Where Are All the (Good) Female Superhero Movies?

This summer's superhero blockbusters finally featured strong female characters, but that's only a start

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Zade Rosenthal / MVLFFLLC / Marvel

Scarlett Johansson in a scene from The Avengers

If movie studios are interested in getting more women to come see their movies based on comic books, there’s an obvious solution: put more women in their movies based on comic books.

Comic-book action films are a huge business: this summer The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises earned a combined $3.2 billion at the worldwide box office. But as the genre expands beyond its stereotypical audience of nerdy single fanboys it needs to expand its appeal accordingly. The Avengers was certainly a big step in this direction, as 40% of its opening-weekend audience were women. (Part of that draw may have been the fact that Avengers director/co-writer Joss Whedon also created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, arguably one of the greatest ass-kicking-female myths since Medea.)

(MORE: Why Pixar’s Brave Is a Failure of Female Empowerment)

Still, my wife wasn’t as excited about The Avengers as I was. Growing up watching Margot Kidder, Kim Basinger and Kirsten Dunst playing helpless damsels being rescued by Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, respectively, she’d had — understandably — about enough of superhero films for one lifetime. I saw it without her, and reported back about how Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johanssen), a.k.a. Black Widow, could not only handle herself in a fight but was also a master of psychological warfare. She was intrigued enough by that to want to go see it after all.

It’s actually been a decent summer for women in comic-book movies: Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in June’s The Amazing Spider-Man was not only brilliant and brave but indispensable in the fight to stop the destruction of New York City in the movie’s climactic scene. And Anne Hathaway basically gets to be a female version of Han Solo in The Dark Knight Rises: a lovable rogue who manhandles the Batcycle and gets all the best lines.

(MORE: Brave Old Worlds: Does Pixar Have a Problem with Stereotypes?)

But there’s still a long way to go. It’s an uphill battle, as so much original comic-book source material is inherently sexist and objectifying to begin with. Johanssen and Stone’s characters proved that a properly realized female character can add entire new dimensions to these testosterone-soaked sausage-fests, and Hathaway’s cat burglar got away clean with her entire film. But despite these examples, and strong performances in ensemble pieces like the X-Men films, we have yet to see a good superheroine movie. (Emphasis on “good;” we aren’t counting Halle Berry as Catwoman in 2004 and Jennifer Garner as Elektra the following year, not to mention last year’s abortive TV Wonder Woman reboot.)

But three decades after Superman kicked off the era of the modern superhero flick, movie studios ought to have figured out how to do them right by now, regardless of the lead character’s gender. Feature relatable characters dealing with relatable themes to go along with the action spectacle; write a decent, memorable, quotable script; and put out a quality tentpole picture rather than a contract-fulfilling loss leader or a lowest-common-denominator vehicle for slumming award winners.

(MORE: Why You Keep Seeing the Same Movie Over and Over)

And if all else fails, as crazy as this might sound, maybe consider putting a woman in charge. Just imagine what The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow, one of today’s best action auteurs, could do with even a relatively obscure character like Harley Quinn or the Wasp, let alone Batgirl or Power Girl. This summer, Brave proved that a female could headline another male stronghold — Pixar features — giving the studio its 13th number-one hit with its fifth-biggest opening weekend ever. There’s no reason a strong comic-book movie couldn’t do the same, particularly in a world where Xena, Alias, and the aforementioned Buffy were such huge hits on the small screen.

No reason, that is, other than entrenched sexism. Read a recent article or review of a comic-book action film and you’ll notice that reporters and critics tend to flatter male tights-wearers with deep thoughts about their characters’ motivations, while their female costars are forced to submit to inane questions about their costumes. (It’s been darkly satisfying to watch Johanssen, Stone and Hathaway stand up to this condescension.) Still, superheroine sexism can be overcome, as long as there are those who want to do it, and do it right. Joss Whedon famously answered an interviewer who asked why he keeps writing such strong female characters with this telling response: “Because you keep asking me that question.” He can’t be the only one in the industry who feels that way.

MORE: The War on Women Begins with Girls

64 comments
KeneticaxXx
KeneticaxXx

IF they are going to have ANY Female super heros, be it in a movie or starring in their own movies, they need to make sure that they go for Big Boobs and HOTness 1st.


