With production under way on Captain Marvel, the first signs of an apparent trend have begun to take hold. As with the Warner Bros. blockbuster Wonder Woman, Marvel Studios’ first female-led superhero film is set in the past — the 1990s, specifically. Additionally, it’s been widely rumored that Wonder Woman 2 will take place in another era, possibly exchanging World War I for the 1980s. If true, that constitutes pattern, and one worth exploring.
The male-led superhero moves that launched both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, later, the DC Extended Universe, unfolded in the present. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel utilized flashbacks as necessary, sure, but the bulk of their narratives took place “now.” But while tying the origin of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman to World War I worked out well, following that with another period setting makes little sense. The same can be argued of Captain Marvel’s solo debut. Contemporary source material exists, after all, so why have the DCEU and the MCU elected to establish their first female superhero solo films in the past?
One possible reason is nostalgia. Period dramas are successful because the audience wishes to experience something from another time. For example, in the case of Wonder Woman, it’s no secret that well-made war movies can be enormously successful. That’s typically due to more than a desire by viewers to see things be blown up; war movies can tap into a sense of patriotism and pull at the heartstrings. They also provide the audience with a clear “hero” to root for.
The first set photos of Brie Larson as Carol Danvers provided the first visual confirmation of the studio’s initial announcement that Captain Marvel takes place in the 1990s: Look no further than the Oscar winner’s “Rachel” haircut, which immediately evoked memories of Friends, Justin Timberlake’s frosted tips and the Taco Bell chihuahua. The decade is trendy now, as ’90s kids are creating a lot of the media consumed by our culture, so it only makes sense a superhero film would want to ride that wave of popularity.
Nostalgia is incredibly powerful. According to Professor Constantine Sedikides, who studies social and personality psychology at the University of Southampton, induced nostalgia frees up our thinking, making us more likely to bond with strangers and consider new ideas. Theoretically, that would help to make a female superhero film more palatable for audiences who may have hesitations about watching an entire action-adventure devoted to one.
Another reason having these movies set in the past may be beneficial is that it allows studios to showcase sexism more easily. Wonder Woman encountered sexism after she left Themiscyra for “man’s world,” but that wasn’t surprising to audiences because we already accept the society of that era possessed rather narrow views of the roles of women. The reactions to Diana calling out the men in the council chamber for their cowardice didn’t fuel any controversy, because we expected it to happen.
While not many details are known about the Captain Marvel script, Carol Danvers is bound to run into sexism as well. It’s a part of any story in which a woman rises to the top of a male-dominated field. Heck, it’s event depicted in the first panel of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Dexter Soy’s run on Marvel Comics’ Captain Marvel, from 2012:
Studios are likely uncomfortable showing sexism in the present day, especially given the current social climate. By keeping the story and therefore the sexism, in the past, the films are insulated against some of the harsher audience reactions to a hot-button subject. With the sexism safely contained to another era, writers and directors aren’t responsible for creating commentary on what’s still happening in the present day.
With signs of movement, at long last, on a Black Widow solo movie, there’s speculation that Marvel Studios will explore the past of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, pulling back the curtain on her Red Room training and her previously referenced “ledger.” But here’s hoping the filmmaker’s will instead allow the eagerly anticipated feature to break the mold before it’s allowed to fully set, and bring female-led superhero movies into the present.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck from a screenplay by Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Captain Marvel stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, DeWanda Wise and Ben Mendelsohn. The film is set to hit theaters on March 6, 2019.
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