IS MARVEL’S SEXY SPY/ASSASSIN TROPE A PROBLEM?

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Like all of nerdom I’ve been excited about the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. (2015). I’ve been watching super hero movies from the early 2000s –back when Raimi’s Spider-Man movies ruled the world- and a trend leapt out at me. I’m not sure what to do with it and, interestingly, it’s a trend that’s become a backbone of the MCU:

Marvel’s breakout female characters are ALL Sexy Spy/Assassins.

THE EVIDENCE:

Sure, the Marvel-franchise movies and the MCU (The Marvel Cinematic Universe. Movies specifically produced by Marvel to be part of a shared film continuity, for those who don’t know) have a wide variety of female characters, none more varied perhaps than in the X-Men franchise, but the high-profile characters? The ones that garner cult followings and become screen favorites? All Sexy Spy-Assassins.

-After the 2000s X-Men movies, Mystique, a shapeshifter known for infiltration, assassination, and sabotage, reached infamy and got her own comics series. She couldn’t do this in the movies without being nude, and for becoming other various sexualized women. This fan interest resurged after her appearance in X-Men: First Class (2011), when her portraying actress, Jennifer Lawrence came into the height of her popularity.

-With her Alias (2001- 2006) fame and Daredevil’s (2003) modest success at the box office, Jennifer Garner got to reprise her role as the unrequited lover and resurrected assassin Elektra in the 2004 movie of the same name. During the 2000s, she Marvel comics’ most popular female character. Daredevil (2003) kept her in a low-cut top and the theatrical version included her in a gratuitous sex scene.

-Black Widow got popular after her appearance in Iron Man 2 (2010) as the titular character’s sexpot secretary and undercover secret agent. Her popularity reached a fever pitch after her role in Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) and only increased after her appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). She is set to be the core of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and now has a dedicated monthly comic series. She was introduced in Iron Man 2 as a sex object whose combat prowess was shocking and her first scene in Avengers featured her tied to a chair in lingerie.

-Agent Peggy Carter was the internet’s big takeaway from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), in which she served as Captain America’s tough as nails commanding officer and lover. Her popularity launched the spin-off miniseries Agent Carter (2015), where she worked for a homeland security agency, investigating a massive attack happening right under her noses. She was a ranking officer who wished to be taken serious. The pilot episode had her go undercover as a busty blonde bombshell and use the old knockout lipstick cliché.

While they’re far less popular, we should also mention…

X-Men: First Class‘ Moira Taggart is a top CIA agent who finds herself entrenched in the secret world of mutantkind. Mere moments after her introduction, she strips down to her bra and panties to infiltrate a New Vegas Club.

-Sharon Carter is Captain America’s attractive blonde neighbor in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, who is revealed to be an agent of SHIELD tasked with monitoring and flirting with him.

-Mariah Hill, an agent of SHIELD, and appearing in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and poised to appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is a prominent member of SHIELD from the comics, but an as-of-now minor character in the MCU. While she’s not been sexualized, the internet seems to like her, probably because her actress, Cobie Smulders, was big on How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)

-Gamora is an assassin and primary team member of the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Despite apparently being among the most lethal assassins in the galaxy, the camera lingers on her ass during Star-Lord’s joke about his sexual exploits, and Drax calls her a whore. Strange, considering that Drax is a literalist and that Gamora’s shown no outward sexual tendencies around him. She’ll soon receive her own dedicated comic series.

-Agent May on Agents of SHIELD, team mom and stone cold assassin, was largely considered the best and most interesting character of the first season. She’s not been extensively sexualized.

-Dottie was the alias of one of Agent Carter‘s primary antagonist, who was a nameless Russian spy/assassin who used the guise of a naive, simple woman to complete her missions.

CLARIFICATION:

Being a sex-positive feminist, I’ve got absolutely no problem with empowerment in all the forms it can take, and that includes women kicking ass. As far as I’m considered, a person is allowed to identify in any manner they choose and to live the life they see fit.

Similarly, I’m not criticizing any of these female characters, nor the movies in which they appear. I recognize that in a few cases, their sexualization is intended to be deconstructive of preconceptions or to address the prevailing sexism of their generation (Looking right at you, Agent Peggy Carter).

In broad terms, there is NOTHING wrong with any of these characters. All I’m doing is identifying trends.

Sure, there are similar trends among the other Marvel movies. Female side characters tend to be Romantic Science-Savy Assistants (Jean Grey in the X-Men franchise; Karen in Blade; Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman in the Fantastic Four franchise; Betty Ross in the Hulk franchise; Pepper Potts in the Iron Man franchise; Jane Forester AND Darcy Lewis in the Thor franchise; and soon Hope Van Dyne in Ant-Man). This is another form of limited representation. Sure, it can be empowering, but it’s an issue typical of a patriarchal-focused cinema. These women are meant only to aid in the man’s journey. To support the journey, not share in it.

Anyway, it’s just strange that in a host of movies by the same parent comic book company, all playing to different genre, scale, tone, structure, and with no limit to who could have what powers and abilities, there’s such a limited range of representation.

It’s cool. She got to briefly wear clothes in X-Men: First Class.

ORIGINS?

