Give the girls origin stories: A first reaction to "Captain Marvel"

The drought is finally over and my internship alma mater, Entertainment Weekly, has finally given us nerds what we’ve so badly craved: the first official images of from Marvel’s first-ever female led superhero film, Captain Marvel.

Alongside the photos star Brie Larson promised would “break the internet,” EW released some juicy new plot details from the film, which premieres in March 2019. There’s lots of tantalizing tidbits to keep fans hanging on until the release, but one in particular caught my attention: in Captain Marvel, the titular hero, also known as Carol Danvers, will already have her superpowers – i.e., the film isn’t an origin story.

Presumably, by avoiding another origin story Marvel is attempting to shake up a formula well-worn over the course of 20 releases over the past ten years, to varying degrees of multi-million dollar success. Although taking more creative risks has proved a strong move for the company (see Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, and even the original Guardians of the Galaxy), it still stings to know that of all the title character films we’ve seen from Marvel, it’s the female-led film that won’t be an origin story.

Perhaps the failure of past female-led superhero films still haunts studio executives. The universally derided 2004 film Catwoman was an origin story – but to be fair, it was one completely made up for the movie instead of one the fans could recognize (about a business woman named Patience who, I guess, got Egyptian cat powers, instead of the more well-known, streetwise Selina Kyle). However, I’d have hoped the spectacular success of Wonder Woman, a joyful origin story that followed Diana from birth to adulthood coming into her godly powers, would have put those fears to bed.

Within the current iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, female origin stories are scarce. The most well-known female superhero in the MCU, Black Widow, has only ever vaguely hinted at her mysterious Russian-spy past: the most we’ve seen of her origin was the upsetting, mind-warpy flashbacks in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The glaring lack of solo film or origin story for the studio’s most prominent female hero led to her story being ripped off entirely in the recent Jennifer Lawrence film Red Sparrow. All things considered, with a Black Widow solo film finally in the works nearly 10 years after her debut, that film isn’t likely to be an origin story, either.

Two other recent additions to the Avengers roster skipped the “origin story” route: Peter Parker/Spider-Man and T’Challa/Black Panther, who were both introduced in Captain America: Civil War. For Spider-Man, there really was origin story fatigue, after seeing Uncle Ben shot in twice on the big screen in ten years pre-Homecoming. Black Panther did discuss the origins of Wakanda and the Black Panther persona in his solo film (I expect Captain Marvel to do something similar), but the movie wasn’t an “origin story” in the traditional sense. In his case, one might make a similar argument that it’s disappointing that the first solo film led by a black man in the MCU didn’t get his origin story, either.

Why does it matter which solo films feature a hero’s origins? From a story perspective, it doesn’t, not really. Spider-Man: Homecoming proved that Marvel could build a well-developed, highly entertaining first film in media res. And of course, Black Panther, a story which picks up in the almost-immediate aftermath of Civil War, was a success the likes of which even the MCU had never seen.

The disappointment is more a matter of principle, based on the culture that Marvel has already created. Every other hero who has gotten a solo film (white dudes, all) has begun with an origin story. If it’s good enough for Captain America, and Iron Man, and Thor, and Ant-Man?!, and Doctor flippin’ Strange, and even a pre-Ruffalo Hulk, why shouldn’t it be good enough for Captain Marvel?

I don’t mean to nitpick, because the honest truth is that I personally will probably see Captain Marvel in theaters on opening night and again like three times and have already given her my whole heart. But I do think, after being deprived for so long of some really fantastic onscreen female superhero solo outings, the clamoring public deserves to get to see every inch of those stories. The reception to Wonder Woman proved that fans were waiting to give all the same enthusiasm they had for male superheroes to female ones, too. So if that’s the case…why not give the girls origin stories?

"The Handmaid's Tale" season two & the ouroboros of female pain

The Handmaid’s Tale season one ends the same way the book does: June, or “Offred,” being lead away from the Waterford’s house by armed guards, given a reassuring word by her lover, Nick. There’s hope this means escape for June, but regardless, she leaves the house proud, with her head held high.

Season two, the first to go off-book, does all it can to push June back down on her knees, where – for the purposes of this show - she belongs. In the S2 opener, June and her fellow Handmaids are bound and gagged and led like animals to the slaughter. (This imagery isn’t simply a metaphor; the patriarchal lords of Gilead are intentionally reinforcing for the Handmaids that they are little more than chattel.)

The sequence is long, terrifying and agonizing, taking the time to show June and her friends’ wild-eyed confusion, the dawn of realization at the sight of the nooses, the damp spots on those bright red dresses as Handmaids wet themselves with fear. This scene was written and directed by men.

Though the hanging was eventually revealed a fake-out, the torture of the rest of the episode, and the rest of the season, is real and equally visceral. The juggernaut that was season one seemed to be a glimpse at a future we could still prevent, and a celebration of the indomitable human spirit (female spirit) in even the worst of circumstances. The thesis of season two seems to be that no matter how hard you fight, you’ll end up back at square one.

