“Captain Marvel,” with its female superhero in the title role, doesn’t open until Friday, but a lot of people already know what they think about it and are happy to share. Detractors and defenders both have made anticipating the movie’s release an unpleasant experience. One side calls the movie’s star, Brie Larson, “man hating” and “sexist,” and the other attacks those who may not want to see the movie and dismisses the mixed reviews of female critics. There’s a push by “Captain Marvel” fans to support it as a way to lift women in film and combat trolls. On IMDB, the film’s user rating shows the two sides fighting it out with votes of 10’s and 1’s, and very few scores in between.
A small but rowdy bunch of mostly male comic-book fans spawned this latest case of toxic fan culture. Using Gamergate-style harassment techniques they honed with coordinated attacks on fans and stars of diversifying franchises like “Ghostbusters” and “Star Wars,” they turned their attention to “Captain Marvel,” voting it down or leaving negative comments on platforms like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB. In a new twist, some detractors, including the actor James Woods, have even pitted the Marvel hero against “Alita: Battle Angel,” which doesn’t make much sense at all unless they want one action movie with a female protagonist to quash another at the box office. In response to the latest attacks, Rotten Tomatoes announced that it would disable the comments and audience scores of movies that haven’t been released yet.
“Captain Marvel” defenders have made the movie a cause celebre. The party line is that by supporting it, you are inherently supporting women and diversity in the entertainment industry; if you don’t buy your ticket, you’re hurting the cause. The charged situation has left little room for dissenting or lukewarm opinions. You’re expected to like this movie or you’re a bad feminist — or, worse, a misogynist. You must feel empowered by this movie or you didn’t get it.
As a critic and feminist, I don’t like being told I will have to love this movie by default because it’s led by a strong female character. And I am not alone. The pop culture writer Kat Rosenfield said in a tweet, “I wish some of the Captain Marvel hyper-uppers would slow their roll just a liiiiittle bit on the idea that little girls have been twiddling their thumbs since the dawn of time, waiting for the arrival of a Lady Superhero who they can Finally Relate To.” And the Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek asked rhetorically in her review, “Is anyone else getting tired of role models?”
Last year, Larson made headlines when she called for more diversity in criticism after a USC Annenberg study showed the profession to skew mostly white and male. It was a welcome call to action for some, but for others, it was a logical fallacy. More female critics in the field would not necessarily translate to better reviews for women-centric films. Women, like men, don’t always share the same opinions. Gender is not the only lens through which we watch movies. If a movie’s bad or doesn’t work, it’s a critic’s job to say so. Within hours of the first reviews of “Captain Marvel,” commentators had drawn attention to the ongoing gender imbalance, but less helpful was the scrutinizing of female critics who had something less than positive to say about the film, and harassment by the movie’s fans soon followed.
I’m sure Marvel Entertainment and its parent company, Disney, are watching the social media and audience reactions just as closely as they will watch box-office numbers. The rallying cry to buy tickets so more movies about female superheroes are made is music to the bottom line. The studios are running a business, and they have found a mini-goldmine in maintaining the scarcity that leaves viewers with less diverse options. If they had really wanted to fix the diversity gaps in the industry, there would have been a top-down overhaul — including hiring more women and people of color in executive roles, or on set as producers and directors — and things would not look the way they do now, with moviegoers watching the snail’s pace of change, cheering for every inclusive title because there will only be a handful of them in a given year. The burden has been on nonwhite and non-male audiences to prove over and over again that they can sell out screenings for movies like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” It is a pressure — and a selling point for the studios — that these movies have to contend with. If studios were serious, inclusion would be integral to how everything works from the very beginning, not an afterthought made by scrambling executives and producers, or some token project for communities to line up behind or risk never seeing themselves on-screen again.
One tactic Hollywood has used to justify the exclusion of women and other underrepresented groups in entertainment is to label their stories and projects a risk. There are old studio adages that men won’t go to see movies about women, or that films starring people of color don’t do well abroad. Although these myths have been disproved time and again — as women-centric comedies like “Mean Girls,” “Bridesmaids” and “Girls Trip” showed there were audiences for these movies, and black actors like Will Smith and Eddie Murphy reigned at the box office through the ’90s and ’80s — this line of thinking still exists. “Black Panther” took on that tired excuse with its over $1.3 billion global box office, but it’s too early to tell yet if that success will translate into more opportunities for other directors of color to lead movies with a diverse cast and sizable budget.
The reality is that all films are risks. Even a director like Steven Spielberg or a star like Tom Cruise isn’t a surefire bet that a movie will be a success. Yet, somehow, filmmakers of a different gender or skin color or background are seen as inherently more risky for a studio or production company. Such filmmakers will have fewer opportunities over the course of their careers, and audiences will never see the work they could have done.
Not every movie by a director from an underrepresented background or featuring a strong woman needs to be an Oscar-winner or the biggest box-office hit in history for the movement toward parity to be a success. No underrepresented filmmaker should have to shoulder those expectations. Instead, opportunities for underrepresented talent should increase now, not later; untold stories should get the chance to be seen sooner rather than never; and moviegoers should be able to go to the theater without feeling the commercialized pressure to “represent” in a rigged system.