In the broadest possible terms, I think it boils down to the sexy/dangerous dichotomy dating back to the Femme Fatale trope in Noir fiction. The idea is that stalwart men can only be undone by their sexuality and that women with questionable morals knowingly exploit that. Regardless of the characterization, the codification is that sex is a weapon and that female sexuality is inherently dangerous and deceitful.

Contrast this with male spy/assassins. The key assets of a tropic female spy/assassin are sexuality and misdirection; for a male spy/assassin, violence and domination. James Bond is a whole ‘nother conversation about sexual politics.

The Femme Fatale is an old and storied trope throughout cinematic history, and seemingly a comfort zone for shorthanding powerful/villainous female characters.

It’s interesting to note that apart from Mystique, few of Marvel’s Sexy Spy/Assassins aren’t villainous Femme Fatales. Either they’re ‘good guys’ or willing to side with the heroes to advance their own agenda (even Mystique, as the X-series continues!). There’s an argument to be made that this just makes them glorified support characters in a man’s story. You could counter by stating that the story’s not about them, but seriously, why can’t it be equally their story? The ‘buddy cop’ formula in films like Lethal Weapon (1987), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), etc. works WONDERS for dual protagonists.

BUT WHY IN MARVEL?

It’s an incredibly complicated question. Mystique gained popularity from X-franchise because she’s consistently been THE most interesting female character. Sure, Storm and Jean Grey are great characters, but their movie portrayals have been vanilla, especially juxtaposed to Mystique taunting opponents with their preconceptions, her struggle for equality, and weaponizing her sexuality. Unlike Rogue, who wishes to erase her identity, Mystique fights for her identity to be accepted.

Spider-Man’s (2002) Mary Jane was just “protagonist’s girlfriend,” allowing Elektra to take off in Daredevil. She wasn’t fantastically portrayed, but she didn’t need to be; she needed to be a “Kickass Female Character” (another interesting trope) for an audience dying to see their gender as more than side characters.

After that, it’s hard to say if the proliferation of these kinds of characters is coincidental, spurred by audience reactions, or because outside of teams, Marvel has few female heroes not based on male heroes.

BUT IS IT A PROBLEM?

Hard to say. Women are at least getting SOME representation by strong characters, but as sidekicks, lovers, victims, and sometimes outright objects.

Yes, Black Widow’s about-face in Iron Man 2 and in the Avengers is intended to be deconstructive of objectification and power dynamics, but both movies utilize it in a way that’s shocking for the audience and surrounding characters. Iron Man 2 flat objectifies her. It feels very “I can play with the boys too!” instead of her character just being capable in her environment like Peggy Carter in Captain America and in Agent Carter. It’s the difference of suggesting that superheroing is a boy’s stage where women may be allowed to enter and superheroing just being a stage.

Similarly, it’s weird that the idea of a female-led superhero movie is risky move. It’s like saying that 30-something white male is tabula rasa and that anything else is exotic. That’s an issue endemic to modern blockbuster cinema and to comic books and it IS deeply, DEEPLY problematic and limiting.

Ultimately, Marvel’s Sexy Spy/Assassins and their situations are constructed by their writing teams. None of these characters have to express their sexuality in such on-the-nose ways. Seriously, Mystique is nude throughout the X-movies. Hell, Winter Soldier was the first movie in three appearances to prove that Black Widow didn’t need skimpy outfits to be an unstoppable undercover agent.

Things like this can make it feel like the Sexy Spy-Assassin is a popular trope because it allows women to feel empowered in a way that gratifies and appeals to the heterosexual male ego. That because she’s a deliberately sexualized side-character, she doesn’t have to be taken as seriously. That in many ways, no matter how much she’s characterized… She’s still an object in the eyes of the audience.

SO WHAT WOULD I DO?

I applaud the X-Men franchise for showing a wide range of female characters and abilities and question why the MCU can’t match it. The widespread success of The Hunger Games, Maleficent, and Frozen shows that audiences are starving for relatable female characters. There’s no legitimate reason why a female-lead movie couldn’t have been made.

So how about some elevator pitches?

America would go nuts for Captain Marvel, a gutsy soldier from the Midwest, who learns to lead with her newfound cosmic powers –even when they make her the target of an alien assault.

Why not Ms. Marvel? A Muslim girl from Jersey struggles with her identity when becoming an Inhuman and fighting monstrous bad guys makes that even harder. She’s so popular, that images of her are being used to counter Islamophobia.

Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver could’ve had a great story about rival siblings on the run from superpowered mad scientists.

How about a Thunderbolts movie, about a pack of criminals masquerading as Avengers-ripoffs superheroes and lead by the cunning Songbird, who’s out of her element when she has to lead them in a death-defying mission to save the country?

Ant-Man could’ve been The Wasp, about a plucky size-changing thief and her misadventure to redemption and greatness!

Seriously. Space Grim Reaper.

Guardians of the Galaxy has a myriad of fascinating female characters like Mantis, a martial artist who can predict the future; Phyla-Vell, Space Grim Reaper; Starhawk, a transsexual Superman; Moondragon, a psychic were-dragon; and more! What, are we saving all the cool characters for the sequel?

