The women of the DC and Marvel universes have gotten short shrift on the big screen. Yes, Wonder Woman was better than we could have hoped for, and Gal Gadot continued to kick all kinds of ass in Justice League. But Wonder Woman is the only female character in that team-up movie who’s not a love interest or a mother, give or take Mera’s five minutes of oddly accented whirlpooling. And she’s the only female superhero to have her own movie in the modern batch of DC and Marvel films. By contrast, the list of men who star in their own films are Batman, Superman, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Star-Lord, Captain America, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and the upcoming Black Panther. (The X-Men films, meanwhile, are mostly group efforts, though there are three characters in this universe to get their own films: Wolverine, Deadpool, and the upcoming Gambit.)
Considering non-starring roles, Guardian Of The Galaxy’s Gamora and Nebula are some fierce female warriors, but new Guardian addition Mantis is much meeker than menacing. Marvel finally gave us a worthwhile female supervillain in Thor: Ragnarok’s Hela, but Valkyrie was reduced to little more than a sidekick, and a scene alluding to her bisexuality was left out of the final cut. Harley Quinn was the breakout star of Suicide Squad, for better and worse. Black Widow is still one of the few Avengers without her own standalone movie; the first round of toys based on a key Age Of Ultron moment for Scarlett Johansson’s Russian spy-turned-S.H.I.E.L.D. asset didn’t even include her as an action figure.
These blockbusters could take a lesson from Crisis On Earth-X, the crossover event that played out on The CW’s DC-inspired series this week. In interlocking episodes of Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash, and DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, the women were not afterthoughts, or merely love interests, but integral parts of the plotting, and scheming—and honestly, the best parts of the fighting. The series also contained not one but two plots involving same-sex relationships, heightening the romantic and dramatic stakes from multiple angles.
Coincidentally or not, Flash showrunner Andrew Kreisberg was fired today for a history of sexual harassment in the workplace, which makes it even more astounding that the diversity-forward heroics made it to the screen. Times like these place heightened importance on depictions of empowered women (by yellow suns or otherwise) and people of all sexual orientations. It’s even more key that this multiverse-spanning team was out to defeat another force of evil that’s proving stubbornly resilient on our own planet: Nazis. Intent on stealing Supergirl’s heart, these wedding-crashing fascists from a parallel Earth provide an ideal foil to the shows’ female and LGBTQ protagonists.
These characters begin earning their spotlights early. When the Nazis first invade—vaporizing officiant/superhero-TV-Easter-egg William Katt—Supergirl’s government-agent sister Alex and Legends Of Tomorrow’s Sara (a.k.a. the assassin White Canary) immediately stand up, tear slits into their fancy dresses, and start pummeling the hooded, armed attackers while still in stilettos. (The fact that the duo hooked up the night before is an unexpected and delicious bonus.) Alex and Sara are just two of the many fearsome fighters gathered to witness the nuptials of Barry Allen and Iris West, and a battle quickly breaks out in the church—one more impressive (and legible) than anything in the eternally darkly lit Justice League. Arrow has his bow, The Flash his super-speed, and Vibe his vibration booms. Sara and Alex have nothing but their ninja-worthy fighting skills, which they deliver in punch after punch after roundhouse kick. (Sarah even uses an incense urn as a makeshift weapon.) And so it goes throughout Crisis On Earth-X, the women fighting alongside, and in front of, their male counterparts, smashing sexist traditions of men gallantly protecting the weaker womenfolk as Supergirl dukes it out with her Nazi doppelgänger and Caitlin Snow reluctantly calls upon the icy powers of Killer Frost.
Earth-X’s Man In The High Castle reality and Overgirl’s SS crest aren’t exactly subtle, but in an age when The New York Times is reporting on the “Midwestern manners” of a neo-Nazi, it’s a necessary reminder of what this authoritarian scum stands for. Their hateful rhetoric also underlines the value of the diverse makeup of Crisis’ heroes: Trapped in an Earth-X camp, Sara proudly stands up against heteronormativity, as does new character Ray, professing his love for another man. That man turns out to be Captain Cold, and his efforts to save Ray help Sara and the other heroes escape. This also results in the crossover’s second same-sex kiss, a romantic clinch that goes far past the typical man-on-man TV peck into something truly passionate. Wentworth Miller, who pays Cold, is openly gay in real life; on Earth-X, so is Captain Cold, heightening the urgency of the heroes’ efforts to escape certain death at the camp. And his partner Ray turns out to be The Ray, the superhero with light-based powers who’ll be the first gay lead in an animated DC series when Freedom Fighters: The Ray premieres on CW Seed next month.
Crisis On Earth-X also provides a chance to shine for the women behind the scenes of the Arrowverse. Neither The Flash’s Iris or Arrow’s Felicity are known for their derring-do, but they manage to knock a few Nazis using the element of surprise. It’s worth noting that Felicity’s Earth-X equivalent is also a hero, a prisoner risking death to deliver food to starving children. Across the board in this CW miniseries, these women are not waiting around to get rescued or protected; they are doing the rescuing themselves. They’re so formidable, and dominant, that it’s not even possible that they would be cast off as sidekicks. Compare that to Wonder Woman and Black Widow’s places within their respective big-screen teams, the makeshift den mothers outnumbered by their male colleagues.
Sure, Iris and Felicity both become wives at the end—at least Oliver was the one pushing for marriage, not Felicity, but her brush with death brings her around on matrimony. And too much is made of Kara going stag at the wedding. But Alex and Sara go past their one-night stand to become not just fighting partners but confidants, as Sara helps Alex realize her sound reasoning for breaking up with former fiancée Maggie. Captain Cold regretfully says goodbye to his paramour in order to stick around on Earth-1, which only means great things for those of us on that side of the DC universe. As Oliver Sava writes in his review of “Crisis On Earth-X, Part Four,” “it’s great to see these superhero shows normalizing queer relationships,” an effort especially valuable for younger viewers discovering their own sexuality.
It’s unfortunate that movie studios feel constrained by outdated—to say nothing of hurtful and regressive—societal standards that limit the possibilities of many of the movies they’re pouring millions of dollars into: The tremendous financial success of Wonder Woman should prove what a market there is for movies with a strong female hero (which hopefully will be reinforced by Captain Marvel). Should they get stuck, the studios should take a closer look at what The CW just accomplished: Proving that diversity and equality not only have a place in major superhero battles, but make them that much more powerful.