April saw the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the sequel to 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger. I'm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fandom, insofar as I reblog endless gif sets, fan art, and pictures of attractive celebrities on Tumblr as well as reading fan fic about The Avengers. I love the MCU, although I'm ignorant of much of the comics canon.
2011's Captain America film belatedly became my favorite MCU film after I saw it in 2012. I imprinted on this somber, stubborn, kind incarnation of Steve Rogers, portrayed perfectly by Chris Evans, which contributed to The Avengers becoming one of my favorite films after I had more insight into his character.
That led me directly to my excitement about Natasha Romanoff, and my hope that eventually we might see a Marvel film headlined by a woman in the form of a Black Widow trilogy. The fact that Natasha looked to be a huge part of Captain America: The Winter Soldier only ramped up my excitement. The idea of Steve and Natasha fighting evil villains together is a direct line to my fannish heart, the superhero buddy cop film of my dreams. But I didn't want to get overly excited and then be crushed later when the sequel failed to live up to my hopes. After being disappointed with Iron Man 2, I've tried to temper my excitement about new MCU films so I'm not let down.
I avoided everything but one trailer before seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but my caution wasn't warranted. The film is fantastic. It's doing fascinating things technically with its direction, its actors are putting in nuanced, complicated performances, and although it's pulling its punches a little bit in the end, unsure of where it wants to fall with its political arguments, it's a wonderful addition to the MCU. It has reinvigorated my fannish life with a perfect delivery of sparkling, brand new canon. It's hard for me to explain to people outside my particular fannish experience how awesome it is to be immersed in a fandom when new canon releases. All your social media timelines are awash because everyone's excited about all the moving parts of the same thing all at once, with great feeling. This is what fandom is for me: a communal experience of love, excitement, critique, and sharing heartbreaking fan fic scenarios until the wee hours of the morning.
I've been gleefully watching fans on Tumblr, Archive of Our Own, and other fannish venues take what we were given and spin it out to infinity. Whether it's fan theories about the future of the franchise, explications of pivotal scenes in the film using animated gifs, heartbreaking parallels drawn between the sequel and its predecessor, or fan art of newly launched ships like Steve Rogers/Sam Wilson (Freebird for short), it's a great time to be in MCU fandom. Fans of the Marvel spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who stuck with the show during a shaky beginning are also reaping the benefits of the drastic changes wrought by the developments in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I'm tempted to try the show again just to see, since I quit after two episodes.
April was a blast for my fannish experience, and the good times will roll along for the next few months. Fandom will get a boost when Captain America: The Winter Soldier goes on sale, too. I'm already awaiting the high-quality fanvids.
But the release of the film also marked my official break-up with professional film reviewers.
The incompetence of some of the professional reviews of the latest MCU offering started before the film dropped in America. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, writing in The Daily Dot, outlined the trend of review pieces that managed to marginalize Natasha/Black Widow's role in the film. Instead of being reviewed as an integral, main character, she's recognized only as an object to be viewed through a very specific type of male gaze. Her character arc—central to the film's theme of secrecy and trust—is oftentimes erased by reviewers who can't see past assumptions about a woman's place in an action thriller narrative. The full scope of the character Scarlett Johansson is creating across the MCU with Natasha is brushed aside as unimportant. It's popular to say, "Did we even watch the same film?" in these cases, almost to the point of cliche, but here it's perfectly apt.
The critique about lack of women in science fiction and fantasy films is an old one. But as a female fan, after watching some of the responses to Natasha's role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I was finally given the push I needed to unsubscribe to a lot of professional reviewers and review sources and fall back to more trusted fan reviewers.
I started reading professional film reviews for the same reason I read reviews for books. I want to see different perspectives, because I don't believe there's ever only one reading for a specific text. I want to see the different emotional reactions so I can look at it through a wider cultural lens. But I want to see perspectives that represent the whole of the film, and so often with films that feature women, this is hard to find without digging through a lot of stereotypical readings where women aren't really people, just sex objects, or simply support structure for male characters.