Hell, I STILL think that Black Widow should’ve gotten a METAL GEAR SOLID-inspired movie.

I just don’t buy Marvel’s line that there’s a “perfect time” to release X kind of movie. Sure, we as a culture like to see certain kinds of movies at certain times of the year, and things wax and wane in popularity all the time in the cultural zeitgeist, but if you ONLY ascribe to that philosophy, you’re not creating culture; you’re following.

The movies that blow our minds? The ones we pile into the theater to see? More often than not, it’s because they were expertly-crafted stories with fantastic characters who made us feel something real, not because they happened at the precise moment in time. Those are the movies that create culture. The ones that ignite trends, fads, and imitations. They are the Star Warses, the Lords of the Rings, the Batmans, the Iron Mans, and the Avengers

Marvel is one of, if not THE foremost creator of culture in America as of 2015. Hell, they were that in 2012 when the Avengers hit theaters. They could’ve released anything and pushed any protagonist with any race or gender, any set of skills, any set of powers, and with any worldview. I’ll never say they did wrong… but perhaps they could’ve done more.

ALMOST DONE, I PROMISE

As I’ve said before, I’ve got nothing against the Sexy Spy/Assassin trope, sex-positive lifestyles, or assuming whatever identity you choose. Even calling out the Sex Spy/Assassin trend, I wouldn’t say that any of these characters are, on their own, regressive, or that sympathizing with them, reading their comics, or cosplaying them is wrong. If a character gives you comfort, good for them and good for you for finding them!

Hundreds of women have latched onto these characters and have been empowered by them. That counts for something.

It just doesn’t seem fair to me that as a straight white male, I have a variety of protagonists to identify with -a super soldier, a space Viking, a rage monster, an archer, a guy in a robot suit, and countless others- while women have to settle for the Sexy Spy/Assassin or the Romantic Science-Savy Assistant.

Our world is becoming ever more aware of its diversity. It’s about time we start making movies to reflect that. I hope that Scarlet Witch’s modern-day sorcery will capture the imaginations of Age of Ultron audiences. I’m crossing my fingers that the MCU Spider-Man will be cast black, both for what nuance that could bring to the character and so black audiences will have greater representation than “BFF of White Hero.”

Seriously, we have to wait until maybe 2017 for the Luke Cage Netflix series and until 2018 for the Black Panther movie. We really couldn’t have had one non-white Avenger?

Progress is good. It makes us better, and it makes society better. We need to start asking more of our entertainment.

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Ghost Rider Is a Fucking Badass: a Treatise.

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Ghost Rider is a fucking badass.

I could end the blog post right there. The end. Drop the mic. Walk away.

But that wouldn’t be enough, would it? Not for a character with a horrible movie reputation. Not for a character whose glory days are seemingly gone, like tail lights winking out over the black horizon. Not for a character who, despite all adversity, keeps shrieking back to the comics like a phoenix of fury, and vengeance.

Not for a character who is deeply, irrevocably, bonded to my soul.

So why is Ghost Rider such a fucking badass? Read on.

1. Ghost Rider Kicks Ass

Let’s start with the basics.

Ghost Rider once single-handedly beat the Hulk.

And the Avengers.

And the Guardians of the Galaxy.

And an X-Men/Avengers/mystical heroes team-up.

Not enough?

HOW ABOUT ONE-HIT K.O-ING MOTHERFUCKING GALACTUS?

Seriously, Ghost Rider kicked the shit out of him so hard that the Fantastic Four had to put Galactus, The Devourer of Worlds –THE SINGLE MOST POWERFUL BEING IN THE MARVEL UNIVERSE- on life support.

Think about that.

He also ruled Hell for awhile, until he got bored of it.

…and there was that time saved Heaven from renegade archangels, but he had a little help.

I think the speech balloon says it all.

2. So who is this hardcore son of a bitch?

That’s a tougher question than you’d think. Ghost Rider’s got an over-complicated a rich history, and he doesn’t make a lot of sense with the typical superhero costume/secret identity set up. Because Ghost Rider isn’t a superhero.

He’s the Spirit of Vengeance.

What that means has changed a lot over the years. Sometimes, he’s a demon forged in the fires of hell, to wreak destruction upon the world. Other times, he’s the tormented soul of an ex-slave who’s clawed beyond the grave for revenge. Still other times, he’s a flaming chainsaw-wielding robot from the future.

In the best of times, he’s a fallen angel, cloaked in flame, and obsessed with avenging the innocent. This is divine wrath incarnate, able to detect, at a glance, good from evil. He’s not a persona like Batman, but an entity entire. He overtakes the wicked on a roaring hellfire motorcycle, binds them with the cold chains of hell, and subjects them to the mental agony of all the pain they’ve ever caused in their lives.

Just ask Galactus how that feels.

Why the motorcycle? All tied to the human host.

Just like the Spirit of Vengeance itself, the human hosts have just as stupidly overcomplicated rich a history. One of the hosts was a delivery boy whose sister was gunned down before his eyes. Another was a girl who’d lived the first 18 years of her life in monastic isolation. Another still was a high schooler in East L.A.

