Last week, Marvel Studios announced that Natalie Portman will be playing the next Thor in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder. With the reveal of this thrilling information, I began to reflect on other films that portray women as heroes and in the process noticed some issues.
In this post, I’m going to be looking at female characters in film who hold prominent titles and are supposedly powerful and important because of it, such as heroes, queens, princesses, etc, but sometimes fall short. The first character I want to take a look at is Leeloo from The Fifth Element (1997). Spoilers for all films ahead.
I first saw The Fifth Element a few years back and despite the intense action and romantic narrative, was kind of underwhelmed with the film’s supposed heroic moment for Leeloo. The film describes Leeloo to be the weapon that will save humanity from a great evil. That is a tremendous title to give someone, in this case, a woman. Awesome! But, as the film progresses, I realized that Leeloo does not appear in the film until more than 20 minutes into it. We see a lot of Korben, Leeloo’s love interest. The audience is introduced to his lifestyle before he meets Leeloo and at the end of the day, Korben is the real main character and protagonist of the movie, not Leeloo who is supposed to save mankind. After Leeloo is introduced, she escapes and runs into Korben where she stays as she learns who she is and what her mission is. However, Leeloo does not do much to represent a “hero” until an hour and a half into the film where she has her first fight scene. In complete honesty, it is a great sequence. However, knowing how to fight does not automatically mean you are a hero. What follows is Leeloo, Korben, and the other characters, on the spaceship with the important stones, in which the hurt and weakened Leeloo lies next to Korben who tells her
“The Diva said I should take care of you.”
Once the crew arrives at the temple, they struggle to figure out how to prevent this great evil, a ball of fire, from obliterating the planet. Korben begs Leeloo for help, and when she says she does not understand why she should save humanity if there is so much evil, Korben counters with the viewpoint that there are things worth saving, love being one of them, and confesses his love for Leeloo. The two kiss, colorful lights shoot from the stones and strike Leeloo, and the ball dissolves, saving humanity. That’s it. Leeloo is able to “save” the entire planet because a man kisses her and beams of light hit her. I’m sorry but, that doesn’t really qualify as a “hero” for me. What did she do? Nothing really. All she did was exist and that was enough. I say that Korben is the main character and protagonist because, without him, Leeloo quite literally would not have been able to do the one thing she was destined to do. And while yes, love is a beautiful thing and a story worth sharing, what is the point of assigning a character such a dramatic and important title, when she has no actual qualities or traits to defend it, besides some kick-ass moves and a boyfriend. Violence does not make a woman a hero. And neither does simply declaring that she is one.
Let’s discuss another film that I feel falls into the same trap The Fifth Element does: M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. Once again, we begin with the story of a man devoid of purpose or love in his life: Cleveland. That is until, ten minutes into the film, we meet Story, a nymph, or “narf,” who needs to get back home to her kingdom after she meets the human she is destined to meet and inspire for the benefit of humanity. Eventually, it is revealed that Story is not simply a narf, but in fact a “Madam Narf,”
“considered a queen to her people.”
Amazing! And yet, we see nothing that supports this beautiful and divine purpose she has. We never see Story back in her kingdom of the “Blue World” to guide her people, and the time she spends in the human world is mostly her sitting weakly in Cleveland’s home, as Cleveland strives to find the people who will help Story get back home. Once again, he is our protagonist. And without him, along with the others, Story would be of no real purpose, besides having every “narf’s” innate destiny of helping a human. Speaking of, the scene in which she “helps” her human is merely a conversation that sparks a feeling of inspiration and motivation. All she had to do was meet the human, in this case, an author, and her work was done.
Now, I’m not ignoring the fact that both Leeloo and Story do help and save their male counterparts, Korben and Cleveland. Because of Leeloo, Korben is able to be vulnerable and feel love. Because of Story, Cleveland is able to heal from the pain of not being there to save his wife and children who were killed and is given a purpose when he felt he had none. These are beautiful messages and I acknowledge that. But, the women who help them are supposed to be these blessings to people with great power and responsibility, and we hardly see that in these films. And that is my main issue. A hero should have to show and prove themselves to be heroes. It should not be as simple as “the script says they are a hero, so they are, and with the help of a man, they fulfill their heroic purpose without really doing much.”
A film that I feel writes a female character as a hero in a brilliant and thoughtful way, is Guermillo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. In this film, the audience is immediately given the information that there is a princess who must return to her kingdom in the underworld. Shortly after, we meet the character of Ofelia, a young girl who loves to read and sees fairies. This is our protagonist. No ifs or buts, and no men. Just this girl. Ofelia then encounters the Faun who tells her that she is suspected of being this princess of the underworld. Excellent! But, she has to prove it. Ofelia is given three tasks in order to ensure that she is, in fact, this princess. And that is exactly what she does. She bravely faces a large toad and cleverly devices a way to defeat it and accomplishes task number one.
Ofelia: [to the toad] Hello, I am Princess Moanna, and I am not afraid of you.
Throughout the film, we see Ofelia deal with terrifying and sorrowful obstacles in both the magic realm and her own world, as her mother is very ill, her step-father is a horribly evil captain, and she is smack-dab in the middle of a civil war. In the end, Ofelia sacrifices herself and returns to the kingdom of the underworld to be the princess she always was inside. Spot the difference? Unlike Leeloo and Story, Ofelia has to overcome obstacles in order to demonstrate that she deserves the title being given to her. This little girl, a child, actively expresses her intelligence and bravery, not simply her combat skills. And her mentor? A woman. Not once does Ofelia need the guidance of a man to prove her value. And the most important element of this film is that even if this magical realm in which she is a princess is completely made up, there is no doubt that Ofelia is a strong, smart, and kind girl that the audience is rooting for.
So, what was the point of all this? My point was, a woman, or a girl should be given the respect to prove that she is a hero because she has the compassion and bravery to be one for the people, not just because the script says she is. And my hope is that with this new era of Marvel with Valkyrie as the King of Asgard and Jane as Thor, that this standard of heroism is applied.
-Ariana Martinez (A.M.)
I do not own these images