You have to admire the Hail Mary timing of Sony’s almost-announcement that they’d be making a film at some point with some sort of female superhero from somewhere in Spider-Man’s neck of the woods with a potential release date (some time) in 2017.
It’s the studio jargon version of, “We’re thinking really hard about it, promise!” but it also depressingly represents the greatest progress in modern superhero cinema yet; Sony has already hired screenwriter Lisa Joy Nolan to make whatever they’re planning an inky reality. Meanwhile, ten movies and a bank vault full of wins later, Marvel is still stuck in neutral on the proposition of seeing a woman’s name standing triumphantly alone on the marquee.
At this point, Marvel chief Kevin Feige is familiar with the question. He gets it all the time, and over the past few years his answers have evolved from hollowly specific to insultingly crass to safely vague.
It’s important to remember that the burden is on Marvel right now because of how dominant they are in the field of superhero movie-making. They are the out-and-out leader in the marketplace, and yet they seem wholly uninterested in a woman flying through the air to save the day on her own. Still, it’s also important to remember that the history of solo superheroine movies isn’t a golden age tarnished by one studio. It took a little more than three decades to get the first superheroine movie (Supergirl in 1984), and the listing is sparse from there, often finding footholds outside the mainstream (see: Tank Girl in 1995 and the DTV Vampirella in 1996). Other than the gag-triggering Catwoman in 2004 and a rousing case for V for Vendetta truly being Evey’s movie (because it is), comic-born heroines aren’t often found in the Marvel universe or beyond it.
With Guardians of the Galaxy putting him back in front of fans and the press, the latest round of shoulder shrugging has finally crossed the line into parody: the man who runs Marvel now “hopes” Marvel will make a female-led movie. You can imagine him with his fingers tightly crossed during planning meetings for Dr. Strange, whispering “Won’t someone at my company do this!?” under his breath.
So how did we get to the point where every interview Feige does features the same question? Let’s look way, way back in history to chronicle fandom’s growing social pressure for a producer to deliver a hero without balls.
2008 (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk)
Unsurprisingly, the question doesn’t come up for the toddler studio house. People are far more focused on the recent success of Iron Man and what it will mean for the audacious concept of creating a shared movie universe (can you even imagine it??).
Feige’s vision is hailed for being less concerned about star status and more about what actor is right for a role, regardless of their profile.
(Sidenote: that last link is worth a click just to see USA Today call it the “Comic-Con convention.” Or you can just picture it. Either way.)
2009 (No Marvel Release)
As Marvel uses the success of Iron Man to ramp up its universe, the question of a superheroine still isn’t prevalent, although Scarlett Johansson‘s involvement as Black Widow has people asking specifically if she’ll have her own spin-off. Since it’s early on in Marvel’s independent studio life, the question feels entirely focused on the character in a nonchalant way that seems foreign now. It’s a question with wide-eyed optimism, and Feige’s response only feeds that fire:
“She’s signed on. . . should we be lucky enough to have an audience that wants to see them.”
Essentially, Feige puts the impetus on the fans to show enthusiasm for Johansson and her character. He’s counting on luck. Captain America and Thor are definitely coming, and The Avengers will eventually serve as a testing ground for Black Widow’s solo potential.
In a year without a release, the studio is incredibly busy, but Feige takes time to explain why Batman & Robin was the most important superhero movie of all time.
At the end of the year, Disney buys Marvel.
2010 (Iron Man 2)
Sixty years after the first superhero movie, and long after the first radio and TV serials, Marvel has started to create what feels like a new age in comic book cinema. Or at least they’re promising it and providing hints of their diabolical plan to create standalone films that are also tie-in sequels. That includes the one woman they’ve set up to get her own shot:
“We’ve already started discussions with Scarlett [Johansson] about the idea of a solo movie and have begun putting together concepts, but The Avengers comes first.”
Fans are also starting to push the issue of seeing a woman lead one of those films. This time — with Cap, Thor and an already-realized Tony Stark — the question isn’t about Black Widow, but when any woman will enter the mix at an equal level. The focus is starting to shift.
Late in the year, Feige participates in a Hero Complex livechat with fans, and when he’s asked about female heroes, he gives the stock vague answer we’ve come to recognize.
“KevinFeige: Suzanne, I love female heroes too and would love to bring many more to the big screen in the future.