But Johnny Blaze, circus stunt biker, is the most iconic for all the right reasons. His story could be boiled down to “sold his soul to the Devil to save someone he loved,” but the full breadth of his story is one of Shakespearean intricacy, summed up by abandonment issues and family woes, and all the conflicting emotions those bring.

And after losing everything, the Devil shackled the Spirit of Vengeance to Johnny’s soul and cast him out upon America in an endless quest for absolution. The journey rendered Johnny’s passion for the road into his darkest nightmare.

This ain’t your standard superhero story. No Spider-Man great power and great responsibility; no Iron Man imperialistic rude awakening; no X-Men perseverance and tolerance story… Just the tale of a man trying to collect the pieces of his soul before the forces driving him leave them in the dust.

3. Which of his stories rock hardest?

SO MANY. My faves, though, in no particular order…

GHOST RIDER #68 (1981), By Roger Sterns and Bob Budiansky

A super atmospheric retelling of the Johnny Blaze/Zarathos Ghost Rider’s origin story, fraught with all the Shakespearean intricacy I mentioned earlier. And the horror. Did I mention the horror?

Johnny Blaze seeks shelter from a thunderstorm in a church where, in a confessional, he reveals his long, terrifying history to a Priest, who’s panicking more and more by the second.

Why? Well…

Issue 68 of the 70s-80s Ghost Rider signaled the series’s high watermark, cresting finally with its final issue, #81. Thankfully, all of these excellent issues are collected in Essential Ghost Rider #4.

AVENGERS #214, By Jim Shooter & Bob Hall (1981)

You got the gist of this earlier, but let me break it down for you. The Zarathos Ghost Rider (the megalomaniacal evil one) decides he’s not a fan of “happy” super heroes, and proceeds to burn the souls of Angel, Captain America, and Tigra. He does the same to Iron Man by burning him through his eye-slits, and concludes this by (nearly) BEATING THOR WITH HIS OWN HAMMER.

Take that, uninteresting Asgardian!

ALL-NEW GHOST RIDER (2014), By Felipe Smith & Tradd Moore

The most unique take on Ghost Rider yet: Robbie Reyes, a high schooler and mechanic in East L.A., is killed by a cartel and resurrects as Ghost Rider, whose vehicle of choice is a 1969 Dodge Charger. A car.

My first reaction was “A CAR?! Where the hell does this comic get off?” Upon reading it, my next reaction was “Where the hell did this comic get this goddamn good?”

5 issues in, Smith & Moore aren’t screwing around, portraying Robbie Reyes as a talented student with the capacity to improve his bad neighborhood. Murdered, his resurrection sucks him into the cycle of gang violence, spurred on by Eli Morrow, the mysterious spirit who inhabits his car and fuels his Ghost Rider abilities. It’s the small details that make this comic, the greatest being Robbie’s steady change in appearance from collected high schooler to tattooed punk as Eli’s influence on him grows, not to mention the graffiti-inspired art breathing even more life into Smith’s diverse cast.

With each issue addressing the systemic societal issues in East L.A., this is a fresh, crafty, ass-kicking take on Ghost Rider.

Buy this book.

UNCANNY AVENGERS ANNUAL #1, By Rick Remender & Paul Renaud

Funny thing about Ghost Rider: Ghost Rider tends to be at his best when he’s kicking somebody’s ass. In this case, an Avengers/X-Men/Mystical heroes team up, and a race of spineless hedonists.

Probably THE best-written single issue on this list, Remender uses the X-Men villain Mojo as a proxy for coping with corporatized storytelling, for fickle fans, and for indulgent writing in a magnificent display of scathing satire and meta-narrative. This is among the greatest examples of American comics thus far this decade.

It also doesn’t hurt that Ghost Rider kicks everybody’s asses.

GHOST RIDER 1-78 By Howard Mackie, Ivan Velez Jr., Javier Saltares, Mark Texeira, and co. (1990-1996)

This is the run the epic run that got me into Ghost Rider, and outside of the Ghost Rider: Resurrected graphic novel containing issues 1-7, it’s never been re-released in a collection.

Describing this run would quickly devolve into a list of favorite issues, all revolving around the best combination of horror/action and worldbuilding in the character’s history. Understand that in its day, this wasn’t a comic, it was a REVOLUTION.

If I HAD to pick a fave? Ghost Rider #7, where he takes on a psychotic contortionist with a thing for stuffing people with hay. Alive. Makes Batman’s Scarecrow has nightmares of this guy.

Mackie’s take on Ghost Rider was so powerful and so popular that it single-handedly kickstarted Marvel’s 90s wave of horror comics; garnered its own toy line; got two cameos in concurrent Spider-Man video games; made significant appearances in the Hulk’s and the Fantastic Four’s animated series; was planned to appear in Spider-Man’s popular show; and set the visual standard for nearly all future iterations of the character.

…it also paved the way for the movies that I’d have to address sooner or later.

4. The Second One Was OK.

You Heard Me Right. Ghost Rider: Spirits of Vengeance (2011) is a better movie than anyone gave it credit for. It’s not a transcendent movie, nor even a great movie, but an OK movie.

