Thursday, July 26, 2012

the superhero girlfriends rise

A detail that will certainly be lost on those who dislike superhero movies is also a detail that has not been much noted in reviews of either The Amazing Spiderman or The Dark Knight Rises.

These guys would literally be dead without their girlfriends.

If you've seen The Amazing Spiderman then you know that if Gwen Stacy didn't already know Peter was Spiderman she wouldn't be in a position to come to his aid in his fights with the Lizard.  She's the one who puts together the antidote to Dr. Connor's mutagen that restores Connor's back to his humanity, missing arm and all.

If Selina Kyle had not burst in on the Batpod and gunned down Bane then Bruce would have died having been stabbed and unceremoniously beaten to death by Bane.

So, yes folks, this summer's superheroes literally would be dead without the intervention of their respective girlfriends.  Let's face it, we all know Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle have been considered made for each other.  DC comics would never let an actual marriage stick between those two in the comics (not that there can't be or haven't been tasteless torrid moments on rooftops, I hear).  Nolan has been given enough creative freedom by Warner Brothers and DC comics that he's been allowed to do what he wants.  If you can't figure out where that goes I won't spoil it for you because you probably don't care or will plan to see the film anyway.

In the past (and I'm looking at you, Sam Raimi Spiderman trilogy) superhero love interests tend to be useless army candy.  Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane is a girl next door and not without likable qualities but after three movies viewers begin to forget, if they ever realized it to begin with, why Mary Jane Watson was at all likable.  She also has a "kidnap me" sign on her that villains ranging from the Green Goblin to Doctor Octopus to Venom can't help but heed.

In Batman Forever the hero is presented with a "you have to choose" double bind of a similar sort to the one the Green Goblin gives Spiderman at the end of the first Spiderman film.  In both cases the hero gets to have it both ways.

What made Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight such a compelling comic book movie and crime story is that Nolan subverted the "hopeless double bind" by actually making it hopeless.  Joker lies about where Dent and Dawes are so that Dawes gets incinerated and Dent has half of his face burned off.  As Hanna Rosin noted earlier this week the Dark Knight doesn't always save his lady and that, dear readers, it what makes Nolan's Batman trilogy a benchmark for the superhero film.  After a decade or more of the superhero getting to save the girl he likes and whomever else, Nolan and Bale gave us a Bruce Wayne who completely fails.  He can't save Rachel and even his act of saving Dent is the end of Harvey Dent being able to make his own luck.

If you've seen the movie you know what happens after that.  The only way Batman is able to keep Two-Face (Dent) from killing a child is by knocking him off of a precipice.  In other words the Joker egged Dent on to a killing spree and the only way Batman could stop Dent from killing a child led to killing Dent.  Instead of the superhero having it both ways the superhero makes a series of tragic and unintentional mistakes that lead to BOTH people in the double-bind dying.  Bane thought he'd broken Bruce Wayne's back and spirit in The Dark Knight Rises but we know that what broke Bruce's spirit was seeing just how the darkness of the Joker and Two-Face emerged from within the heart of the city he loves.

Then again, Selina Kyle shows up in the city, too.  Selina gives Bruce a reason to actually get out of the house, even if it's because she steals Martha Wayne's pearl necklace. I'll try to spare you yet more spoilers about a movie that just came out.

The new Spiderman reboot may be considered cliche but here, too, I would suggest that in this summer's blockbuster superhero movies the love interests are actually interesting.  Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle and Emma Stones Gwen Stacy are both fantastic, equals to the costumed crimefighters they associate with.  As science goes Gwen is Peter's superior.  When Peter Parker sneaks in to Oscorp to try to meet with Dr. Connors Gwen identifies him as one of his schools best and brightest, second in his class.  Parker's bewilderment at being just second is palpable.  He even blurts out "second?"  Gwen whisper, "Yeah."

"Are you sure?"
"I'm pretty sure."

