What’s a Critic to Do?

Reading both professional and amateur critics’ scathing reviews of the astoundingly terrible film Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice has been great fun; but sadly, many of them also demonstrate how we are all so accustomed to misogyny in superhero movies it can seem pointless to keep discussing it. All the think pieces on the Internet did nothing to stop Zack Snyder from relegating Wonder Woman to a sexy cameo, so why bother? A.O. Scott of The New York Times points out that criticism is about a conversation and not actually trying to affect a film’s success, anyway. The fact that BvS raked in the cash opening weekend is not evidence of criticism’s downfall any more than it proves the people buying the tickets are happy when they leave the theater. Scott is also correct when he points out that studio executives have always been motivated by ticket sales. But issues of diversity and gender representation, which have largely been glossed over in the BvS aftermath, are more urgent than thin plot lines and stilted dialogue.

Big budget studio flicks, especially ones like BvS, have become notorious for whitewashing and sexism. Studios are under no obligation to produce the best possible movie, just one that people will pay to see, and companies get your money whether or not you liked it. When criticism involves pointing out harmful and regressive norms in regards to gender, race, sexuality, and so on, contributing to a conversation that does not pack an immediate punch is more than frustrating. Comic book movies have been reliable blockbusters for more than a few years now, so if all our criticism still does not get us a Wonder Woman movie before 2017, what is the point? The short answer is not to give up on Hollywood standards entirely, but to remember how they are tied to a larger cultural conversation that does have power and does affect change, even if those developments are agonizingly slow.

Comic book movies are a compelling place to look for these changes, not because they are the only perpetrators of poor gender representation (they certainly are not), but because they tend to demand high- dollar Hollywood treatment. CGI does not come cheap, and even if it did, the rights to Disney- and Time Warner- owned brands like Marvel and DC certainly do not grow on trees. This is unfair to comics in that relegating them to the assembly line method of movie- making perpetuates the false notion that comics are an inherently lesser art form, but it also leaves them in the lurch when it comes to diversity. Audiences beg and plead for Black Panther and Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn and those wishes are slowly being granted in the forms of cameo appearances and supporting roles as studios test out whether it pays to go beyond white men.

When those tests go well they do eventually start to pay off, and that coveted Wonder Woman film is on its way. It is completely unreasonable that it has taken this long to happen, but it does appear that the studio is taking it seriously and making sure the story is in the appropriate hands. Warner Brothers, seemingly committed to giving Wonder Woman a female director, hired Patty Jenkins after Michelle MacLaren left the project. MacLaren cited “creative differences” as her reasons for leaving, and if we believe similar accounts from Ava DuVernay and Joss Whedon (among others) she just did not want to deal with the kind of studio meddling that comes with a big action flick. Even so, a committee can get together to make one awful camel of a plot but that does not mean it must be sexist or whitewashed at the same time. If Wonder Woman is terrible as a piece of art it still counts as meaningful representation if Jenkins can keep her heroines away from over-sexualized tropes and sticks to her word on racial diversity.

Lucky for us, the highest level of corporate film production is not all there is, and TV has been a fairly reliable place for female superheroes to get good writing and top billing. Last fall Jessica Jones burst onto the scene in a blaze of acclaim from critics and feminist commentators alike. It covered misogyny, gaslighting, PTSD, the “nice guy” mentality, rape culture, racism, and child abuse, all with impressive levels of sensitivity and attention to detail. It was not perfect but it was pretty great, and more than that it was a hit with viewers.

Jessica Jones would never have happened the way it did without a widespread demand for respectful and responsible depictions of sexual trauma to inform and inspire its showrunners. Krysten Ritter dressed in those ill fitting jeans and bulky leather jackets was a scowling beacon of hope for fans who have had enough of spandex and stiletto clad women in their superhero fare. Supergirl on CBS has not received Jessica Jones levels of uproarious praise, but it has been mostly well received if not officially renewed just yet. Both get us a few more tentative steps on the road to balanced representation.

As encouraging as these developments may be on a micro level, they only add up to comic book adaptations being mostly male instead of entirely male on a macro level. Just like #OscarsSoWhite, discussions about female representation must reach further than Hollywood’s city limits and delve into the glaring fact that many people still have very fixed ideas about what function women and minorities serve in their lives and their movies. Pop culture is an indicator of what people deem acceptable, and if it is slow to change that is a reflection on more than just the studio heads.

The fact that things have even gotten this far is because we, the viewers and commentators and critics, have made ourselves heard. Studios may only barely be listening, but that cannot mean we stop talking. Big budget corporate movies are slow to change but they are not an island unto themselves and they are not the only comic book adaptations out there. So retweet those feminist essays, show up to support the Jessica Jones’s when we do get them, and do not be afraid to keep your ticket money to yourself. Sign that petition to show DC you do not want the women of The Justice League to suffer from Zack Snyder’s directing. Even if it does not get him replaced, and it more than likely will not, you are contributing to a conversation that does benefit his more thoughtful peers.

Artistic criticism does not exist to actually affect a film’s ticket sales, but those executives are kidding themselves if they think we will all continue to pay to see white men glorified with overwrought religious symbolism ad nauseum. Even Ben Affleck knows that. Still unconvinced? Well, in perhaps the most poetic form of justice anyone could ask for, Batman vs Superman did so badly in its second weekend it broke a rather different kind of record. Long live criticism!

Cover image courtesy of Warner Bros. Productions

Chelsea_EnnenChelsea Shea Ennen double majored in Theater Studies and English at Wellesley College, and she earned her M.A. in Contemporary Literature, Theory, and Culture at King’s College London.  Her dissertation, “Entertaining the Offered Fallacy,” explored ways to create third wave feminist narratives in pop culture.  She is the fiction editor of the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal and loves to write everything from personal essays, to media criticism, to fiction.

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