Yeah, it’s got problems. It starred Nicholas Cage, who by that point was more meme than man; his performance was too ‘unchained’ for its own good in places; there are some odd music video-looking moments; Christopher Lambert’s character makes no sense;  the whole thing’s blanketed with a campiness not seen since Tim Burton’s Batman (1989); and everyone knew, going in, that the movie was made purely for Sony to hold onto the rights just a little longer.

Even still, this was a raw, mean little movie that was, in every way, a triumph over its predecessor. It centered on a washed up Johnny Blaze having to guard a 12 year old antichrist and his mother from his demon father who’s bent on ruling the world. It’s a tale of broken families; being haunted by bad decisions; surrogate parentage; and ultimately making the best of bad things. Strong thematic undercurrents driven by realized characters in a decent structure and with some pretty hardcore action. It’s not elegant, it’s not pretty, it’s not as smart as the Avengers (2012), but that’s not what it is. It’s lowdown, dirty, rough-around the edges, and goddamn proud to be what it is.

And it had Idris Elba, for God’s sake.

Pictured: best character in the movie.

Unfortunately, the first movie did NOT have Ibris Elba.

5. That Goddamn Movie

Cool poster. Lame movie.

Ghost Rider (2007) is an awful mess of a movie, but its heart was in the right place. I think. I’m not sure. Film Crit Hulk tweeted “ZACK SNYDER STRIKES HULK AS SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T FULLY UNDERSTAND THEIR ATTRACTIONS,” and honestly, I think the same can be said about Mark Stephen Johnson.

Ghost Rider (2007) is a fan movie. It crams as much of the character’s history and iconography as possible into two hours without regard for character, coherency, structure, pacing, or really anything else beyond cinematography. Not, “here’s a good story,” but “here’s a bunch of stuff I really like!” It displays, in every way, as shallow an understanding of its characters as Man of Steel (2013) did.

Honestly, the only beat in the movie that really works is Sam Elliot’s character revealing that he’s an ancient Ghost Rider before riding off with Cage’s Ghost Rider into the desert.

It’s a powerful beat and makes you think the movie is suddenly going to have a kickass ending, but the moment flickers out like flashpaper when Elliot’s character just gives up for no reason after this and the movie descends into one of the genre’s silliest fight scenes. Seriously. Ghost Rider and the plastic bag guy from American Beauty have a hellfire snowball fight.

…and yet, Mark Stephen Johnson’s fan film is the reason I moved out to California.

5. A Rebirth in Flames

Ghost Rider debuted on February 16th, 2007, and I’d barely recognize the teenager I’d been. At the time, I was a strict Catholic with rigid dogmatic beliefs, and I thought quaint little mid-Michigan was all I’d ever need. I was enrolled in the local community college’s creative writing program, with middling hopes of majoring in English and Creative Writing, and honestly, I had no further plans or aspirations than that. I could only see as far as tomorrow, and tomorrow didn’t look too bad, never mind that I was poignantly aware of my lonerhood.

I was a Ghost Rider fanboy, if there ever was one. I’d started my Ghost Rider comic collection in my freshman year of high school, and by my freshman year of college, it was nearly complete. I lived and breathed the character, and seemingly, everything about him fit my insular little morality and worldview.

Seriously, where else in comics could you get a story this freakin’ metal?

I woke up on February 16th, 2007 stoked out of my mind. Ghost Rider was premiering! By the same director who’d done such an awesome job on Daredevil (long before I knew anything about film criticism)! This was a director who knew what he was doing with an amazing actor (I told myself) who had a passion for the character. I gunned down to the local mall, picked up the orchestral soundtrack, and roared into the parking lot of the theater with the earliest matinee, and for the first 10 minutes, it wasn’t too bad…

…and then the whole weight of the world came crashing down on me. I didn’t want to believe it. I willed myself not to believe it. I felt like the Star Wars nerds who’d camped out for The Phantom Menace, who’d watched, in mounting horror, as all they knew proved a lie, and how, in a futile attempt to preserve their fandom, denied themselves how they really felt.

My reaction, give or take.

I brooded on it the rest of the day, all the way through my late shift at work. Even stillt, I changed into all-blacks with my favorite Ghost Rider T-shirt, before heading out to see the movie again with my friends.

“Maybe I’ll like it this time,” I told myself as the lights dimmed. “Maybe I missed something. Maybe it was just too smart for me.” But the movie was just as banal, silly, and broken as before. I can’t tell you if it was when Nicholas Cage was drinking jelly beans from a martini glass; if it was when Ghost Rider whistled (HE HAS NO LIPS!!!) for his motorcycle; or even if it was during the cringe-inducing climax, but six fateful words spilled from my lips.

“I can do better than this.”

Arrogant, huh? I knew nothing about screenwriting, so I found a website to teach me formatting. I didn’t know a damn thing about structure, tone, or themes, but goddammit, I knew Ghost Rider, I knew character, I knew pacing, and I knew fight scenes. I wrote, what was quite possibly the worst feature script ever wrought, but I was riding high on my laurels. I sent this monstrosity, complete with three monologues too many, and MASSIVE blocks of text to Nicholas Cage, along with a manifesto of how Ghost Rider should be done. The script was sent back to me, unread, containing a letter politely suggesting going through a literary agency. From there, my track was clear: I had to become a screenwriter.

