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Earlier this month, Captain Marvel blasted into theaters, and with it came the opportunity for young girls to see yet another female superhero suit up to save the world.
Carol Danvers wasn’t just a breath of fresh air for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — let’s face it, their revolving doors of white men in spandex had gotten a bit stale — she was also a welcome change for the genre as a whole, which has seen just one other woman smash box-office records while wearing a cape … or, at least, Amazonian leather.
That’s right. As so many critics were wont to point out, Wonder Woman beat Captain Marvel to the punch when it came to leading her own solo studio flick, and, in accordance with Newton’s little-known fourth law of physics, any time more than one woman deigns to tell her own superhero origin story on screen, we must equate the two. We must hold their flaws to the light, juxtapose their strengths, their claim to femininity, their level of badassness, and find one wanting.
Except, and hear me out here ... what if we just didn’t?
A wise man once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” but he failed to elaborate that comparison between the two sole female superheroes that have managed to earn their own franchises is downright sexist.
And maybe it’s not intentional.
Maybe a critic I follow on Twitter who claimed Captain Marvel was cheesy and described Wonder Woman as a film in touch with its femininity, one that didn’t “pander” to angry women, didn’t realize they were subscribing to antiquated dogma that insists women must be pitted against each other lest they rise up and overtake their patriarchal masters.
Maybe the websites with dozens of headlines that begin, “Captain Marvel vs. Wonder Woman” were just clickbait, and, if one were to succumb to their gossip-mongering, one would be treated to a 1,200-word ode to both superheroes, a written kumbaya. (Spoiler: One would not.)
Maybe the Reddit threads full of trolls arguing over the “hotness” factor of each woman, the YouTube videos of fanboys debating which character “appealed” to them more, the Twitter rants about Brie Larson’s misandrist campaign against male film critics, or the threads detailing why Gal Gadot’s costume was “too revealing” were just harmless venting sessions online, people screaming their grievances into the void of the internet.
Maybe they weren’t meant to rob fans of either film of their joy or to prove a point ... but they did anyway.And look, whether you get paid to do it or just like to air your opinions to the hordes of profile pics in your feeds, everyone’s a critic. It’s perfectly acceptable to prefer one female superhero to another or to have problems with both. We all come to a work of art (whether it’s a book, a show, a film, or something else) with expectations that cannot possibly be met. They can’t be met because we’re not the ones creating; that job is left to people with their own ideas, their own interpretations of characters and themes and storylines. What we can do is appreciate good work and point out areas that need improvement.
What we shouldn’t do is stoke some manufactured rivalry between two female characters simply because they’re the only women taking up space in a historically male-dominated universe.
When Captain America followed in the wake of Iron Man's success, did we compare the two? Not their origin stories, or their special effects, or their overall storyline, did we compare the two characters, and the actors who played them? Did we talk about how Steve Rogers dressed? Did we talk about how “likable” Tony Stark was compared to the “First Avenger”? Did we scrutinize comments Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. made on press tours? Did we accuse them of “pandering” to comic book fanboys?
I think we all know the answers to those questions, but here’s why they matter above a wimpy retroactive parity protest. They matter because, for so many young girls and even young women, we’re seeing examples of strength, power, confidence, compassion, and a figure that commands respect, and that figure looks like us. We’re seeing heroines who don’t just “play with the guys,” they run circles around them, they carry them across battlefields, they shield them from bullets, they blast them out of the damn sky. We’re seeing women reclaim their narratives, we’re seeing them fight on the front lines, we’re watching as they delight in their abilities and unapologetically declare themselves.It’s hard for men especially to understand why that seems so revolutionary. They roll their eyes and point to Black Widow or Jean Grey and say, “See, you’ve had your share.” But we haven’t. Not really.
We’ve been given scraps from the table and told to be thankful for them. We’ve paid to see movies where just one or two women were allowed to be in a scene at the same time. We’ve sat through films that gave the sole female character a handful of lines and maybe one full-fledged fight scene, usually with that woman scantily clad and making innuendos while she crushed a bad guy between her thighs.
It’s okay to say that’s not enough. It’s okay for us to demand more — let the manbabies shout in the comments section when we get it and we break box-office records.
But it’s not okay to compare Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, because no matter how you do it, the result is the same.
By pointing out the differences between the two characters, by lamenting the fact that Carol Danvers always seems to be angry, or that Wonder Woman had a love interest, we’re inadvertently claiming that there’s just one “right” path to female empowerment.
By imagining who would win in a fight, by concocting a rivalry between these two women, by elevating one film over the other to the point that the creatives behind these movies have to publicly declare their support for each other, we’re validating the sexist idea that there’s a cap on how many women can succeed, and at what level.
By picking apart characteristics of each superhero and actress and debating over how “feminine” or “strong” or “believable” they are in the role, we’re subscribing to the belief that femininity is a monolith, that womanhood is a shared, homogenous experience, that men can come in all shapes and sizes but women must be uniform in their existence.
You’re allowed to prefer one to the other when it comes to any kind of superhero movie — so many of them tread the same ground, you’re bound to have favorites — but instead of using Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel as some kind of measurement, some qualifier for the other, how about we just give them both the respect they deserve?
In other words, like what you like, but for the love of Goose, let Carol Danvers and Diana Prince just live.