One of the defining ideas — and debates — about the present age of superhero movies is the insight that comic-book stories aren’t merely the provenance of teenage boys anymore. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the few mass cultural events that exist anymore, and women are a big part of the audience. 41 percent of the U.S. audience for “Guardians of the Galaxy” were women; 42 percent of ticket-buyers for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” were.
I had those numbers in mind during both screenings of “Captain America: Civil War” that I caught last week. And while there are a lot of things to chew over in the film — among them the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s approach to politics, and the extent to which Marvel movies function as television-style serialized storytelling — there was one thing in particular that struck me about “Civil War.” I can’t think of another action movie that has so thoroughly objectified its male heroes for the benefit of heterosexual ladies and any other people who like to lust after handsome men.
The choice to treat the movie’s male superheroes as sex objects begins early in the film, and appears even in circumstances that are not exactly salacious. When we first see Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) getting his brain scrambled in a flashback to 1991, the camera captures him sitting back in some sort of contraption, sliding up his muscular thighs and highlighting his broad shoulders; the man makes even 90s-style spandex look good, and even while being tortured.
Toward the end of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” there’s a shot of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in profile, standing against a sunny landscape. It captures her isolation, but it’s also an image that takes great care to capture, and linger on, her figure. In “Captain America: Civil War,” it’s time for the guys to get similar treatment. Once Vision (Paul Bettany) gets out of his slacks and V-neck sweater and into his uniform, the camera lingers on his posterior. And in the course of introducing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther, the film takes full advantage of his leaping stances to show audiences that he’s a worthy object of lust as well as of empowerment.
And most of all, there’s a scene in the film that really only plausibly exists to show off Chris Evans’ impressively toned arms. Bucky has hijacked a helicopter, and his old pal Steve Rogers grabs a hold of it, trying to keep Bucky from taking off. Rogers strains, he changes stances, and all the while, the camera lingers lovingly on his muscles. It’s fan service of the type that might have been unimaginable a decade ago.
Meanwhile, “Captain America: Age of Ultron” doesn’t apply quite the same lust to the film’s female character. Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) bustier may be slightly lower-cut than is strictly practical, but the rest of her outfit leaves her very covered up. When Black Widow is shot from behind this time, she’s positioned so the camera emphasizes the set of her shoulders, rather than the reassuring swoop of her curves.
It’s a relief to watch a superhero movie where the women aren’t eye candy. But as much as I enjoyed watching “Captain America: Civil War” ogle its male heroes, the movie was still a reminder that even when a movie’s chosen a new set of sex objects, the results aren’t quite the same. Acknowledging that Black Panther is toned in all the right places doesn’t make him any less credible as the super-powered ruler of a highly advanced country, just as gazing on Steve Rogers’ arms doesn’t reduce him from patriotic symbol to pin-up. When a skin-tight superheroine’s outfit can be a fun fashion choice, and not a way of signaling her second-class status, then superhero movies will finally be an equal-opportunity fantasyland.