‘A-Force #1’ Is Gender-Neutral Awesome

How to make an all-female team of heroes awesome for all genders.

There was once a time when the epitome of girl power was the Spice Girls. Take the same pre-packaged, heavily processed concoction that created boy bands and use women instead. Somehow that’s supposed to celebrate all things feminine. To be fair, that was the late 90s. It was a time when Nicholas Cage was still considered an A-list actor and the concept of strong female characters was limited to characters played by Sigourney Weaver.

Now the concept of strong female characters has become a mainstream concept and A-Force #1 is put in a position to capitalize on that concept. The timing couldn’t be better. Marvel has been the championship surfer riding the wave of female characters that have risen to prominence in recent years. Characters like Batgirl, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, and Kamala Khan have shown that they can carry their own weight without having to dress like Emma Frost. With Secret Wars in full swing, there’s enough chaos and confusion to do something different that doesn’t involve just flipping the boy band formula.

Battleworld has created a new environment for female characters from multiple eras to come together for a singular struggle. It’s an environment where every character is free of baggage, reduced to their purest form. It’s like taking football players from multiple eras and putting them on the same team when they’re playing at an all-pro level. It has every conceivable detail to work with. And in A-Force #1, the result is rich in substance yet incomplete in scope.

The domain of Arcadia is by far the most appealing locale in Battleworld to date. It’s a land that is devoid of zombies, killer robots, or evil clones. In the context of the Marvel universe, it might as well be an endangered species. It feels like a world that might actually be worth living in and not just because it’s protected by a team of beautiful women. In fact, the concept that Arcadia is protected by a team of women is almost secondary. The story never focuses on it or uses it to make a statement of sorts. It’s just how Arcadia functions. It may upset the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world, but few others will really notice it.

This in and of itself is an important accomplishment. By not focusing on gender, the story isn’t about a domain that’s protected by a team of superpowered women. It’s about a domain whose protectors just happen to be superpowered women. Their gender is a non-issue. They don’t do anything that a team of male heroes wouldn’t. They police their world, look out for one another, and develop close friendships. And they do this without coming off as a Sex in the City re-run.

Beyond the accomplishment, the story has the same themes and conflicts as other domains of Battleworld. It doesn’t matter that Arcadia is peaceful and protected by a team of women. It’s still subject to the same rules imposed by Dr. Doom. That means that when one of them breaks a rule, they suffer the same consequences. In this story, it’s Miss America who runs afoul of Dr. Doom’s rules. And when it comes to his rules, Dr. Doom practices strict gender equality. That alone puts him above 90 percent of the countries on Earth, which is a disturbing thought.

Like other residents of Battleworld, Miss America learns the hard way that Dr. Doom doesn’t like it when one domain encroaches on another. It’s not just for invasions either. Miss America threw a dead shark over the shields dividing their domains. That counts as an extreme version of littering and Dr. Doom is as strict as Singapore when it comes to that policy.

It leads to an emotional struggle within A-Force. They know the rules like everyone else. They try to protect their friend from the consequences. They don’t succeed. They don’t get special treatment. They don’t even try to flirt their way out of it. Miss America still has to pay for her crimes and it weighs heavy on her friends. It’s a toll that’s actually more compelling than a giant shark attacking Arcadia. It’s a nice change of pace, but it’s also part of the primary flaw in this story.

The conflict is triggered by an attack from a giant shark. It’s a conflict that is only slightly more engaging than the last Sharknado movie. While it does give A-Force a chance to show what they can do as a team, it lacks the kind of epic scale that has helped make Secret Wars feel like a multi-dimensional royal rumble. It’s practically glossed over. It’s basically a teaser trailer to the emotional struggle involving Miss America, minus the bad one-liners and annoying voice-overs.

That’s not to say the shark attack was completely without merit. It’s an issue that A-Force seeks to investigate. It’s an investigation that also coincides with the unexpected arrival of another female character. However, the connections are limited and the flow of events gets somewhat choppy. It’s like watching the Godfather on cable with poorly timed commercials interrupting the narrative.

Flaws aside, A-Force #1 creates an appealing, engaging world that’s worth exploring. It’s not some grand utopian vision where women rule the world and all is well. It’s not some dystopian horror where an army of Don Drapers rule either. It’s a world that offers fertile ground with which to explore these female characters, minus convoluted romantic entanglements and radical feminist undertones.

This is also a world where the strength of women takes center stage and they do it without denigrating men. On paper, it shouldn’t feel like such a novel concept. Maybe it says something about both genders when something so refreshing also feels so unfamiliar. It’s not that the idea of strong female characters not having to beat up arrogant male characters is new. It’s just that someone finally took the time to tell that story in a way that all genders can appreciate.

RATING 8 / 10