Because Gwen and not Peter is Dr. Connor's assistant at Oscorp we've already been SHOWN who the best and brightest science student at Parker's high school is, Gwen.  She's also, unlike Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, able to figure out quickly that Parker is Spiderman.  From a scripting perspective this makes more sense then getting through two whole movies to have MJ say "Somehow I think I always knew".  Somehow we think she could have telegraphed that in some way earlier in the story.  I still enjoy the first two Raimi films but where Parker's prospective girlfriend goes MJ needed some improvement.

We're sufficiently into the 21st century now that superheroes should have girlfriends where it makes sense what we would like about them.  Mary Jane Watson doesn't have that in the films and only die-hard pre-committed Spiderman fans would get why anyone might like her in the comics.

I disrespectfully submit that what is needed for Spiderman is not a slavish devotion to 1960s era gender tropes as applied by Stan Lee.  In Spiderman comics he wrote three kinds of women: 1) weepy clingers 2) vapid party girls and 3) worried old biddies.  We can do better than that.  Gwen Stacy in the first few issues in which she appears had the promise of being something else.  That didn't come to pass.  Gwen became a weepy clinger who cried about Parker all the time.  Mary Jane saying "Go get `em, tiger." is not entirely different.  Seeing as we live in the 21st century now and Spiderman's at the half-century point or so, DON'T hew too closely to the comics.  Do something better, keep giving us a Gwen Stacy that ISN'T too true to the source material.  For crying out loud you don't get Emma Stone for the role and then do exactly what Stan Lee and company did with Gwen!  Seriously, Stone deserves to do something.  Fortunately in Webb's Spiderman film Gwen does get to do a few things.

And fortunately for Nolan's Batman trilogy we get a Selina Kyle who works very well and makes perfect sense within Nolan's Gotham.  Here's something fanboys may fail to grasp about Selina Kyle--Catwoman is sexy but incidentally so. She happens to be gorgeous and glamorous but her real defining traits are that she's fast, smart, and resourceful enough to never actually get caught by Batman.  Batman can identify her and figure out what she's doing but she eludes him when the time comes to turn her in.  That's what happens in the film.  Catwoman's sexiness should not derive from black leather or fetish gear or having some particular "sexy" look, it should derive from her being Bruce's equal.  Early in The Dark Knight Rises Bruce remarks on Selina Kyle's skill as a thief. Alfred jokes that perhaps Bruce and Selina Kyle should compare notes on her brilliant thievery over coffee.  Bruce sighs and asks, "Alfred, you're really trying to set me up with a jewel thief?"  Alfred replies, "I'd set you up with a chimpanzee if it got you out of the house."  Selina's good enough of a thief that Bruce Wayne does get out of the house and the rest, well, I'm going to suppose you've seen the movie already or that if you haven't you don't want too many spoilers just yet.

All that is to say that in 2012 we finally got superhero movies where the girlfriends are fun, sexy but more importantly DO SOMETHING. In the past superheroes had to save their girlfriends all the time and this year we got the girlfriends saving their superhero boyfriends from certain death by doing things the guys weren't able to do. This doesn't make Batman or Spiderman less heroic, it just means that 21st century versions of these characters ini movies are humble enough to admit they need help.  Batman can admit he doesn't stand a chance against the League of Shadows by himself but he'll still tell Selina "With your help I might".


RosieP said...

In the past (and I'm looking at you, Sam Raimi Spiderman trilogy) superhero love interests tend to be useless army candy. Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane is a girl next door and not without likable qualities but after three movies viewers begin to forget, if they ever realized it to begin with, why Mary Jane Watson was at all likable.

Actually, Mary Jane saved Spider-Man's ass in one scene from "SPIDER-MAN 3". Although she didn't harm Venom that much, her actions saved Spidey's life.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

ah, I forgot about that. GOod point.

Though, still, doesn't MJ get kidnapped in every single movie?

And now that I'm thinking about it Agent Carter in Captain America plays an important role in getting Cap to his battle with the Red Skull. So the conventions of the genre have been more flexible in the last ten years than I remembered them being when I wrote the post.