That obsession drove me to the University of Michigan, to California, and ultimately to jobs in and around the industry. What’ve I got to show for it? Half a dozen scripts and shorts, a few pilots, and a novel, all in various states of rewriting. Hell, I didn’t say the road was going to be easy, but I’ve definitely grown from it.

And really, that road, literal and figurative, sums up my relationship with Ghost Rider, from my earliest interest to my current fandom. My Catholic zeal turned to religious shame as my horizons broadened and I abandoned the Church’s regressive dogma. I keep my faith, but I often look back, seeing only a monster -even if that monster had the best of intentions. In a literal sense, I’ve traded the free, open roads of Michigan that never fail to make me feel alive for the gridlock of L.A., making every drive, no matter the destination, an exercise in monotony. And yet, this only strengthens my resolve. The harder I work, the more I listen to criticism, the more I honestly appraise myself, the closer my dream appears, even if I’ve still got a long, rocky way to go. Or even if it’s the sweetest mirage.

But then, that’s Ghost Rider in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Black Widow Bites

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(This article contains major spoilers for the Avengers; minor spoilers for Captain America, Iron Man 2, and Thor; informed speculation for Captain America: the Winter Soldier; and wild speculation for Avengers: Age of Ultron)


Black Widow Crosshairs

I’m sick of the Black Widow.

Heresy, I know: talking smack about everybody’s favorite breakout character of the Avengers –the same character who looks like she’ll be kicking ass in Captain America: the Winter Soldier, and will no doubt kick even more ass in Avengers: Age of Ultron. I know, I know:

What the hell is wrong with me, right?

Let’s get a few things out of the way. First, I consider myself a feminist, and I applaud good representation of women in media. Secondly, I LOVE good storytelling, and I know my way around a script. Like, “have done script coverage for 5 years for major companies and have written several feature scripts” know my scripts. Structure and character are DEEPLY important to me. Thirdly, I enjoy me a good comic book, but if it doesn’t tell a good story, I’m out. Just that fast.

So what’s wrong with Black Widow in the Marvel movies? Nothing, beyond that Marvel seems to be handling her the wrong way.

Black Widow Captain America

1.         Shoehorning Focus

Let’s work our way backwards here, shall we? First, superherohype.com reports that the Black Widow will play a key role in Captain America 2 and in Avengers 2, and might even get her own movie. Cool stuff, huh? Looks like Scarlet Johanssen’s character is going to be a MASSIVE part of the Marvel cinematic universe. Putting aside her stand-alone movie for now, why is she “the key” parts of Captain America 2 AND Avengers 2?

It makes some sense in Captain America 2. By the looks of the trailers, it’s easy to assume that Captain America’s under terrorist attack AND has his suspicions about S.H.I.E.L.D.S.’ goals and motivations. Again in the trailers, Black Widow looks to be his mission partner, so fine: organic reason for her to be a big part of the movie, not to mention the possibility of romantic entanglement. But here’s the thing–

We can reasonably assume from Captain America’s “Winter Soldier” arc in the comics that this is (spoiler only if you follow the link) MAJORLY personal, character driven, and extremely transformative for him. This is THE story that changes his worldview, and in the movie world, will lionize him as the legendary leader of the Avengers that said movie only hinted. That’s a lot to accomplish in a movie that’s also rumored to have WWII flashbacks, the Falcon, at least two major villains, and very likely a love subplot.

It ain’t no Thor: The Dark World, that’s for damn sure.

Less is known about Avengers: Age of Ultron, but from what little we do know and can wildly speculate upon, it’s got its hands full.

First, the villain. Ultron, an omnicidal robot with daddy issues. While in the comics, Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Who-Cares-Man created Ultron, in all likelihood, the movie version will likely have been engineered by Tony Stark, or by S.H.I.E.L.D. If the former, making the Black Widow a key role in this whole thing seems like stretch. If the latter, maybe not so much, unless Captain America and Black Widow decide to quit S.H.I.E.L.D., which after the events suggested in Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s trailers, seems likely.

I mean, I’d quit if I knew I was on the same team as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yahoos.

"Wait, we're supposed to be secret agents?"

“Wait, we’re supposed to be secret agents?”

Just as Captain America’s balancing an insane amount of characters, so promises Avengers: Age of Ultron, which reportedly includes ::takes a deep breath:: Ultron, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, the Falcon, War Machine/Iron Patriot, Nick Fury, Mariah Hill, Baron Von Strucker, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Agent Coulsen showed up.

A single frame from Avengers: Age of Ultron

A single frame from Avengers: Age of Ultron

Dear GOD is that an insane amount of characters, even assuming a 2.5-3 hour run time. And the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and the Vision are deliciously complex and will require a lot of time to establish personalities and motivations.

Besides, the Black Widow already got to be “the key” character in The Avengers.

Black Widow Avengers

2.        Johanssen’s The Avengers

No, seriously, the Black Widow was the MVP of The Avengers and it wasn’t even her movie. She got the third most screen time of the main heroes, and all but stole the show, when she’s all but a glorified background character, even in the comics.

