Higher. Faster. Further. More. Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman are icons in comics. Advertised as inspiration for girls and women. Except, sometimes, for me, but I could never articulate why. They both protected people who couldn’t protect themselves. Each is confident and fully realized. They are adult women. It was something… else. And Carloyn Cocca has articulated some of those elses in her approachable academic work, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel: Militarism and Feminism in Comics and Film.
Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel: Militarism and Feminism in Comics and Film
Following Carolyn Cocca’s Eisner Award-winning Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel: Militarism and Feminism in Comics and Film starts and articulates a conversation I did not know I needed. When I read the title, it set my mind alight. It reminded me of the disconnect I felt with these characters.
While I had enjoyed Carol Danvers in her original series, her comics from the 2010s felt like they missed something. I felt similarly about Wonder Woman. I could never read more than a graphic novel at a time, and even those felt like a slog. Secretly, I felt like a bad feminist knowing that I enjoyed movies with male, or predominately male, leads more than I enjoyed their movies. And while I was stewing in this miasma, Cocca wrote this book that outlines so many reasons why I felt that disconnect.
The book is broken into three major sections. “Gender, violence, and militainment” focuses on the intersections between how militainment, defined as “entertainment that normalizes military-level violence by individuals or military intervention by a state as ordinary and as necessary,” intersects with how we understand gendered violence. The second section, “Military service, empowerment, and diversification,” explains how the military can utilize narratives like those of Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman for recruitment and understanding the empowerment of minoritized groups. The last section, “The othering of adversaries and refugees,” explores how Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel obscure the victims of violence in their stories through their actions. Each of these highlights a specific way that both characters can be read in multiple, sometimes contradictory, ways. Particularly when we look at their portrayals since 2010.
The book provides specific examples from comics and film to illuminate her points. I love Cocca’s exploration of how Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel now have hereditary reasons for their violence. This choice naturalizes their more recent tendencies to harm before hearing out by rooting that violence in their biology, lessening its impact or contradiction with their gender. Another way that creators soften their contradictory natures is that both women have covers or panels that reference war propaganda. Specifically, propaganda or recruitment posters from supposedly “just” conflicts. This accents how their violence is state-sanctioned and/or sponsored by the military, meaning that the state controls their power.
Her detailed discussion is worth reading in its entirety. However, what I appreciate most about this work is that it starts conversations about the narrative complexity of the characters. Key for me is the idea that they are both feminist and postfeminist, neoliberal, and neoconservative.
These dichotomies exist as a dialogue, and my take away from this discussion is that what matters is what readers, consumers, and audiences do with this. Do we see what Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel do as an end or a beginning? Are they justified in their violence or are they upholding a system of violence? Whose voices write these stories, and, within the pages, who gets to be an active agent?
Additionally, Cocca’s arguments gave me ways to explain why Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), unlike the Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel films, struck an emotional chord for me. Birds of Prey faced more criticism than either film and, based on Cocca’s arguments, does not rely on the techniques that make Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel palatable to post-colonial, -racial, and -feminist audiences.
There is no military or biological determinism to soften the violence of the Birds of Prey. There are no male allies. There is no patriotism. There are, instead, women fighting the daily violence that — although stylized — women and many other communities actually face. It does not shy away from the fact that the fight for collective action for the oppressed starts locally, not from a conquering army.
In some ways, Cocca’s argument feels rudimentary. Sometimes her conclusions appear obvious. Especially when jumping off of statements such as “Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel comics… had been dominated… by male creators.” However, that is the power of this book. Cocca points out how who creates and controls the narratives of Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, corporations who get paid by the American military, may make it impossible for the characters to address their own place in upholding oppression. While not explicitly stated, these kinds of arguments made me consider that regardless of gender, origin, sexual orientation, or other identity, superhero stories like theirs may not be what modern comics readers need.
As much as superheroes like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel can be inspiring, they also create unrealistic ideas about how to solve problems. And it was this lack of realism combined with contradictory relationships to oppression that bothered me about them. Their recent reliance on punch-the-patriarchy styles does not help undo centuries of harm to oppressed communities.
Such methods create simplistic approaches to complex problems. For me that was the most important takeaway of Cocca’s book: reminding consumers and creators that even if these works inspire us we should consider these narratives critically. Especially when such narratives are not balanced by alternative approaches to superhero-based problem solving. These works are escapist, inspiring, and fun, and we can enjoy them and at the same time create and consume critique that paves the way for diverse ways of understanding our heroes.