With Marvel yet to announce a female-lead superhero movie and Warner Bros opting to introduce Wonder Woman as part of the ensemble in Batman v Superman: Rumble In the Courtroom, the absence of a female superhero movie is becoming more glaring. It’s not that there haven’t been attempts in the past. Indeed, Supergirl got a feature film before every other hero but Superman (unless you want to count the Batman film based on the Adam West TV series.) However even if you completely discount “team” superhero films like X-Men and Fantastic Four, the gender ratio is seriously imbalanced. Even She-Hulk isn’t safe.
This is not going to be another “Why Isn’t There a Wonder Woman Movie Yet?” post. As the author of “The Biggest Challenges Facing a Wonder Woman Movie” I fully understand that’s a tough nut to crack. Similarly, just last month, I addressed the reasonable justifications for Marvel not launching a Black Widow solo film… yet.
Having said that, I want to attack the school of thought that says audiences won’t embrace female superhero movies.
There have been three major attempts to bring female comic book superheroes to the big screen: Supergirl, Catwoman and Elektra. (Some lesser examples include Tank Girl and Barb Wire, as well as Aeon Flux, but for now I’m going to stick to the big three.) Supergirl grossed a mere $14m at the domestic box office. Catwoman took in $82m worldwide on a $100m budget and Elektra earned only $56m worldwide on a $43m budget. (Which means that it didn’t break even once you factor in marketing costs.) I think it’s safe to stipulate that all of these films were bombs. Three female superhero films, three films that failed to connect to an audience. But correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation.
These films most likely failed for reasons of quality rather than the gender of their leading characters. Furthermore, that lack of quality isn’t directly related to that gender either. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Supergirl was released in late 1984. By that point the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise was in decline, with Superman III having taken in just under $60m, a drop-off from the $109m its predecessor took in just two years earlier. You need no further proof of the franchise drop-off than the $15m gross that Superman IV took in three years after Supergirl. It’s pretty clear that just slapping an S-shield on an actor, even an actor with a few successful turns in the role, was enough to guarantee assess in the seats.
Supergirl also has the notable handicap of not being particularly good, and to an audience accustomed to the mythology of the Reeve films, it had to be downright perplexing in places. The film opens on Argo City, a remnant of Krypton that somehow survived the planet’s destruction. Precisely how this was achieved is never explained, save for some mumbo-jumbo about the city existing in “inner space,” with Earth residing in “outer space.” Even the production design bears little resemblance to the Krypton of the Reeve films. Adding to the confusion is a mention from Kara (Supergirl’s Kryptonian name) that she knows her cousin went to Earth. All of this comes in an opening sequence bogged down with exposition in virtually every line.
The effect is that the audience is already trying to catch up, and is in some ways handicapped by the discontinuity with the existing mythology. This happens a lot in the first fifteen minutes, which set up the loss of Argo’s power source – the Omegaheddron – prompting Kara to set off for Earth to retrieve it. To do this she steals a ship from Peter O’Toole’s Zaltar. Conveniently, this ship contains a Supergirl uniform for Kara, despite the fact Zaltar was the only one the craft was intended for. Either the script took a shortcut, or Zaltar enjoys wearing women’s figure skating outfits.
(This is a good place to mention that one of the things the film gets right is the Supergirl uniform. I defy you to find a superhero outfit that so perfectly matches its comic book origins while still looking like a costume that wouldn’t be cheesy today. My lone concession to the “male gaze” will also be to note that Helen Slater wears the outfit well. The wirework in this film is also top notch for the time. I’d take this sort of in-camera flying over some obviously fake CG any day.)
The villain of this film is a witch named Selena played by Faye Dunaway, and she’s no Gene Hackman Lex Luthor, let me tell you. I could probably devote an entire article just to tearing apart this subplot in detail, but in the interests of brevity, I’ll just note that she happens upon the Omegaheddron (literally, it drops onto her picnic blanket) and it boosts her magic powers significantly. She has some vaguely defined ambitions of taking over the world, but the main conflict of the film boils down to her fighting with Supergirl over Hart Bochner’s handyman character Ethan. Soon after Supergirl arrives on Earth, she decides (for some reason) to take up a civilian identity and pretend to be “Linda Lee,” a new arrival at a girls’ boarding school. To make things more confusing, she passes herself off as Clark Kent’s cousin, demonstrating that somehow she knows Superman’s real name and occupation at the Daily Planet. There’s no motivation for Supergirl to adopt a secret identity, beyond the fact that the film wants to use the same dual identity tropes that were already wearing thin in the Superman films.
Meanwhile, Selena decides that the best way to take over the world is to make everyone love her. To test her spell’s effectiveness at doing that, she spikes Ethan’s drink with a love potion that will make him fall in love with the first person he sees. Unfortunately for Selena, that ends up being “Linda Lee.” Ethan spends the rest of the movie mostly following Linda around like a lovesick puppy, hilariously going from being a blue collar lunkhead to a poet swooningly trying to win Linda with flowers and chocolates. Despite the love spell being a success otherwise, when the time does come for Selena to take over the town, not once does she attempt to bring the population under her thrall. (A few of them even organize protests with signs, which goes about as well as you’d expect.)