Any attempt to downplay these Super chicks sex appeal immediately breaks the immersion for anyone who knows anything about the comics. No.. we dont want a flat chested Rogue.

MaryKateClark
MaryKateClark

We are pretty much on the same page... HOORAY!  I was raised on (reruns) of the Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman... Batgirl was my favorite character on Batman and Robin ... and I had Supergirl underoos.  ...Did I mention Princess Leia? She was there, too.

Why do we need new Batman/Spiderman/Superman movies every other year?  Where is Black Widow's movie? (Granted she's not the ONLY Avenger to lack one... but I'd bet she may be the LAST of the team to get her own movie if at all.) 

Where is the Wonder Woman movie?  Bionic Woman? 

I loved the X-men movies (except for the one that killed what might have been a good trilogy) ...I loved the Avengers.  Watchmen had an undeniable presence, despite some unfortunate roles for the females... there WERE superheroines in it. But it's high time for a GOOD superheroine movie with a solid superheroine that is well written, well cast and well directed.  You'd think that the world had no daughters, by the glut of superheroes and the utter neglect of superheroines.  

Imagine for a moment a world where all the movies about young men only depicted them as PRINCES; they could sing songs, befriend docile creatures and hope to marry the famous Princess who would one day be ruler of the Queendom. And all the movies about young women invariably featured the Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl with exciting super powers and spectacular deeds.

I'm not knocking Princesses across the board.... Leia was pretty outstanding.  But what does it take to get the Wonder Woman movie already?  ....Oh, and ... yes, there's a new Superman trailer out today. 

(Spell check highlights superheroine ...but not superhero ...Supergirl but not Superman. Batgirl but not Batman. Making it all the more annoying just to discuss this)

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submandave
submandave

The premise that a superhero movie must have strong female superheroes to appeal to women is, I think, an unproven assumption.  If you were to ask me, I'd guess that ScarJo in a skin tight leather suit did more to attract single fan-boys than women. 

Jeff Alexander
Jeff Alexander

Lots of great comments here. Thanks for your engagement!

fiafa
fiafa

What's most ridiculous about this article is how the author pretends that the reason why other superhero movies aren't popular with his wife because they feature "damsels in distress."

Yet most popular superhero movies among female audiences over the last couple of years are the Twilight movies.

Is there anyone deluded enough to think that Twilight would be equally popular if Edward and Bella (or Jacob and Bella) were an equally matched superhero duo?

Az_A
Az_A

How about The Incredibles? "Elastigirl" was not only a great heroine, but a positive portrayal of a traditional wife and mother. Maybe that last part disqualifies her from honors for those obsessed with the "War on Women"?

Julie Pascal
Julie Pascal

Also, if someone wants to figure out why there aren't more female super-heroes that are any good... look at that television show,  No Ordinary Family.   Never heard of it?  What a surprise.  The female superhero "mom", the first few episodes that I could get all the way through, didn't want to super hero anything (unless it was saving her own job)... taking personal risks was for *policemen* and her husband had to sneak around behind her back just to fight crime.   She wanted nothing to do with that and his desire to save the day was portrayed as *juvenile*.  

There you have the "female" and the "male."When people start whining about not enough female superheroes I just wish they'd stop trying to ruin my movies.

Anarchy
Anarchy

Can't we impose a social justice quota even if the female characters are unknown with no interesting powers?

Julie Pascal
Julie Pascal

Some people can't be pleased, and that's about all there is to it.  If you look at it all the right way anything can be dismissed... Black Widow included.  The only reason you, Mr. Alexander, saw value in Black Widow is because you chose to do so.

People make explaining how everything is sexist into their life's work.  It takes brilliant people FULL TIME to explain to us how bad women have it, and to make it convincing.

If we were left to our own devices a person would simply conclude that maybe the average girl isn't as interested in imagining herself a superhero as the average boy is, and that the genre is directed at a different market.

If we were left to our own devices those of us women who would rather get a root canal than watch "women's" television would never realize that we were supposed to be upset when the hero of our action movie was a guy.

