When the noxious fanboys who howl about movies being too "PC" and "woke" inevitably revved up after the recent announcements of a female Thor and a potential female 007, I did what I always do: roll my eyes. There will always be an element of toxic fandom that will whine about the dreaded womanliness being foisted upon their beloved male heroes.
But on another level, I found myself agreeing — not that such movies are "too woke," but that perhaps it would be best if they didn't exist at all. Just as it's important to call out the backwards fans who don't want to see any leading women on screen, it's also important to call out the self-congratulatory pander that fuels many studios' gender-swap projects, too. Rather than invest in new stories about women, Marvel's Thor: Love and Thunder and a forthcoming Bond film appear to cautiously tie new female-fronted stories to already established male-led stories. It's a decision that makes the gender swap element of the plots not only cowardly, but insultingly lazy.
Gender-swap stories have long been a staple of theater and film, but recently ratcheted up in Hollywood, from the female-fronted Ghostbusters in 2016 to Ocean's 8 in 2018, and Men in Black: International and What Men Want this year. Many similar projects are also in the works, with the CW launching a Batwoman TV series this fall and Channing Tatum and Jillian Bell starring in reversed roles in a remake of the mermaid (merman?) film Splash, "happening soon." Most recently and egregiously, though, Marvel announced that Natalie Portman will be "the female Thor" in a film set for release in 2021. Likewise, while the forthcoming untitled Bond 25 will still star Daniel Craig as the Martini-drinking British spy, The Daily Mail leaked as-of-yet unconfirmed rumors that in the movie, James Bond will retire and a character played by actress Lashana Lynch will be given Bond's codename, 007, potentially opening up Ian Fleming's universe to female-fronted spin-offs.
Films that set themselves up to be billed as introducing the "female 007" or "lady Thor" inherently make the "female" part of the equation a gimmick, though. There is a pervasive sense of temporary "loaning out" the male role to the actress in question as a means of satisfying female fans. In a 2014 announcement introducing the female Thor comic book character (on which Portland's character will presumably be based), Marvel Comics boasted that the story was "the latest in the ever-growing and long list of female-centric titles that ... invite new readers into the Marvel Universe" — a belittling statement, as if to suggest that women are incapable of enjoying franchises centered around non-female characters. What's more, rather than introducing a stand-alone woman superhero, Marvel dodged by tying its project to the identity of a tested male character, implying that the studio sees new women-fronted franchises as more of a gamble.
Then there is the awkward insertion of the actresses into the films, done in such a way as to avoid disrupting the history of the male characters. In the comic books that introduce the female Thor, for example, we learn that Jane Foster (played in the Marvel movie franchise by Portman) assumes Thor's powers after finding herself able to lift the magical hammer Mjolnir; Thor then relinquishes his name to Jane. Yet Foster, who is going through chemotherapy, gets sicker each time she transforms into Thor and eventually dies, only to be restored by the "real" Thor and ultimately convince him to become Thor again. Swell. Similarly, by making 007's successor a woman, Eon Pictures wouldn't have to disrupt the apparent sanctity of Bond's character, which suggests a female 007 is somehow less central and less vital to the James Bond universe.
Casting women in the lead roles of traditionally male franchises also doesn't amend for past errors by said franchise. There is something especially apologetic about the possibility of a woman 007 being injected into a series known best for its womanizing playboy lead. Likewise, in addition to Marvel's decades-long lack of diversity, Jane Foster's character has been treated almost hilariously poorly by Marvel, vanishing for entire movies at a time and dismissed as not Thor's "equal" by Marvel Studios' president. The decision to suddenly flip the script really does seem like one engineered for good headlines rather than coming from a sincere interest in fixing the Marvel universe's woman problem.
Most telling of all, though, gender-swap stories are rarely accompanied by the same parity behind the camera. While such films take applaudable steps towards reversing the underrepresentation of women on screen in lead or non-romantic roles, there is still a much more cancerous problem in the heart of Hollywood that keeps women out of behind-the-camera careers. Thor: Love and Thunder, despite masquerading as being a woman's story, was conceived by comic book writer Jason Aaron and is being directed by Taika Waititi; while there is not a confirmed 007 role for Lashana Lynch, she is rumored to be introduced as the female answer to Bond in Cary Joji Fukunaga's movie next year. I am at least more optimistic about the latter project, which has the immensely talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge on board as a co-writer, and who Vanity Fair confirms went into the project with an eye for changing how the James Bond franchise "treats women."
It ought to be noted, also, that gender swaps can and have been done well in the past. Such swaps at their best recontexualize old stories, often to inject new queer, feminist, or political dynamics into staler scripts, from His Girl Friday to the recent terrific reinvention of Doctor Who. I hope that Thor or any eventual remix of the James Bond story might also find a way to move beyond rote feminist box-checking and do something challenging, bold, and deserving of the actresses cast as leads.
Either way, female characters shouldn't be relegated to merely picking up the mantle (or, er, the Mjolnir) of pre-established male heroes. Doing so is belittling, boring, and just plain uncreative. It's about time women got stories and universes all their own.