To a certain extent, that makes some sense. She’s an ass-kicking sex toy in Iron Man 2 (more on that later), so the audience knows her; she’s a perennial member of the Avengers comics; somebody’s got to put this team of superheroes together, and Nick Fury apparently had to growl at talking heads; she had the awesome gender-subverting scenes; she took on aliens without the aid of super powers; she stopped the alien-space-portal-device-thingie; and let’s face it, the team was a sausage fest up until that point.

The problem? I couldn’t care less about her as a character. Again, don’t get me wrong. For all of the above-described reasons, she’s a badass, and she’s in the movie’s most interesting scenes. However, I didn’t care about Hawkeye (whose character introduction in Thor sucked) and Black Widow because I hadn’t paid to see them. Yes, a movie is supposed to surprise me, but this is the Avengers’ story, not wannabe heroes  S.H.I.E.L.D. agents’  story. It’s flat not their story.

"How... How could you?!"

“How… How could you?!”

I know that’s harsh, but we enter the movie immediately after Captain America, where its titular character very nearly has a mental breakdown when he discovers that New York’s changed a bit since 1943. This is a guy struggling to adjust to the millennium, when he’s asked by Sam Jackson to put together a team of super-powered nuts to fight a kooky space Viking.

If that’s not a fish out of water, I don’t know what is.

From there, it’s mostly organic: Cap learns not to be so trusting of shadowy military organizations; Iron Man learns the meaning of sacrifice; Hulk learns to accept his rage; Thor continues to hit things with hammers; the Avengers themselves learn to work as a team… And Black Widow and Hawkeye give expository dialogue about their dark past. Presumably their arc is triumphing over said past, but I’m not really sure.

"Wait... You mean we could've hashed out our past in a way that was organic to the story? No wonder they didn't give us costumes."

“Or… We could just sit here. Talking. Some more.”

You see, the movie goes out of its way to tell us how important both characters are, when we’ve got no evidence of it. Evidently we’re supposed to care that a military sniper selected a bow over a rifle to maybe shoot Thor’s titular character. In The Avengers, he’s kidnapped from a S.H.I.E.L.D. installation; he stalks around the bad guy’s place; and he nearly takes down the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. Other than the aforementioned expository dialogue with Black Widow about a shadowy past, we know nothing about this guy or why some random archer is a big deal in S.H.I.E.L.D.

Assuming, for a moment, that we came into The Avengers blind, the focus on Black Widow undercuts the role of Nick Fury, whose entire mission is to put together a superhero team to stop Loki. Having Black Widow recruit key members of the Avengers in his stead, in addition to her saving/rehabilitating Hawkeye, directly deprives Nick Fury of the character arc established in the opening scenes, generic as they were.

"Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking Chitauri on this motherfucking planet!"

“Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking Chitauri on this motherfucking planet!”

To be clear about Nick Fury: HIS base was attacked; HIS men were mind-controlled; it’s HIS goal to stop the badguy; HE’S been assembling the team; and it should’ve been HIS coup de grace to stop Loki. What’s more, knowing that he’s been in nearly every Marvel movie, we can also presume that this goal is DEEPLY personal.

As such, insofar as they’re characterized, there’s no reason to care for Black Widow or Hawkeye.

After the critics got through with them.

After the critics got through with them.

3.        Iron Man 2: Missed Opportunity

Iron Man 2 shouldn’t have happened.

Don’t get me wrong, I know why it did. Narratively and financially, it played a major role in solidifying the Marvel universe after Iron Man’s runaway success. That said, it wasn’t as necessary as the Incredible Hulk or Thor for establishing key players in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was a throwaway story, and it was pretty mediocre.

Even its inclusion of Black Widow was at best, tepid. I mentioned earlier that her role in Iron Man 2 was that of a badass sex toy. She’s sexually objectified in her opening scene, but –as will become her calling card- she subverts this by beating people after they patronize her. Still, she fawns all over Stark, because this is still a male fantasy. Her character is one of inconsistencies, rubberbanding between sexual interest and disinterest, objectification and characterization, incompetence and competence so much that it’s hard to get a read on who she is beyond “WHOA! Sexy chick who kicks ass! That’s DEEP!” The “strong female character” is a common cliché, especially if there’s no character depth behind it.

Going even further, Black Widow, as handled in the movies thus far, seems a little patronizing as her entire character revolves around people underestimating her because she’s a girl, as opposed to having talents and a personality not outright dictated by her gender and appearance.

So what could’ve been done with Black Widow? What could’ve made her better than “good enough?”

Well, what if Iron Man 2 didn’t exist? What if Thor’s end -credits stinger wasn’t Nick Fury asking Dr. Selvig to study the cube, but was instead Dr. Selvig warning Fury that the cube had been recovered by a terrorist organization, only for Fury to reply…

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. We’ve got our best woman on the job.”

Black Widow Cover

4.         Damn right I would’ve made a Black Widow movie.

Cracked already beat me to it, but I would’ve made Black Widow into one hell of an espionage movie. I’m talking Casino Royale’s slick action, character, and pacing meets Metal Gear Solid’s antiwar themes and batshit crazy villains. Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, would be a one-woman infiltration machine against the millennium’s iteration of Hydra, lead by Madame Masque. She’d use her wits and wiles to sneak past and outwit Hydra’s super soldiers, and recover the Cosmic Cube before they figure out how to use it… and before a captured Hawkeye gives up its secrets. As the only person without superpowers… one wrong move, and the Black Widow’s dead. The makings of one TENSE movie.