Francis W. Porretto
Francis W. Porretto

More moronic "war on women" nonsense. There are quite a number of female heroes in prose fiction, and a fair number in the visual media. That the author considers it a cause for concern that they haven't yet achieved parity with male superheroes in the comic books tells me only that he needs to elevate his sights.

As for the "objectifying" tendencies of comic-book portrayals of women, by which I assume Mr. Alexander means making them physically attractive by conventional male standards, perhaps Mr. Alexander should spend some time researching the principal market for such publications: teenaged boys and young men. It turns out that they like those depictions -- and the purveyors thereof are canny enough to offer the market what the market happens to want.

TIME remains the magazine for people who can't (or won't) escape their prejudices.

Harmon Ward
Harmon Ward

The X-Men feature a few significant female leads.  They made some movies about them too!

Kevin
Kevin

Spit out another picture of a girl with a gun to ... bore me.

John Bragg
John Bragg

Author also misses the point of why superhero movies get made.  They enable the studio to tap into an already existing, already known (or quickly knowable) character. Superman.  Batman.  Spider-Man.  The Hulk.  Or, after the headline name brand characters are used up, ones who can be explained in half a sentence and used as main characters--the X-Men, Daredevil, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Green Lantern, the Flash (sooner or later).   

The only female character in the first group is Wonder Woman.     Black Canary would have potential, but sonic abilities are a tough movie-going experience.  

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

We need you, Buffy.

Bring Zoe Washburne with you.

kgelner
kgelner

If you want a strong female superhero movie, you have to start with good source material.   As you say for a long time comics and graphics art novels were more male focused... but somewhere in the entire realm of sketched fantasy there should be a female lead in a story with a rich plot and interesting world.   

I think though you are ignoring just how many superhero movies overall have been mediocre, it's just that a few have finally been done well - but I don't think Hollywood has it down pat by any means.

JWH
JWH

even a relatively obscure character like Harley Quinn or the Wasp

If Harley Quinn is your central character, you're not making a movie about a superheroine unless by "superheroine" you mean "the Joker's sidekick."

We've seen a couple superheroines here and there -- Scarlett Johanson as Black Widow in this year's Avengers, for example.  But given the studios' risk-averse approach to movies, I suspect we're not going to see a "superheroine movie" except as a spinoff from an existing franchise.  

John Bragg
John Bragg

The author misses the main reason for the lack of "good" Superheroine movies.  There is a much smaller roster of lead-character superheroines to base a franchise on.  Then factor in a failure rate, and it makes sense that Elektra and Daredevil sit in the same discount bin, and Halle Berry's Catwoman goes into a DVD pack with the Joel Schumacher Batman movies.  

Will Marvel follow up Avengers 2 with a Black Widow vehicle?  Hunting down Crimson Dynamo, pulled out of storage by Putin's siloviki?  And how will all that play on international screens?

JennGrace
JennGrace

I'd rather have more movies about women with character than more about women who kick-box in high heels. Of course, that's just this girl's opinion.

Jeffrey Raven
Jeffrey Raven

What about Salt - now there's a female action hero if ever there was one!

Jen Cord
Jen Cord

Hello, The Hunger Games? Though not a "superhero," I think to not mention that movie and best-selling series of books is slightly erroneous if the point being made is that there aren't enough female protagonists. Hermione figured in quite largely in all of the Harry Potter movies. As a woman, I don't feel under-represented.

Anna Riley-Pate
Anna Riley-Pate

Joss Whedon is awesome. I've always enjoyed his characters (Firefly, anyone?). 

c_laird478
c_laird478

I liked the Fantastic 4 with Jessica Alba. She makes one very hot superhero (superheroine?).

bob3905
bob3905

I like Josh Whedon, more importantly my WIFE likes Josh Whedon especially after seeing him in an interview with his wife, she taking the upper hand, he playing it like she runs the show at home (which she probably does).

lokiii
lokiii

They are movies that target guys and movies that target girls.  They people with paper thin skin that take offense to everything need to get a grip.

TunaSushi
TunaSushi

The major players in the comic industry as a whole don't do female characters well, so it's no surprise that the movies reflect this reality.  

After years of floundering, only recently has Wonder Woman come into her own with superior stories in her own title, yet at the same time still she's written poorly in Justice League.  The recently failed TV pilot sounded like too many Hollywood executives had fingers in her pie.

