“Super 8” and J.J. Abrams’s Odd Woman Conundrum

"Super 8" and J.J. Abrams's Odd Woman Conundrum

In yesterday’s New York Times Manohla Dargis laid out the depressing picture of this year’s mostly woman-less summer at the movies. If you’re a fan of female fare at the Cineplex, she explains, you should probably just see “Bridesmaids” again. And she’s got a pretty good point. It seems as if studio execs are still operating under the conventional wisdom that films driven by women will bomb at the box office, and the post-Wiig season is therefore pretty bleak. I’m a bit more optimistic about Cameron Diaz and “Bad Teacher” than Dargis, but even that single film is not enough to change the landscape. With naught but a handful of independent films led by women over the next few months, it seems summer at the movies is going to be a quite the boys’ club.

So where does “Super 8” fit into all of this? J.J. Abrams is, after all, no stranger to the issue. When “Star Trek” opened in the summer of 2009 there was a hullabaloo over the film’s lack of female involvement, especially given the tradition of strong women in its long-running television source material. Not that it was a debacle, and the flick’s box office success certainly didn’t speak to any widespread outrage over the controversy, but one might think Abrams would have learned something. Unfortunately, while “Super 8” isn’t exactly generating the discussion of the director’s last blockbuster, it’s not really that much of an improvement. And in the context of Abrams’s TV work, I find the whole predicament kind of baffling.

I won’t pretend to be at all familiar with “Felicity,” which aired when I was middle school and of which I haven’t seen a single episode. Nonetheless, I think it’s relevant that Abrams’s first television creation was a female-led drama. After that he brought us “Alias.” Sydney Bristow is perhaps one of the most influential female characters in the pop culture of the last decade, and I would argue the show is why we now have movies like “Salt.” Abrams and Jennifer Garner got five seasons out of a strong female lead and a complicated narrative that was not only led by a woman but would come to include a whole slew of well-written female characters. If you then add the cast of “Lost,” you’ve got a television career filled with the kind of women Hollywood so desperately needs to put on film.

Then what’s the problem? Obviously much of it has to do with the big gap between TV and movies in general. The landscape of the small screen is simply better for female characters these days, from “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” to cable shows like “Damages” and “The Closer.” Yet it seems that no matter how successful women might be in television, movie studios won’t bite. And as Dargis points out, recent fall and winter box office hits like “Black Swan” and “True Grit” have had no impact on summer fare.

In spite of all this, however, I still wonder how much we can really exonerate Abrams. “Super 8” is now his second summer movie in a row with a woman problem. It’s almost laughable how the film operates almost completely within bland female archetypes. Elle Fanning, who I acknowledge does a very good job in the role, plays the typical muse/love object. She’s fought over by the boys, she seems to “inspire” without even having all that much agency, and she ends up in desperate need of rescue. She doesn’t even get to do her own make-up for the film these kids are shooting, offering our young hero (Joel Courtney) the poetic chance to physically paint his crush into the romanticized movie star of his dreams (or a zombie).

More obviously, of course, is the idealized dead mother, who at least in “Star Trek” has a few lines before she (Winona Ryder) gets sucked into the black hole. In “Super 8” she dies off-screen in the opening minute of the film, an accident that forces the steel plant to change their sign. Living on in the locket around her son’s neck, she doesn’t even get the interesting flashback sequences of her recent counterparts in “Inception” and “Shutter Island.” Like Fanning’s character, it seems her principal contribution to the film is serving as a point of conflict for two dudes. It’d be frustrating if it weren’t so uninspired.

This “Super 8” non-character becomes even more stunning in the context of Abrams’s earlier work. Irina Derevko (Lena Olin), the mother in “Alias,” is an almost subversive overturning of the “dead mom” trope. While Sydney thinks she’s long-deceased at the beginning of Season 1, it quickly becomes apparent that she’s not only still alive but a bit of a bamf. “Alias” takes the mute ghost-woman and yanks her back to life. How Abrams got from such a fascinating and subversive set of female characters five years ago to his entirely milquetoast women on the big screen, I have no idea. It could just be the way Hollywood is these days, but that just doesn’t seem good enough. We’ve got hours and hours of televised proof that Abrams can do a much better job, and he should be held to it. Maybe the upcoming sequels to “Mission Impossible” and “Star Trek” will deliver. In the meantime, “Super 8” does nothing to ameliorate this male-dominated summer.

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