On one hand, it is easier to find examples of progressive narratives that have resulted in failures than successes. The most obvious example is the one I have just talked about, Star Wars. In the Sequel Trilogy, Rey could have been a much more interesting character. To a certain extent, she is a Mary Sue. She has no conflicts with any of her teammates, and everyone on the Rebel side seems to like her. Rey gains power far too easily. Almost everything she tries to do, she succeeds in. Also, she has the same character weakness that Luke Skywalker had, a rejection of adventure. But Luke wasn’t fighting the deputy big bad in the first movie.
Another failure of inclusive storytelling is the latest iteration of Charlie’s Angels. While the original TV show was an excuse to show beautiful women on the TV screen, they intended this last one for female audiences. The theme of the movie was that women can do anything. This is a worthwhile theme, however, in this movie they took it to such an extreme, it became its own reductio ad absurdum. All the female characters could do anything they wanted. The characters melded into a bland sameness. For example, the bruiser of the team was also a scientific genius. It makes me wonder why they needed the intellectual at all.
Like Rey, power came too easily to Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel. Hyper competent people still work hard, and that challenge seemed missing throughout the movie. However, unlike Rey, Danvers doesn’t have a character flaw. Captain Marvel is a flat character arc narrative, which is not a bad thing. However, they presented the narrative as if it were a positive character arc. At the beginning of the story, her “flaw” is that she questions authority. That flaw turns out to be a strength when it’s revealed her Kree handler is actually the villain. Danvers being right all along, but not knowing it, was wish fulfillment for the female audience. I would have found it much more interesting if her flaw was that she accepted orders. I would have preferred that her handler ordered her to slaughter the Skrulls at the beginning, and she carried out those orders. Watching her transform by realizing the horrors of her previous actions would have been much more interesting for me.
While it might be easy to point at these movies and say they are bad because they are inclusive, I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I feel that the inclusiveness is a symptom of a greater disease—that being franchise fatigue. The Marvel Universe, while going strong, has been showing signs of falling apart ever since Infinity War. Charlie’s Angels had the original run, multiple foreign language versions, the 2000s film series, and this last film. Star Wars has been on a downward trajectory since Return of the Jedi. In each of these examples, they used inclusiveness as a way for an aging franchise to stay relevant in modern times. But these movies would have failed, inclusive or not.
Frozen is a recent example of an inclusive narrative free from franchise fatigue. While it appealed to a mostly female audience, it was watchable for the entire family. It broke new ground by having two princesses. Instead of having the “ice queen” character a shallow villain, she became a fully rounded protagonist. It also used the gendered tropes that Disney helped to establish by hiding the twist that the handsome prince was the villain. Far from going broke, Disney made a metric buttload of money off of Frozen.
While Wonder Woman has had a long history in comic book form, the character only had the rather terrible Linda Hamilton TV show until recently. The inclusiveness was easier to swallow in the newest movie because it didn’t point the finger at men and say, “you are the problem.” It was more of a fish out of water story. This Wonder Woman had never experienced chauvinism. She wasn’t fighting against sexism because, in the character’s mind, she had already won the battle before the movie started.
Before Alien, final girls in horror movies were morally correct and sexually chaste. This movie turned that on its head. Ripley became the last survivor because she was competent. Alien also used the sexualized trope during the ending scene when Ripley gets undressed to prepare for hyper-sleep. To audiences in the late 70s, this was an easy shorthand to telegraph this character was going to die. In its sequel, Ripley became even more of a badass, not because she became more masculine, but because she became more maternal. Unfortunately, Alien has had a similar downward trajectory to Star Wars, again from Alien 3 onward. But none of the neckbeards point at the last two movies and say they failed because they were inclusive. Alien has always been inclusive, but as a franchise ages, the more difficult it is to stay relevant.
The fact of the matter is successful narratives are of their time, and each sequel is going to bring diminishing returns. Another example is the Terminator franchise, which had one great beginning, an incredible sequel, and plowed into the ground after that. Inserting female characters into the franchise will not save it. We need fresh stories that speak to the moment and to all of us at the table.