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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Scarlett Johansson

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After calling Scarlett Johansson “the smartest, toughest female action star,” film reviewer Justin Craig declared: “it’s time ScarJo gets her very own Marvel franchise.” But when asked if a Black Widow film is in the works, Johansson had to fumble her way through a politic non-answer: “You know, I think it’s something that, um, again I think Marvel is is certainly, um, listening, and if, you know, working with them for several years now, you kind of see how, ah, they respond to the audience, um, demand I think for something like that.”

Marvel president Kevin Feige says it’s “possible,” but makes no promises. Meanwhile, Johansson is creating her own superwoman franchise. She literalizes her Black Widow codename by playing an actual man-eating spider in Under The Skin, and her voiceover computer operating system Samantha in Her is way way beyond anything Tony Stark could build.

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But I had my highest hopes on Luc Besson’s Lucy.

If there’s a director geared for writing and shooting a superheroine movie, it’s Besson. His 1990 Le Femme Nakita spawned an immediate Hollywood remake (though there really is no reason to see Bridget Fonda in Point of No Return) and later a Canadian-made TV series (thank you, USA Network, for keeping the French name). The Fifth Element was a bit of a mess, but an entertaining one, especially the fact that the “supreme being” is supermodel Milla Jovovich cloned from a severed hand to protect Earth from a giant black cloud of evil space death. I think magic space stones were involved too—the same plot Marvel seems to be headed toward now. And let’s not forget The Professional, Besson’s hyper-violent pedophiliac action-thriller co-starring twelve-year-old Natalie Portman (no wonder she fell for Chris Hemsworth when he and his hammer dropped out the sky in 2011).

I’m not really sure what Besson has been doing since the 90s, but it did not further hone his film-making skills. Lucy is not a good movie. But it is a superheroine movie. Lucy, like so many of her comic book counterparts, is the next leap in human evolution, one accidentally triggered by a ruthless drug cartel that continues to supply the script with shootouts and car chases. Lucy has Professor X’s mind-reading and telekinetic skills, invulnerability to pain, a cybernetic ability to interface with machines and airwaves, and the power to change her hairdo at will.  Johansson doesn’t wear an “L” on her chest (the t-shirt is cut too low), but her name does meet Peter Coogan’s requirement of “a superhero identity embodied in a codename” since Lucy, as we’re told very early, is the name of the first human being (who also makes two pleasantly bizarre cameos).

Morgan Freeman, reprising his science-guy helper role from the Batman trilogy, delivers some painfully scripted superpowers-science in the form of a literal lecture, complete with Powerpoint bullets and audience Q&A. Besson intercuts these with Johansson’s literal bullets and scantily costumed T&A. The film begins in Taiwan and ends in Paris, with occasional French and Korean subtitles. It would be significantly improved if the subtitles were deleted and the English dialogue dubbed in Latin or Old Norse or any other language the majority of viewers won’t understand. Because then we could enjoy the sequence of spectacle, which is Besson’s well-disguised strength.

Freeman’s faux-science distracts from the fun by pretending that the film suffers from internal logic. It doesn’t. Although the plot ostensibly follows Lucy’s brain growth, intercutting incremental percentiles from 10% to the climatic 100%, her actual superpowered behavior is random. When a kick to the stomach bursts the bag of drug-mule super-serum in her intestines, Besson flings Johansson around his rotating prison set till she’s writhing on the ceiling. This doesn’t really make sense—is she flying?—but it looks cool. The CGI team tries to disintegrate her during her flight to Paris, which looks cool too, but what exactly does that have to do with Freeman’s immortality soundclip? Once recovered, Lucy can dispose of a dozen armed cops with a flick of her hand—although for some reason those pesky martial arts gangsters require time-consuming one-by-one levitation. Also why, as she’s teetering on omnipotence, is Paris traffic quite so challenging? Oh, and why do her very first acts of drug-induced super-intelligence include hand-to-hand combat and two-gun marksmanship? Are those skills about brain capacity?

I prefer Johansson’s performance before her robotic transformation. Imagine the Black Widow quivering in fear and vomiting on herself at the sight of blood. Johansson fans could argue that Lucy should only be analyzed in relation to Her, since Lucy builds a supercomputer and downloads herself in her final moment of corporeal existence, ending the film with a text to her cop boyfriend: “I AM EVERYWHERE.”

But I’m gong to reroute us to 1933 instead.

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If you don’t think Lucy counts as a superhero movie, read Jerry Siegel’s short story “The Reign of the Superman.” Before teaming up with Joe Shuster to create their comic book Superman, Siegel wrote a tale about a ruthless scientist who uses a starving vagrant as his lab rat. Lucy is a privileged college student, but she’s equally clueless when abducted and implanted with a mysterious super-drug.  Siegel’s is derived from an asteroid, but its effects are similar. Soon his anti-hero is reading-minds and projecting his thoughts across the universe too.

Unfortunately such unlimited power transforms him into a hate-mongering monster bent on world domination. Lucy’s transformation leaves her morally challenged too. She murders a hospital patient to make room for herself on a surgical bed with the excuse that the guy wouldn’t have lived anyway. When her cop sidekick comments on the tourists barely scrambling out of the way of her car and the string of exploding wrecks she’s leaving in her wake, Lucy says something about the illusion of death, which apparently gives her a license to kill and collaterally damage.

