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Who saves the world?: Expectations for Female Superheroes

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's critical analysis of female superheroes.

Image credit: Comic Basics

There’s a certain suspension of disbelief that we reserve for superheroes. We accept that they can fly, read minds, shape-shift, use magic, have super strength or bend the very fabric of our reality. We accept that an interplanetary battle seems just as possible as them fighting their local villain. Nonetheless, if there is a risk that a hero may go beyond our limits of accepted fictional realities, it is often mitigated by grounding the story in a set time period.

Wonder Woman is set in 1918. Agent Carter is set in the 1940s. WandaVision travels from the 1950s to the present. Wonder Woman 1984 is set in, well, 1984. Captain Marvel is set mostly in the 1990s. Even, the upcoming Black Widow prequel movie is set in her own past as she reckons with her life before becoming an Avenger.  

This could just be a coincidence, or it could reflect a shift in expectations as to what is expected of  female-led superhero productions. Timelines are important for superheroes as backstories chart their path from origin, to current predicament and into the future, allowing audiences to connect characters and stories across franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or the DC Extended Universe. Male-led superhero films that have been set in the past tend to use this as a method by which to develop the backstory of the character before ending up in the present where they face contemporary issues, whilst many heroes in female-led productions have not reached the present, or at least not yet. Whilst there are a variety of possible reasons for this kind of decision, the time period of the film, nevertheless, controls the kind of stories that can be told.

By moving through a number of decades between the 1950s and the contemporary present, WandaVision as a series, as with Wanda as a hero, manages to escape many of the limitations of female heroes of the past. Whilst Wanda’s initial use of her powers in earlier episodes seems reminiscent of the kinds of magic in sitcoms like I Dream of Jeanie and Bewitched, the development of Wanda’s power culminates in her battle with Agatha and her identification as the Scarlet Witch. The change in her costuming throughout the series, particularly evident in the change from the Scarlet Witch Halloween costume to the Scarlet Witch suit in the finale, expresses this process of transformation as she is styled to match the decade of the episode, which ultimately demonstrates the expectations and understandings of the time period. It seems that even superpowers can’t save you from normative gender roles. 

As much as WandaVision seeks to allow Wanda to grow, her hero experience is still shaped by the norms of domesticity, intertwined with the sitcom form and their story arc which essentially begins and ends in the home. Domesticity in superhero films is not inherently bad. The inclusion of the domestic experience in male-led superhero films created occasions like the “I love you 3000” moment between Iron Man and his daughter, and Hawkeye spending time with his family on the farm in Avengers: Endgame. In many of these stories, the male heroes are permitted to have both domestic ties and their powers, often moving from one sphere to another as needed. In female-led stories, many of the plots centre on the heroes needing to choose between their home life or their life as a superhero. For Wanda, she is forced to make a choice between using her powers to stay with her family, or essentially lose her family to stop her powers from harming others. For Wonder Woman, she can’t save the world without losing Steve. For Captain Marvel, she must choose between reuniting with her friend and her past or saving the world.

Even the limited time that female superheroes spend in the present doesn’t free female superheroes from these expectations. At one point in the series, agents Jimmy Woo, Darcy Lewis and Monica Rambeau discuss the development of Wanda’s powers. However, the assessment becomes a comparison to the powers of Captain Marvel. Elsewhere in the MCU, the somewhat infamous all female moment at the end of Avengers: Endgame felt abrupt and offered little nuance in its presentation of these female heroes, leaving audiences unsatisfied. Captain Marvel was met with considerable backlash and trolling pre-release that led to Rotten Tomatoes changing their review policies. The release of Wonder Woman had many again equating its potential success with the possibility to validate the creation of more diverse superhero films. Thus, although the overall positive reception of WandaVision suggests a positive change, there is still considerable opportunity for more nuanced and complex female-led superhero films and stories. As both Marvel and DC have more future female-led superhero stories planned in the near future, we will see if 2021 is the time for the female superhero to finally get her chance. 

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