From the perspective of story, Handmaid’s second season is an ouroboros of pain for protagonist and audience alike. June’s triumphant defiances, which were the high point of season one, are immediately stamped out in soul-crushing manner in season two. Over 13 episodes, June manages to escape and be forcibly returned to the Waterfords’s home an unbelievable three times. It’s not just emotionally difficult to watch June continue to be caged; it wears on our suspension of disbelief. (Surely the ruthless Waterfords, cruel and intelligent enough to be at the forefront of the overthrow of the United States, would weigh the risk/reward of keeping June close and send her to some far-flung corner of Gilead after the attempted escapes, especially after they’ve taken the new baby from her?)

For a show that rests heavily on feminist laurels, it’s difficult to point towards feminist moments in season two (not to mention intersectional feminism, as issues of race are ignored and trans women do not seem to exist in Gilead, among other things). No matter what actions the narrative allows of June, everything inevitably leads back to Gilead, and greater personal anguish. Even June’s final, bold choice of the season, deciding not to leave the country, tethers her further to not just to Gilead, but to one specific section of it (with only brief glimpses of Canada and the “Colonies”). Rather than expanding further upon what this world could be, the show is committed to remaining in Gilead's post-Boston. In doing so, the narrative chooses Gilead over June at most every opportunity, and the show is worse off for it.

On the production side, Bruce Miller has stated a commitment to hiring women at all levels of the show, a commendable goal. Yet ultimately it’s Miller, a man, who is the showrunner and executive producer, and holds June’s fate in his hands – a fate beyond what her creator, Margaret Atwood, imagined for her. It’s a male director, Mike Barker, who constructed those anxious, awful moments of the faux-hanging that opened the season. It’s off-putting, to say the least, that this content tied so inextricably to female pain rests on the shoulders of men.

Elisabeth Moss continues to stun in the role of June, but it’s hard to watch season two as each episode becomes a contest to see how many ways Gilead can break her spirit. June may have reached the end of the season in tact, but it’s a question of when, not if, the cruelty of Gilead will catch up to her next. Women already live in a hostile world that would see many of us bowed and bent. The Handmaid’s Tale may once have felt like a necessary story, but season two is despairing and inhospitable, a world of endless cruelty and violence against women, a world built by men. Maybe Gilead still has worthy stories to tell, but for me, personally – I don’t want to live in Gilead anymore.

Carr on Culture: Minority bias on and offscreen

Originally published in the Berkeley Beacon April 2016.

As a person who’s studying writing for film and television, I tend not only to watch a lot of television, but I also consume a lot of media about it – critiques, recaps, casting announcements, and the like. If you’re a fan like me, then you may have noticed a recent alarming trend: overwhelming amounts of people of color and LGBTQ+ characters are being killed off their TV shows.

“Recent” might not be the perfect word, as our media has just as discriminatory a past as our reality. However, although the television landscape features much more diversity now than in decades’ past, characters of sexual and racial minorities still seem to be considered more expendable than their straight, white counterparts.

A prime example is The CW’s “The 100,” a post-apocalyptic teen drama often called “the best show you’re not watching.” Entertainment Weekly gave season three an A- before it aired, calling it “one of TV’s best Big Saga serials.” The 100 also received praise for its development of a romantic relationship between bisexual lead character Clarke and lesbian character Lexa. Both women are strong leaders and their relationship is dynamic and compelling.

Then the show did what’s known in TV trope language as “Bury Your Gays.” After sharing a beautiful love scene and consummating their relationship, a stray bullet meant for Clarke killed Lexa. Heartbroken and angry fans reacted by trending “LGBT Fans Deserve Better” and “Bury Tropes Not Us” on Twitter.

The death wasn’t just in poor taste, but also poor timing: in 2016, 10 characters identifying as lesbian or bisexual have already been killed off of their shows. Unfortunately, these deaths often follow the pattern of “Bury Your Gays,” where the gay character is killed off tragically following a happy event. In reality, so much death in so little time could be called an epidemic. In fiction, it’s at the very least a disturbing trend.

“The 100” didn’t stop with Lexa’s death. Two episodes later, the show depicted a violent execution for one of it’s main characters, Lincoln, a black man. The actor who portrayed Lincoln, Ricky Whittle, later claimed in an interview that he was “professionally bullied” off of the show. He cited storylines for his character that were drastically cut, that the showrunner “[tried] to make my character and myself as insignificant as possible.”

