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.)
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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.
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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.
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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.