But, like Siegel’s second and far more famous Superman, Lucy finds a way to hold on to her humanity. When her hunky sidekick complains he’s no help to her, she kisses him. She needs him because he’s a “reminder,” she says. One of the students in my Superhero course made exactly that argument about Lois Lane.

So while Lucy is not the leap forward in superheroine evolution I’d hoped for,  perhaps Johansson, like Siegel in “The Reign of the Superman,” is running some experimental test work before delivering a full dose of her superwoman prowess.

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Scarlett-Johansson-Pregnant-What-does-this-mean-for-The-Avenger

If nothing else, at least the Captain America sequel solidified the call for a Black Widow movie. According to Justin Craig at Fox News, Scarlett Johansson “is quickly becoming the smartest, toughest female action star. . . . Forget Captain America 3 or The Avengers 2, it’s time ScarJo gets her very own Marvel franchise.” Slate’s Dana Stevens even thinks Johansson’s “dryly funny Natasha at times comes perilously close to being … a well-developed female character?” That’s high praise in a genre bereft of leading women.

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Why are Batman and Superman onto their third film incarnations, while Wonder Wonder still wallows in 70s TV? Presumably Warner Brothers’ hiring of actress Gal Gadot for the Man of Steel sequel will change that, but the company is making no promises for a stand-alone venture. When asked about her own movie prospects, Johansson had to writhe her way around Marvel’s non-commitment: “Sure, we talk about it all the time. You know, I think it’s something that, um, again I think Marvel is is certainly, um, listening, and if, you know, working with them for several years now, you kind of see how, ah, they respond to the audience, um, demand I think for something like that.”

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You’d think Marvel and Warner never heard of Jennifer Lawrence or the profits Lionsgate is earning from Hunger Games. Not that Lawrence is the leader of a new trend. Her cartoon counterparts changed gender barriers a decade ago.

I’m looking at a 2007 study by Kaysee Baker and Arthur Raney, “Equally Super?: Gender-Role Stereotyping of Superheroes in Children’s Animated Programs.” Even though they’d read one 2004 study that found “no significant differences in aggression between male and female characters,” they still predicted that “Male and female character will be portrayed in significantly different and gender-role stereotypical ways.”

They were wrong. Yes, men outnumbered women almost two-to-one, but those men were no longer portrayed as more intelligent, brave, dominant, technical, or task-oriented. And those women were no longer portrayed as more dependent, jealous, romantic, affectionate, sensitive, domestic, damsel-prone, follower-minded, or likely to cry. And both groups “were portrayed as virtually equal in terms of physical aggression.”

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If you don’t remember what cartoon superheroes were romping around TV in 2007, I do. My son and daughter had recently grown out of Teen Titans and Justice League, but Cartoon Network was keeping both teams alive in reruns. So, yes, I remember Hawkgirl clubbing the shit out Martian spacecraft with that mace of her, and Raven could have dropped the Titan Tower on Robin’s head any time she liked.

“One way to interpret theses findings,” write Baker and Raney, “would be to proclaim that female superheroes are finally breaking down the gender-based stereotypes that have permeated children’s cartoons for decades.” Instead, the authors spin their findings in the opposite direction: “Adding the masculine trait of aggression to a character who is already portrayed as having traditional feminine traits such as being beautiful, emotional, slim, and attractive, while also losing other more prominent feminine stereotypes (i.e., domesticity, passivity), might suggest that to be heroic, one has to be more masculine, regardless of gender.”

Although the authors use the term “masculine” (meaning socially determined) rather than “male” (biologically), I still sense a hint of essentialist nostalgia for those good ole days when men were men and women were, you know, not men. Because if aggression is now gender-neutral, how can being aggressive also be “more masculine”?

However Baker and Raney interpret their data, news of their findings hasn’t revolutionized the culture. There’s a hell of lot more than a hint of essentialist nostalgia in the comments section for a Walking Dead review at the m0vie blog. When Darren Mooney criticized Tony Kirkman for presenting old school gender attitudes as “unquestioned near-universal truth,” a reader responded: “Seems fairly natural that the group would default to the standard lineup, where men protect the women. In case you haven’t noticed, men are far more aggressive and stronger by nature.”

Don’t tell Gal Gadot. Sure, she looks like a skinny little thing, but after winning Miss Israel in 2004 the next Wonder Woman served two years in the Israel Defense Forces. Israel is one of the few countries that requires military service for both genders—and since a 2000 amendment to the law, that’s meant women having an equal right “to serve in any role in the IDF,” including in combat. The new gender norm has made it across the West Bank border too. The Presidential Guards, the most elite Palestinian military force, currently includes 22 female commandos-in-training. They even look like superheroines since their combat fatigues come with headscarves.

The toy industry is catching on too. The New York Times reported in March: “Toy makers have begun marketing a more aggressive line of playthings and weaponry for girls–inspired by a succession of female warrior heroes like Katniss, the Black Widow of The Avengers, Merida of Brave and now Tris of the book and new movie Divergent–even as the industry clings to every shade of pink.” Actually, the Nerf Rebelle Heartbreaker Exclusive Golden Edge Bow looks purple to me, but it still gets child psychologist Sharon Lamb’s approval: “I don’t see this as making girls more aggressive, but instead as letting girls know that their aggressive impulses are acceptable and they should be able to play them out.”

Meanwhile DC and Marvel, those vanguards of radical feminism, continue to dither over the box office viability of any superhero movie starring a woman. Because, you know, women are, uh, not naturally, um, like that.

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