“The 100” isn’t the only show guilty of this on this year’s television season, either. FOX’s “Sleepy Hollow” season finale killed one of their two lead characters, Abbie Mills, a black woman. Her death comes after Abbie’s storylines were shafted in favor of the white male lead, and rumors of the actress, Nicole Beharie’s, discontent behind the scenes. The actress tweeted that she wasn’t invited to participate in the show’s season two DVD commentary, and recently had to tweet at the show’s official page asking them to follow her. This reveals another disturbing pattern in television – and even a show’s lead can fall victim to it, if she’s a woman of color.

As both an aspiring writer and as a fan, I wish these characters were handled better. They mattered to me, and to countless others who tune in to see themselves represented on screen. One thing I’ve come to believe strongly throughout my time at Emerson is that representation matters. When a character someone identifies with dies on television, when they treated as disposable, it reflects that viewer’s worth. When actors are driven off their own shows due to mistreatment, it serves to discourage fans that might want to follow in their footsteps.

Fictional characters dying might not seem like a major issue in the grand scheme of the world, but what happens onscreen affects life offscreen. Take for instance Oscar winning actress Whoopi Goldberg, who was inspired to go into acting by Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols – and who herself inspired Oscar winning actress Lupita N’yongo via her film The Color Purple. Without representation on television, we wouldn’t have these bright lights to lead and inspire. When minority characters are dying in disproportionate numbers onscreen, where are viewers going to look to find themselves?

Someday, if I’m lucky, I might have the responsibility to do right by characters not unlike Lexa, Lincoln, or Abbie. I hope I can do a better job. Meanwhile, as 2016 continues, I can only hope that the righteous outrage of vocal fans will help to dismantle this TV trend. The fans deserve better, and so do the characters.

WHERE ARE ALL THE LADY SUPERHEROES?

Originally posted on the X-Factor Films blog June 2016.

It’s starting to feel like the only movies being made are epic superhero blockbusters. Think about the biggest films released so far this year – which ones do you remember? So far we’ve seen February’s Deadpool, the first mainstream R-rated superhero film; summer’s biggest hit so far, the Captain America-led Avengers romp Civil War; the most recent X-Men installment, Apocalypse; the supremely messy Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which launched DC’s attempt at a superhero cinematic universe.

With all of those titles overwhelming box offices just this year alone, it’s hard to believe there hasn’t yet been a superhero film led by a female superhero. Or maybe not hard to believe at all, if you know anything about the industry: no matter how loud the fans clamor for a lady superhero movie, for years the big studios seemed to be selectively deaf.

Finally, though, superhero nerds can enjoy a bit of good news: not only has DC greenlit a Wonder Woman film, the film’s budget is a healthy $100 million. This marks one of the first times a female director (in this case, Patty Jenkins) has been allotted a $100 million budget for a film. Thank goodness – we finally get a Wonder Woman movie, and it’ll look just as amazing and explosion-y as the boys’ films!

It’s a good sign for DC/Warner Bros. to kick off their Cinematic Universe with a strong backing of support for Wonder Woman, especially considering how Marvel has dragged its feet – like, cinderblocks for shoes dragging - to make their own female-led superhero movie. Despite years and years of fans begging for a Black Widow film, Marvel’s first will be Captain Marvel, and not until 2019.

Even though DC has the one-up on Marvel with WW, we shouldn’t give them too much credit: though they’ve only just begun making films with interlocking stories, they’ve released more Batmans and Supermans over the years than any of us have asked for. They could have thrown a Wonder Woman in there at any time – in fact, back in 2007 they were developing a WW project that, for some reason, was scrapped. A little writer named Joss Whedon wrote the script. Ever heard of him?

Further, if you look at the schedules for both Marvel and DC’s cinematic universes, they don’t offer a lot of optimism. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are actually the only female led films on either schedule through at least 2020. And Marvel proved they aren’t particularly committed to that schedule when it comes to their minority characters, shafting back a few years both Black Panther (Marvel’s first film led by a black man) and Captain Marvel in favor of good ole Peter Parker as soon as they acquired the rights to Spider-Man. If Marvel finds another beautiful blonde actor named Chris, I fear we might not see Captain Marvel on screen until we’re all old and gray.

It’s hard to believe these super-powered studios still won’t put their faith in lady heroes. After all, women who are superheroes in all but name have been absolutely destroying the box office in the past few years. If Katniss Everdeen and her successor Tris Prior aren’t superheroes, I don’t know who is. And if Marvel needed proof that Scarlett Johansson could carry her own film, she proved it and then some with 2014’s Lucy. And, despite all the angry fanboy protests, wasn’t The Force Awakens really Rey’s superhero origin story?

Female superheroes are also all over TV, and though film and TV are different mediums, it seems like the success of female leads on TV would indicate success for film as well. Marvel’s properties have succeeded in both primetime and streaming services. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will begin its fourth season in the fall, led by Daisy Johnson, who has evolved from super spy to superhero over the past three years. On Netflix, Jessica Jones saw huge success even while allowing Jessica to be dark, angry, sometimes even unlikable, and promoting serious feminist themes.

