Yeah, I said it. There are no good superhero movies featuring a female lead. Not one single one. Try and think about for a minute. Think about the last superheroine movie you saw and compare it to the last superhero movie you watched. For me, those are 2004’s Catwoman and The Dark Knight Rises – and that’s when I start to get a bit cross.
As a young woman who loves superheroes in any medium, I’ve noticed it more and more as I’ve gotten older. The classic films of my childhood that inspired my love of the genre (1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman) feature strong female secondary characters whose primary purpose is to inspire the hero. Yes, yes, Batman and Superman were both off saving lives without Vicki or Louis, but the climaxes in both films are inspired by a need to save the girl. That’s the cliché, isn’t it – save the girl and save the day. Well, why aren’t there more films where the girl gets to save the day herself, and not have to wait around for a man in a cape to do it?
1984’s Supergirl tried to use the Superman formula, ‘tried’ being the key word. The failures of this movie, in terms of plot and characterisation, have dogged any studio trying to make a superheroine film. The main issue is that screenwriters seem to forget how women work, as if the simple fact that having super powers means that all common understanding must be thrown out the window.
Superheroines work on the simplest of characterisations and motivations: the first one being ‘I am a brooding anti-hero that needs no man (although if the right one were to come along I’d change my mind)’ or ‘I was a lonely woman with no social life or chances of romance (despite looking like a Hollywood actress) but now with my extreme powers/extreme gadgets/ extreme cleavage I am an independent woman’. The plot will involve something ‘womanly’, like fighting an evil make-up company, or fighting a villainess who wants your man. You know, something involving ovaries.
It’s particularly striking because female action heroes are not a new thing. It’s not as if people will leave a cinema in droves because it’s a woman taking down an evil crime syndicate or saving the world. There are plenty of enduring female led action series that inspire love and devotion from a wide fanbase. The Aliens films. The Resident Evil series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – who could arguably be considered a superheroine in her own right. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake. These franchises are big business, clearly showing there is a strong market for stories with a female main character kicking ass and taking names.
And female characters have been kicking ass in franchise driven or ensemble films. Elastigirl in The Incredibles. Storm and Jean Grey in the X Men films. The Marvel films should be really praised for how they portray women. True, the women are there more often than not as a love interest, but at least they’re proactive. Pepper Potts actively works to take down two villains. Peggy Carter is a secret agent not averse to throwing herself into action. Sif pushed herself into becoming a recognised warrior in her own right. Gwen Stacy took on the Lizard by herself to save New York. Black Widow is a respected interrogator and infiltrator who fights while wearing sensible boots.
There has been a massive cry from Avengers fans desperate for a Black Widow film. And why wouldn’t they? She’s the most positively portrayed superheroine in years. She doesn’t have to be romantically linked to anyone around her, Scarlett Johansson does a good turn as an action star, and she has an interesting backstory to explore.
But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts there won’t be a Black Widow movie. Just as the Wonder Woman movie has been in development hell for years. There was a pilot for a TV show… a pilot that was so bad it was never shown on network television. It involved Wonder Woman being both of the two stereotypes; she was dark and brooding, killing when she had to, but was also sad and lonely, looking for a man.
What is it about superheroines that make writing them for screen so impossible? I fully admit that it’s a rhetorical question I have no intention of answering. That’s because I find the question so baffling. I cannot understand why there cannot be a good superheroine movie. The only half-answer I can find comes from John Lasseter, head of Pixar. When asked why there hadn’t been a female main character in a Pixar film before, he answered ‘We’re a bunch of guys.’
Has it come to this, then? That I am not going to see a superhero movie featuring an interesting and dynamic female lead until men start wanting to write for female characters or there are more women working in Hollywood? Is it really so hard to write for female characters?
I shall wait with baited breath for a good superheroine movie, but it doesn’t look too promising. Luckily, fantasy is providing female characters with a much clearer voice. Franchises such as The Hunger Games or standalone pieces like Brave show that it is perfectly possible to have an all action female lead and reach the intended demographics the studios desperately crave.
What do you think? Which supereheroine would suit the silver screen best? Or would you prefer an original character with her own original story? Do you even want to see a big-budget adaptation of your favourite superheroine?