Just like that, we’d care about Black Widow and Hawkeye just as much as the rest of the Avengers. Furthermore, their arc –which would be learning to question S.H.I.E.L.D.’s methods (perhaps they know the truth about Agent Coulsen?)- would actually matter and have weight upon the script. Further, it’d make even more sense for her to destroy the space-portal-device-thingie. Not only would she be the most-underestimated member of the Avengers, but the one who ALWAYS got shit done.

“But Sad Cyborg,” you say, “Nobody would’ve known about Black Widow going in. They wouldn’t have cared.”

Hellboy, Constantine, and Blade” I reply with a smile. “Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen,” I add, anticipating the next question about female protagonists.

The market is there and hungry. You just have to cook for them.

Black Widow Kick

5.         Too Little Too Late?

“So if all this is true,” you might challenge. “Why does everyone care so much about the Black Widow? Looks like Marvel was pretty successful.”

Again, the market was starved for a decent female superhero movie. Anything better than these turds. So what happened when we got a strong female character with great dialogue? We ate her up. Even if she wasn’t unique outside of a subversion and even if she didn’t make a lot of sense in her own universe.

If we’re looking at success and profits of The Avengers and the predicted success of Captain America: the Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, then take this for the fanboy ranting that it certainly is. I’m just not convinced that the movies crafted Black Widow well enough to merit her fandom or integral roles in other peoples’ movies. There’s a far richer and more interesting version of her character out there that we may never see.

So what about Black Widow’s solo movie I mentioned earlier? As this article wonderfully states, nobody knows but Kevin Feige, and he seems to think that she’ll have gotten plenty of exposure playing second fiddle in 3 other movies. For whatever reason, it isn’t as high a priority for Disney/Marvel as making an Ant-Man movie (the weak link of the Avengers).

Black Widow Toys

6.         So am I sick of the Black Widow?

Not exactly.

I like the idea of what she could do for the superhero genre, but her execution just didn’t impress me. It annoys me that she’s relegated to playing the token female character when she could’ve been so much more.

And that goes for all of Marvel’s female characters: their –Rogue, Storm, Jean Grey, Jubilee, the Scarlet Witch, etc.- are all stuck on teams or are sidekicks. They’re rarely, if ever, heroines in their own right.

What few stand-alone female characters Marvel has remain so much untapped potential: there’s a great kung fu movie to be had from Elektra; a detective movie to be had from Jessica Jones; a political thriller to be had from Silver Sable; a superhero movie to be had from Captain Marvel; a jungle adventure to be had from Shanna the She-Devil; a horror movie to be had from Victoria Montesi and so much more.

I grew up a Marvel fanboy, and I can claim an emotional connection to most of their characters. It’s just a shame that their tradition of forcing all their most interesting female characters onto teams or into sidekick roles has followed into their cinematic universe.

But hey, at least Hawkeye isn’t getting shoehorned into everything.

Next time: something not superhero or comic book related.

Official photos owned by Marvel, Disney, and Marvel Comics.

Avengers 2: Age of Silliness

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So here’s our first look at Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron and…

Dumbfounding even Hawkeye.

Dumbfounding even Hawkeye.

"Whoa... I didn't even, like, get a full costume?"

“Whoa… I didn’t even, like, get a full costume?”

Holy crap, they look goofy.

Yeah, I know that a guy who can run really fast and a girl who can make wishes come true who are the son of a guy who can bend metal with his mind is an inherently silly concept, but even in the context of the Avengers world, their designs just don’t make a helluva lot of sense.

For starters, check out how dissonant they are. Quicksilver seems to be in full-on wannabe superhero mode with his cyclist uniform and peroxide-dyed hair while Scarlet Witch is just an emo-goth. Even if their story is “one wants to be a superhero and one wants to be normal,” it all feels a little on the nose. Besides… They look a little more like Spike and Willow.

"Are the Avengers hiring for a nervous mage and an impotent vampire?"

“Are the Avengers hiring for a nervous witch and an impotent vampire?”

I much prefer their comic book Ultimates versions. Sure, they’re pretentious, incestuous eurotrash, but their costumes are better, they’re subcharacters, and their backstory is written off in a single page.

Digression aside…

Consider this: For us to care about these bizarre-even-in-the-context-of-their-own-world characters, you’ve got to establish who Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are, why they’re the rebellious children of a badguy, how they discover their powers & what they mean to them, and how they join the Avengers. Bear in mind that movies operate by a different set of rules than comic books. You HAVE to establish this stuff. That’s a full movie in and of itself, and that’s all being crammed into a movie containing 14 other major characters and when this is ostensibly not their story.

All of this could’ve been explained better if they’d gotten their own movie. Surely such a movie could’ve taken the place of Thor: the Dark World or Iron Man 3.

…And that’s all I got.

Next time: a rough and tumble discussion about someone else who deserved their own movie.

Black Widow Web