KevinFeige: I love Jessica Jones. Good choice Spidey616.
KevinFeige: Squirrel girl?”
(It’s unclear whether he didn’t know who Squirrel Girl was or whether he was pondering out loud her inclusion at a later date.)
People aren’t champing at the bit to ask when Marvel will have a female superhero because Marvel hasn’t made many movies yet. Really, there’s only Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, a limp Iron Man 2 and plans for more (they are talking about Dr. Strange and Ant-Man in addition to Thor and Cap and an Avengers team-up).
They are big on plans, but so far they only have 2.5 successful films to their name (including a Hulk movie that doesn’t even seem connected now). However, the enormity of their impact leads to hair-tearing excitement when Marvel reveals its full Avengers cast at the 2010 Comic-Con (convention).
2011 (Thor and Captain America)
Now that the studio has more movies under its belt, we as fans can see clearly what direction they’re taking when it comes to manufacturing an ambitious shared world. Releasing two movies in one year erases the vacuum of the possible, offering Feige and company specific talking points.
During press for the lead-up to Thor, Feige heightens anticipation for Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster as a strong female addition to their ranks.
“Jane Foster in the comics was a nurse and certainly had some good storylines of her own, but she was not necessarily the driver of the story in any way. She was very reactionary. That said, we wanted to update her. We wanted to make her a scientist.”
As it turns out, Jane Foster is a terrible, inert character. In spite of the job title change, she’s still a relatively helpless damsel waiting to be saved.
There’s also Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in Captain America, and feminism, the role of female characters in Marvel’s movies and the manipulation of historical gender roles all start to seep into the cultural conversation.
The successful continuation of the comic book movie trend also spills over into editorials on the awful track record of the source material, with some optimistic silver linings.
As for the big question of a woman-led film, Feige sings a familiar refrain:
“There’s no definitive plan, but we have started talking and talking with Scarlett about what a Widow movie could be.”
To be fair, Feige also mentions exploring a Hawkeye film, a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie and others, but Widow is the only woman being mentioned in the mix of non-committal concepts that we, here in the future, know won’t get made.
2012 (The Avengers)
As Marvel closes out Phase One in bombastic style, a weird scheduling reality starts to emerge. With the 2013 and 2014 slates firmly planned (in fact, already announced), and with the admission that they’re constantly setting up for five years into the future, Marvel is basing all of its decisions not on audience reaction but on their own intuition when it comes to how popular or interesting a character might be, or how well a particular actor might be received.
Looking back, it’s funny to remember how many possibilities we foresaw for the fledgling, corporate behemoth-owned studio. The Inhumans! Black Panther! Power Man! If you consider message board speculation, the list explodes beyond all reason. All it took was knowledge of the Marvel back catalog in order to parse Feige’s ambiguous terminology. Most of what he hints at through Avengers turns out to be fuel for fun brainstorming, and far more dynamic than the studio’s output turned out to be. After introducing us to several compelling characters, we assumed they’d continue introducing us to new ones.
While the movies have been consistently entertaining — and sometimes amazing — they’ve stayed within a tight group despite where our imaginations tended to take the development slate. It’s a trend that continued to grow insular: by 2014 Iron Man, Captain America and Thor have accounted for 7 of the 10 MCU movies and played prominent roles in the ensemble adventure.
Feige also encourages our speculation with loose answers, non-dismissals and pure bait. In the end, we lose our minds thinking about what might come and still cheer loudly when we’re told it’s another Iron Man movie.
On the question of a female superhero movie, what was once a polite push from fans has become a common talking point, which gives Feige the opportunity to explain his reasoning more (and to sidestep the question more, too).
“We have already planned [Black Widow's] next appearances and where to take that character because we believe in it and we believe in her in a big, big way. When will there be a standalone? Both is what we’re heading toward. A lot of it is that we’re only going to make two movies a year, maybe sometimes it’ll be one movie a year like this year, maybe someday it’ll be three movies a year just depending on what comes together. But really, it’s two movies. So there’s kind of a backup on the runway right now in terms of when can something go. We do like when some of the characters appear in other people’s movies.”
That’s Feige’s answer to Jen Yamato’s question on the issue, and she goes on to ask him about the larger problem of bringing a superheroine to life. His answer?
