superhero movie is moot, at least in terms of content and what you’ll see on the screen. These are work-for-hire, multi-million-dollar productions that need to appeal to the widest possible audience. Activists were initially excited that a woman is directing the new Wonder Woman movie, then turned once they found out Wonder Woman shaves her armpits, a complaint that completely misses the purpose of the genre.
Let’s all repeat it, now: Broad. Entertainment. A Wonder Woman movie will never be a feminist manifesto, because that’s not how the superhero movie functions. It’s great for representation and equality that Patty Jenkins is directing the movie, but those expecting a feminist manifesto will be disappointed. Wonder Woman will undoubtedly be closer to Man of Steel than to Thelma and Louise.
Again, Warner Bros. isn’t hiring Jenkins to tell a personal tale like “Moonlight,” a wonderful movie from a black director that explores being black and gay. Although it won an Oscar, no one saw it, and that’s not what Warner Brothers wants for “Wonder Woman.” They’re hiring Jenkins to play the hits, and the hits require a certain kind of story. Broad. General. Lots of ‘splosions.
Superheroes Won’t Front for Narrow Identity Interests
The identity of those behind and in front of the camera for a superhero movie are irrelevant to the production and the content, because these are not designed to be personal stories. This past year’s Oscars showcased a variety of movies that featured very specific cultural stories. “Moonlight” was a far more specific and representational piece of art than any superhero movie will ever be able to achieve.
Plenty of media outlets today are telling stories about a wide and diverse range of characters. Those who demand that superhero movies become a venue for telling stories about the experiences of very specific types of people put the genre on a pedestal it will never fit. Swapping out one face for another in the superhero genre will never actual show real representation because the stories won’t change.
The focus on superhero movies for the SJW cause shows a lack of understanding of what diversity and representation means. Swapping out the little things is a meaningless exercise, such as throwing a line into Power Rangers that implies the Yellow Ranger is a lesbian. That’s not representation, as it tells nothing of her experience. Empowering artists like “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, who tell stories about people with different experiences, is the only way real diversity of stories will happen. Otherwise it’s simply about swapping out a face.