I wanted to learn more about critiquing film, too. I assumed (perhaps wrongly) that professional reviewers have some skill evaluating film on both a technical scale and an emotional one, or else mainstream magazines and media review sites wouldn't be hiring them to write reviews. The trouble is, it gets tiring stumbling across reviews erasing women from their centrality or devaluing their position in the narrative due to assumptions about where women fit into action blockbusters just to get to the rare review that really engages with the material. It happens everywhere. Natasha becomes a slinky spy. Mako Mori from Pacific Rim becomes Raleigh's love interest. Katniss's story in The Hunger Games franchise is redefined to contextualize her as the potential love interest to two boys.
It wasn't only mainstream outlets that casually discarded Natasha; a browse through the Top Critics section of Rotten Tomatoes will yield more of the same. Reviewers who tackled The Avengers often did the same stereotypical shorthand with Natasha's character, even though arguably Natasha has some of the most pivotal moments in the ensemble cast of superheroes. It was incredibly frustrating then. This time it's demoralizing, too, given that I have high hopes that Marvel will decide to take a risk on at least one Black Widow film. But what are the chances in a culture that makes it so easy for reviewers to discard a main character this way, just because she's a woman? What are the chances when reviewers erasing Natasha are part of a larger cultural movement that, as the project ...But Not Black Widow suggests, seek the "symbolic annihilation of women through merchandise"?
It's not only watching a character you love and identify with be erased due to sexist preconceptions of what women can be and do within a particular type of film. It's not only being frustrated that the reviewers are effectively lying to their audience who may be using their review to decide to see the film because they can't get past their own biases to a more robust understanding of women in film. It's also about being bombarded with the fact that outside my fannish culture, mainstream reviewers and critics will continue moving the line for women. No matter how excellent a woman's performance, many reviews of that performance will seek to downplay her role in the film to the point where they don't even see what she is, and instead only see what they wish she was instead of a character with agency and depth and an important connection to male characters that has very little to do with sex.
With this latest fandom resurgence, watching the women around me come together around this shared canon to talk about how fantastic Natasha was in Captain America: The Winter Soldier only for her not to have her own film yet, I've found I'm a little too tired to be patient with this type of review or engagement any longer. The suppression of Natasha's character is blatant, sexist, and exhausting. I'm not a film critic. I may be losing something by letting go of professional reviews. But it's better to let go and fall back to more welcome communities so I stop accidentally stumbling across the reminders that female characters I love often matter very little. These reviews are for general audiences, perhaps, and I've moved beyond being part of a general audience and am part of a specific niche culture. Although I still have some remorse for people who read the reviews who devalue Natasha's character, or worse, fail to mention her importance at all. It's just another way women are marginalized, the barriers crossed to get a character like her represented in film at all raised elsewhere along different, more insidious lines.
But it is absolutely possible to review critically and embrace everything that's happening in a film. It's definitely happening in some corners; I'm just greedy and want more. There's no reason to fall back to tired stereotypes. It's not all bad, and some people still get it; for example, Odie Henderson for rogerebert.com shows this handily:
What struck me most about how Mackie, Evans and Scarlett Johansson (who returns as Natasha Romanoff) interact is the way they look at each other. Watch their body language as they gently tease each other in their quiet scenes, and notice how directors Anthony and Joe Russo frame them. There's a genuine emotional shorthand at work, especially from Johansson, who is excellent here.
Of course, I'm well aware that my changed perspective, lack of patience, and contempt for terribly written professional film reviews is a direct result of my status inside my media fandom culture as Tumblr-style commentary becomes more of a staple in my analytical life. It's not a mainstream perspective, that's for sure. Anyone's perspective would change if they were suddenly privy to the interpretive power of thousands of fans—lots of them women—all examining and talking about the same piece of media at the same time, with multiple visualization tools at their fingertips, which is my home turf. This is where I feel both represented and challenged to think more deeply about my media. I'm not sure any single individual professional reviewer could compare to that sort of onslaught of joyous critique and analysis; they're certainly not standing out in a group. But the ones engaging in this type of erasure could definitely stand to try a little harder.
Maybe one day I'll be able to return to mainstream reviews as a resource, but for now, I'm sure they'll get along writing reviews for their assumed audience of the 18–25 cisgender white male demographic. I'll be quite happy sticking with animated gifs, fan fic, and analytical essays written completely in tags.
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