From start to finish, Supergirl is a prime example of a film where things happen only because they’re in the script. There’s no logical foundation laid for the world or the plot from the start, and the film only works if you brainlessly accept the events as they happen moment to moment. One could give a whole screenwriting seminar on what’s wrong with this script.
But here’s the thing – virtually none of this has anything to do with the fact a woman is the star of the film.
You could flip the genders of everyone involved and there’s nothing that wouldn’t really play. (Okay, the love story with Ethan would probably get massaged a bit, but the film’s biggest faults are gender neutral.) This failed because it was a bad movie, not because it was a female superhero.
I wish I could state that quite so plainly about Catwoman. It’s a little harder to swap the genders in that film, though I’d make the case that the characters are trapped in a pretty sexist plot to begin with.
The film has virtually no connection at all to the comic book character, who’s generally played as a cat burglar named Selena Kyle with no superhuman powers. Here, Halle Berry plays Patience Phillips, a graphic designer for a cosmetics company owned by Sharon Stone and her husband. Patience stumbles onto the fact that the company knows their new makeup is addictive and will disintegrate the user’s skin if they stop using it, leading the company’s security to chase her through tunnels and then eventually open the pipes to ensure she drowns.
Patience is found by cats, who somehow mystically bring her back to life, granting her super powers in the process. Honestly the rest of the film is so dumb as to not even merit synopsis. Like Supergirl, this failed because of a terrible script. You could probably blame this stupid cosmetics plot on the fact it’s a female lead, but only if you ignore the sexism inherent in deciding that the evil plot in a Catwoman movie revolves around makeup.
So if you’re gonna say this film failed because it was about a woman, you’d have to grant that it’s also because she was put in a moronic and sexist plot to begin with. The story of this film has nothing to do with the Catwoman of the comics and is only barely related to the Catwoman origin seen in Batman Returns. When the film takes a brief detour into making Catwoman a thief, there’s no real motivation for it other than trying to give a slight connection to the comics character. There’s also the fact that the directing and editing are among the worst I’ve seen in a studio film. (In some scenes, you can tell the director had no sense of the on-screen geography when he shot it.) You can get a sense of it in this scene, which left me speechless in the theater.
Anyway you slice it, Catwoman is a terrible movie, but male superheroes have been responsible for a number of stinkers, too. No one used Daredevil as an excuse to bail on an entire genre of male superheroes.
Speaking of Daredevil, its spinoff Elektra is technically the most successful female superhero movie in terms of return-on-investment. However, like the other films, it suffers from a weak script and only a tenuous connection to its parent franchise. The plot also contains some inexplicable mystical elements (what is it with female superhero films and more mystical/magical elements?), and some strange directing choices. The oddest directing decision of all is to make off of the fights into rapid edits that rarely let any moves play out interrupted. When watching the behind-the-scenes footage, you can often see that Jennifer Garner is doing many of her own stunts. She does full takes of several parts of the fight, but because of the way the film is cut, you assume they’re hiding the work of stunt doubles. Maybe I’m just crazy, but it would have been far more impressive to shoot the sequences in a way that shows off the fact your lead actress can actually kick ass.
Elektra is built around a fairly mundane story of the title character having to protect a girl from a group of assassins coming for her and her father. It’s another case where the story would have been easy to apply to a male character, but its problem is also that it’s relatively generic, save for the colorful abilities of the characters. There’s also a pretty solid argument to be made that Elektra’s resurrection and repurposing as an assassin is glossed over more than it needs to be. Anyone who enjoyed what the character brought to Daredevil might come away feeling like this is merely a similar character with the same name and portrayer.
It’s odd that these three films would seem to represent a good chunk of the case against female superhero films. Meanwhile, the 4 female-led Underworld films have taken in $458.5m worldwide, while another strong female franchise, Resident Evil, has earned $915.9m worldwide. I can’t speak to the quality of those films, but it does prove that hiring a woman as an action lead isn’t the kiss of death at the box office.
The problem with each of the three films is that they mostly came about as spin-offs to franchises that were already in their death throes. It also can’t help that the nature of these characters makes them dependant on their originating franchises. In other words, while WB was deciding between a sequel to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns or rebooting the property entirely, it wasn’t possible to launch a new Supergirl in the meantime because of the uncertainty over which “universe” it would be linked to.
This is why Catwoman is such an orphan, coming between the two Bat-film franchises. Maybe the lesson is that the female films need to stand on their own, that filmmakers should trust these characters to be able to draw an audience without a connection to male characters. If nothing else, it’s high time to stop holding the failures of these films against any further development of unrelated female comic book movies. How about we wipe the slate clean?
And after that, for all that is holy, give them better scripts!