For DC, this year saw the optimistic Supergirl. Though Kara is moving from CBS to the CW, she’ll likely find even more success there on a network that’s established for superheroes. Going back even further, it’s even harder to believe that Wonder Woman has never made it to the big screen when Lynda Carter’s legendary portrayal of her was so popular.

Despite the many years it’s taken to get to this point, we’re finally getting the big blockbuster Wonder Woman we deserve. Though the big superhero studios still owe us, we have one tool in our favor to prove that female superheroes are a worthy investment: putting our money where our mouths are and showing up in droves to support WW’s film. Surely that won’t be hard for those of us who have been starving for this content for so long.

 

three reasons the mindy project is the most feminist show on tv

Originally written June 2016 for X-Factor Films Blog.

Since Mindy Kaling first came on the scene as The Office’s Kelly Kapoor, she’s been winning hearts left and right, whether as shallow Kelly who says what we’re all thinking, as the author of two books that read like chatting with your BFF, or as the rom-com lead character Mindy Lahiri in her show The Mindy Project. In all her incarnations, Mindy manages to embody something relatable for her female fans, but The Mindy Project in particular pushes the bounds of the traditional sitcom lead.

Since the first episode, Mindy Lahiri has followed in the footsteps of the classic sitcom heroine model of trying to “have it all.” Single, working women from Mary Richards on Mary Tyler Moore to Liz Lemon on 30 Rock have all tried to find their own balance of romantic love, fulfilling careers, and supportive friendships.

For the first three seasons of The Mindy Project, Mindy sought after these things as well. But when the show moved from FOX to Hulu for season four, it seemed like she had actually found it: she was engaged to her will-they-won’t-they love interest Danny Castellano, the couple had a baby named Leo, and with the support of her coworkers Mindy had launched her fertility practice, “Later Baby”. The question became not “Can she have it all?” but “What now?”

As the second half of season four airs, Mindy Kaling answered this question by making her show arguably one of the most feminist programs on TV. (Spoilers ahead!)

#1: Mindy puts her career first

 Fans who ’shipped them from the very beginning might be heartbroken that Mindy and Danny’s seemingly perfect relationship fell apart, but the dissolution of their relationship was heartbreakingly realistic. The main reason Mindy broke off the relationship because Danny wanted her to quit her job to have more children and raise a family.

Though Mindy clearly loves being a mom, quitting her job goes against her nature. Mindy is smart, hard working, and ambitious. We’ve watched her work her way up to becoming a leader at Schulman & Associates, take on a fellowship at Stanford, and establish her own fertility clinic. As much as Mindy Lahiri is a romantic at heart, she puts herself first.

This decision is important in a lot of ways. Too many women can relate to being pressured out of their career for their family. It also shows that even though The Mindy Project has always been a rom-com, Mindy’s career dreams are just as important as her romantic ones.

#2: Mindy is now a single, working mom

 Few sitcom leads have explored single motherhood, let alone of an infant child. Mindy has a lot to balance with her work, dating, and responsibilities to Leo. We get to watch Mindy as she struggles with childcare, when to tell your date that you’re also a mother, and becoming jealous of Danny’s new girlfriends as they spend time with Leo.

Even though she’s back living her rom-com lifestyle with botched dates, comedic misunderstandings, and a parade of beautiful men, the show remains honest about Mindy’s struggles. Being single in New York was always difficult; being a single mother in New York is even harder.

#3: Mindy isn’t afraid to be alone

One of the hardest things Mindy realizes – and we realize by proxy – is that being in love isn’t always enough. Even though Mindy and Danny cared deeply about each other and share a child, it isn’t enough to bridge the gap of their differences. Though she works with Danny to do what’s best for Leo, Mindy is uncompromising when it comes to whats best for her.

Mindy has many opportunities to settle down and be with someone – restarting relationships with her exes or meeting new men who (obviously) fall for her. However, Mindy has always put herself first. She won’t settle for someone who doesn’t love her for her, which includes her career, her baby, and her fantastic romantic heart.

Even when presented with the opportunity for a casual physical relationship, Mindy realizes that she needs to work on herself and her happiness outside of romantic relationships before she can fall in love again. A staple of The Mindy Project is Mindy’s dreams of meeting Mr. Right. By taking a step back from romance, Mindy puts her own emotional wellbeing first. It’s an important lesson: a romantic relationship doesn’t always make you happy. Sometimes you have to learn to be happy on your own first.

Mindy Lahiri has always been one of the best leading ladies on TV, deconstructing rom-com tropes and trying her best to “have it all.” But as the series progresses, we realize along with Mindy that having it all might not be exactly what we thought it was, and that’s okay. Even though Mindy’s life is messy and complicated, her struggles are real and relatable. We couldn’t ask for a better feminist heroine than that.