“I think there were some bad ones, and they got a bad rap because they weren’t particularly good and they didn’t make a lot of money. There’s a movie called The Hunger Games that came out a few weeks ago, and just because it’s not based on a comic doesn’t mean that’s not a female superhero movie. That’s what she is. And it did tremendously well. So I think when they’re done well, the audience will come to it.”
Feige recognizes that it’s not the gender of the hero, but the quality of the movie, that matters.
Yet, he and Marvel still haven’t committed to making a female-led superhero movie. Granted, this is also problem of being a modern media company tied (by their own design) to the media of the past. The pool of male superheroes is simply larger, often more interesting, and fully clothed. For as much as they hail risk-taking, Marvel is incredibly conservative when it comes to creating success by maintaining the “spirit” of their characters even as they make surface-level changes to them.
Keep that in mind as his answers evolve.
2013 (Iron Man 3, Thor 2)
In the Post-Avengers madness, everyone is looking at their experiment as a massive success. The prevailing story is how they will pivot from unbelievable stability to greater risk taking. No time for napping on laurel branches.
At the same time, waiting for a woman has become unbearable for some, and the question reaches a fever pitch.
Before the May release of Iron Man 3, Feige is asked The Question at a film festival and offers what’s become his standard response:
“We have a number of candidates from the comics and from the movies we’ve already made. It’s just a matter of finding the right storyline, the right filmmaker, the right time.”
He then gives an interview to Movies.com ahead of the November Thor 2 release where he punts as hard he can when asked if DC will beat Marvel to a superheroine movie:
“Good question. I don’t know what they’re doing or what they’re planning. I know we have numerous exciting female heroes, whether none of them are currently slated, some of them are in development — frankly, you can look at what Jane Foster does in [Thor: The Dark World], look at Pepper Potts literally saving the day and defeating the bad guy in Iron Man 3, and I’d say we already have great female heroes that are showcased and play major roles in our universe now. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as you will see, features Black Widow in her biggest role yet in any of our films. In terms of a solo stand-alone female hero, I’m not sure when that will be. We make two movies a year, we’ve planned through 2015 and we have some ideas of what we’re doing in 2016 and 2017, so we’ll see what happens.”
The hint of defensiveness is a nice addition, although it’s at least a little understandable for the guy who co-produced Elektra to bristle at being asked when he’s going to make a female superhero movie.
However, his answer leads to editorials asking why he’s avoiding a real answer — proving that his standard response is no longer keeping anyone at bay. Plus, he’s now relying on Marvel’s image of careful cultivation (at one time a powerful drug for fans looking for loyalty to characters over easy commercialism) to explain why a woman hasn’t starred yet. In other words, female characters are just double plus difficult to get right.
This is when The Question really becomes powerful, and it’s exacerbated for Feige slightly by Stan Lee and Portman both stating that a Marvel superheroine is coming soon. The misinformation paints him into a corner he’s built for himself.
Now that Marvel is the most powerful player on the spandex-covered block, the innocent post-Iron Man question of “Will we get a Black Widow movie?” has morphed into “But seriously, how about that Black Widow movie?” and has now mutated into “When in hell will we get a female hero? We’ll take anything.”
2014 (Captain America 2, Guardians of the Galaxy)
So here we are at the end of another round of blockbusting Marvel movies. Captain America 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy have both proven themselves as worthy entries, and the magic of a talking raccoon and sentient tree contextualizes in an uncomfortable way Feige’s excuse about female characters being tough to crack. Plus, David Hayter reveals that he wrote a Black Widow script, and is looking to re-engage Marvel about it.
Once again, Feige is asked about a female hero, and — say it with me now — his answer is four years old.
“It can certainly be done. I hope we do it sooner rather than later. But we find ourselves in the very strange position of managing more franchises than most people have — which is a very, very good thing and we don’t take for granted, but is a challenging thing. You may notice from those release dates, we have three for 2017. And that’s because just the timing worked on what was sort of gearing up. But it does mean you have to put one franchise on hold for three or four years in order to introduce a new one? I don’t know. Those are the kinds of chess matches we’re playing right now.”
That’s led to two editorials whose titles sum up perfectly where we’re at as a fan community with Marvel, Feige and the feet-dragging:
He gets it, but whether we get a female hero movie still remains up in the air. With the Marvel movies through 2017 all publicly known, there is still no concrete, announced plan for a female solo superhero film.
But won’t we all lose our minds when Feige promises Squirrel Girl for 2018?