This weekend I finally went to go see Thor: The Dark World. I’m a big fan of the recent Marvel films, and of the original Thor in particular, so I was looking forward to the sequel for quite a while. And, while I did enjoy myself and I would say that it’s a good movie, it’s not as good as the original. It has a lot of good qualities, but it’s rather uneven, as it contains a lot of elements that don’t particularly work and make the first thirty minutes or so of the film drag. There are also some rather confusing issues with the film’s writing, namely with how the characters of Malekith, the villain, and Dr. Jane Foster, Thor’s love interest, are written.
I think I’ll get into Malekith later when I do another post on issues with villains being written badly (I will say that I think Christopher Eccleston’s performance was good, but he didn’t have much to work with), but for now, I’d like to focus on Dark World’s treatment of the Jane Foster character, since it’s indicative of something that’s been bugging me about the Marvel films for a while now.
Now, in the original Thor, the film took the character of Jane Foster in an interesting direction. In the comic books, for many years Thor was actually bound to a human host, a human doctor with a limp named Donald Blake, and Blake would transform into Thor. In those comics, Jane Foster was Blake’s nurse and assistant, and she was about as stock a female love interest as you could find in superhero comics, having little personality beyond how she felt about Blake or Thor at that particular moment in time.
In the movie Thor, the Blake persona was wisely done away with (though they do make a throwaway reference to Jane having dated a doctor by that name), and Jane Foster was likewise transformed from a lovestruck nurse into a smart, clever, ambitious and driven astrophysicist.
The dynamic between her and Thor was an interesting one, as Jane was at first disbelieving of Thor’s claims about his identity, and then fascinated by him as she realized that he could be the key to scientific discoveries that had only been dreamed of.
Jane, in turn, was integral to Thor’s character growth in that film, helping him learn humility and to prioritize the well being and safety of others over his own glory and honor. It was a nice juxtaposition, very well handled, and it did a good job fleshing out the relationship between the two characters and plausibly showing why they could grow to care about one another.
In Dark World, however, Jane’s scientific ambition and drive are replaced by an almost neurotic fixation on Thor; everything she does and everything she thinks about seems to revolve around Thor and reuniting with him after the events of the first film.
She doesn’t descend to Bella Swan levels of obsession, but it’s a pretty near thing. And when she and Thor are reunited and travel to Asgard together…the film almost seems to forget that Jane exists. She’s treated more like a Macguffin than a person, something that is precious to Thor and must be kept from the film’s antagonists.
There are a handful of little bits and individual lines that hearken back to the self-reliant, smart character we met in the first film, but not many. In most scenes, Jane is present but doesn’t even have any lines; for about two-thirds of the film, she’s treated more like a prop than a character. And while she does turn around and help out a great deal in the final battle of the film, that doesn’t change the fact that she’s barely present for a huge majority of the film’s running time, and when she is, she’s talking to or about Thor.
I bring this up not just because it’s a problem in Thor: The Dark World, but because it’s a problem to one degree or another in most of the Marvel films. In all the Iron Man movies (with the exception of the third film, where she spends a third of its run time as a hostage), Pepper Potts is portrayed as a smart, capable woman, able to match wits with the genius Tony Stark and practical and grounded enough to run his company, often better than Tony himself does. And yet, there are always moments where Pepper acts uncharacteristically clueless and endangers herself purely because the writers needed an excuse to put her in a situation where Tony must rescue her.
A couple of the Marvel films do a little better. The Incredible Hulk’s Betty Ross is shown as competent and doesn’t suddenly lose half of her IQ points when the writers need a setup for Hulk to rescue her. Peggy Carter is, shown as remarkably smart and capable (especially for the time period in which the film is set) and she never has to be rescued by the hero. It’s worth noting that Cap is my wife’s favorite Marvel film, probably for this very reason. While these characters don’t drive the action of these films, they are far from stock.
So, what’s going on here? Why do the writers of these films have problems consistently writing their female leads well? The source material for most of these stories was written back in the ’60s, and to their credit, the writers have done a great job updating these characters for modern times and sensibilities; they’re far and away better than their comic book counterparts were (and in some cases, are), so what gives?
I think the major problem here isn’t one that’s only endemic to comic book movies, but to films as a whole. While these writers recognize the need to fix the issues with the source material, they don’t see the need to fix the film writing cliches that their own work falls prey to; the “damsel in distress” syndrome has never been something that only afflicted superhero comics. It struck films first, and it’s long been a fallback for writers who needed a way to raise the stakes of a story; put the woman the hero loves in peril.
And to a degree it makes sense. After all, a well-written hero has a human side, has emotional vulnerabilities. It makes sense that a villain would exploit those vulnerabilities to attack the hero; it’s only logical.
But by the same token, there are better ways to raise the stakes in a story than putting the hero’s loved ones in danger. Especially when these writers are clearly doing their best to distance themselves from the sexist stereotypes that were originally the basis for some of these characters. That makes it all the more frustrating when they resort to the equally stereotypical “damsel in distress” scenario, especially when they set it up purely through the female character’s own uncharacteristic incompetence.
Bottom line: there are many, many more ways to challenge a male hero, to raise the stakes of a situation, to ratchet the tension up ever higher, than to put his girlfriend in danger. Ways that don’t bore the men in the audience with their repetition, and ways that don’t make the women in the audience feel like marginalized children who always need their hands held.
The Avengers is a recent Marvel film of note that not only does away with the helpless or stock love interest, but also celebrates a heroine as part of the main cast. This film was written and directed by Buffy and Firefly creator Joss Whedon. I would encourage writers everywhere to watch this response by Whedon on why he writes women the way he does, because a lot of them just might learn something. And while The Avengers takes a step in the right direction, there is still a dearth of women in these superhero films, especially women who drive plots and act believably and consistently when faced with a challenge.