Marvel is stumbling again with a revision of Ms. Marvel, whom they want to feature prominently as a renamed Captain Marvel.  She deserves better than the current ponderous portrayal, which for some reason gave her an uglier costume and ditched the majority of her past supporting cast.  At least Claremont's not writing it.

Danyz
Danyz

Why no great women super heros? "Cause only a total friggin' dork wants to be rescued by a caped woman on steroids...

Jeff Alexander
Jeff Alexander

I think it's a mistake to dismiss comic-book movies as a genre out of

hand, as some seem inclined to do. Like comics themselves, they can function as effective allegories

on serious themes (identity, isolation, destiny, freedom, responsibility, etc.). In between the explosions, mayhem, and

costumes, of course. The latter gets butts in seats, but a well-made comic-book movie can have a lot to say as well.

chalupatime
chalupatime

Why don't the Young Adult novel industry cater more to male readers? Boys struggle to read more than girls.

Why don't YA authors create fully actualized male characters instead of ones that slavishly devote themselves to the female protagonist for no particular reason? Perhaps that would teach boys that they are human beings and submissive projectors of love and affection.

JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer, Veronica Roth. Where are the male authors? Is the YA industry so gynocentric that a male author cannot publish a blockbuster YA book?

Sara Rose
Sara Rose

It is not imperative that there be female superhero films, good or bad. Boys like explosions. Mayhem. Girls don't.

There are plenty of movies with strong women. They just don't involve ludicrous characters in laughable costumes killing massive numbers of people.

MatthewLane
MatthewLane

"Why do we need new Batman/Spiderman/Superman movies every other year?  Where is Black Widow's movie? "

You see, those characters are what is referred to as "popular." Black Widow doesn't get a movie, because she's not popular... At all... To anyone.... Even to the people who claim she should get her own movie.

"Where is the Wonder Woman movie?  Bionic Woman? "

Where is the Shazam, Captain Marvel movie? Oh wait, he's not popular either, so WB doesn't want to take a chance on him as a property.

"You'd think that the world had no daughters, by the glut of superheroes and the utter neglect of superheroines. "

There is no such neglect. There has been half a dozen superheroine movies over the years, they just kinda sucked... As did 90% of all superhero movies ever made. What you've done is called selective memory: you've chosen to remember only the part where Marvel was succesful, rather than all the times in which companies have failed to make a successful super hero movie: From Catwoman, to Supergirl, thee movies exist but sucked... As did movies from Steel to the original Hulk/Daredevil crossover movie... Or better yet the failure that was the recent Man of Steel movie.

As for why the spellchecker highlights the word superheroine & not superhero is because there is no such word as superheroine... A female superhero is a superhero... Much like how a female actor is an actor.

fiafa
fiafa

 Maybe we can have a female superheroine like Zatanna, but instead of speaking backwards, her super power can be invoking the powers of Political Correctness and Newspeak.

rightactions
rightactions

Yeah, no one goes to superhero movies to get an estrogen hit.  Not even females.

djtrudeau
djtrudeau

Thank you.  Nolan's Batman movies are solid allegories both for long standing themes and the times we live in.  What other films have successfully tackled the same areas?  There are a lot of "serious-minded people" doing themselves a disservice by dismissing these out of hand.

Jenna Rogers
Jenna Rogers

John Green, Jonathan Maberry, Orson Scott Card, Brian Jacques, James Dashner, Walter Dean Myers, David Levithan, Scott Westerfeld, Darren Shan,  Jay Asher... There are plenty successful and acclaimed male, YA authors.

skittledog
skittledog

I would recommend trying John Marsden's Tomorrow When The War Began. YA, male author, war setting, female protagonist who is nonetheless very masculine in some of her attitudes (aka: tomboy, but not in the male-gaze sense). I read it as a teenager myself and it's still one of my favourites in the genre. Just because you're not looking for them doesn't mean those books aren't there.

Whitney Pohl
Whitney Pohl

 James Dasher? Patrick Ness? John Green? Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket)?

All very good, and very popular.

fiafa
fiafa

 The entire publishing industry is dominated by women, but because there are two not-terrible superhero movies in a year, suddenly it's a Hollywood crisis.

K
K

Have you heard of John Green?

Ruth Raynor
Ruth Raynor

What about the Redwall series? They were by a man and sold very well to adolescent boys. Also there are literally thousands of Sci-Fi titles that are easy enough to read that a 13 year old boy shouldn't struggle.

Not to mention Stephanie Meyer's books are complete trash and not worth reading. They have no value.

twigglesworth
twigglesworth

You do realize that JK Rowling wrote a book with a male protagonist who was very much a human being and derived his strength as a hero from love, right? And that she used her initials to publish her book because she was concerned that a female author wouldn't be taken as seriously as an ambiguous name (and therefore presumed male name)?

skittledog
skittledog

Terribly sorry to be a girl who loves explosions and mayhem, after having slowly got into the action genre over years of being a geek. It's not that we can't love them, it's that we're never expected to, and it's broad-based stereotypes like the one you gave that mean we have to have male heroes to look up to.

john s
john s

 My daughter loves 'Starship troopers.  Specifically she likes the giant spiders and she loves the female starship captain.  Its silly to postulate skinny girls beating up large men and particularly tossing them around physically like a wonderwoman.  its not (as) silly to postulate the female troopers and pilots in Heinlein's classic. 

twigglesworth
twigglesworth

Your implication that girls don't enjoy action movies (with explosions and mayhem aplenty) or superheroes is probably the kind of pervasive mindset that prevents female superhero films from being made. And this sort of thinking that imposes restrictions or expectations on what women (and men) are "supposed" to like is crippling entertainment in many ways. 

I'm sure there are plenty of movies with strong women somewhere out there, but I'm pretty sure there aren't anywhere as many as there should be, nor would what exists come close to covering the diversity inherent in definitions of a "strong woman", which in my view has been remarkably one dimensional for the most part. 

Until that happens, I'll support movies like the Avengers that do have strong female heroines for future generations of girls to look up to, and I'll also go watch movies like the Expendables for my girly share of gratuitous explosions.  

ULURU
ULURU

 Yeah - too bad the American movie industry has become just a high-tech comic book fantasy machine for juvenile minds. Hollywood now caters to the lowest common denominator in our rapidly-decaying culture.

MaryKateClark
MaryKateClark

@MatthewLaneIt's unfortunate that you were not able to state your case without deliberately trying to be nasty and patronizing. It was not necessary.

I do know a female superhero is a superhero, it was merely to illustrate a point. Nonetheless, the article points out the lack of good movies about female superheroes. If they were actually done well, they would be popular.  ...And reality doesn't rely on my memory, the imbalance exists regardless.


Julie Pascal
Julie Pascal

Stephanie Meyer's books obviously have value to someone since a whole lot of someones bought a whole lot of them.

Also... I'd put money on a bet that *most* Sci-Fi titles are written at a far higher vocabulary level than any other area of genre fiction.   A 13 year old boy who reads VERY WELL will not struggle with most science fiction.

At which point he can read a great number of novels about the brilliant space captain, Honor Harrington, or any number of other female space pilots or secret agents.  Not that those books aren't written for and read by both men and women, but a boy would have to delve into the Golden Age of science fiction written before 1970-ish before he can expect to be reading mostly adventure stories with male protagonists.

fiafa
fiafa

How many movies with strong women "should" there be? And why do you assume that "strong women" means women that have to be able to physically defeat foes twice their size? Why do you value women less if they can't beat up other people?

Ben Huang
Ben Huang

Ok come on you're being too literal. Poll 10,000 men and 10,000 women, guess which group has a higher percentage of people who prefer gritty, explosion packed superhero movies? Guess which group has a higher percentage of people that prefer sappy, romantic movies?

djtrudeau
djtrudeau

Come on, Hollywood has always been a fantasy machine and after the comic book movement is over, they'll go on to the next fad (swashbucklers, Westerns, musicals, "one man versus an army", etc).  I think you've got some snobbery interfering with your reasoning.  

Frankly, even our junk is smarter than it used to be.  Look at the script for The Dark Knight and compare it to Batman starring Adam West.  Our culture isn't decaying.  It's in the same place it's always been, with a small amount of quality mixed in with a lot of crowd-pleasing.  To say this is a new phenomenon is to ignore history.