Will Comic Book Movies Ever Get Female Heroes Right?

Published 2 weeks ago by , Updated July 2nd, 2014 at 12:07 am,

Female Superhero Women Discussion Will Comic Book Movies Ever Get Female Heroes Right?

As superhero after superhero makes their big screen debut – and earns sequels, team-ups, and crossovers with a successful launch – the lack women in the spotlight is becoming impossible to overlook. Wonder Woman was long-hailed as the greatest example of the need for young women to see superpowered role models on the big screen, and that absence is set to be addressed in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. But it isn’t just progress or equality that demands women be treated differently in superhero blockbusters – it’s the laziness that seems to go into shaping them.

It’s hard to even discuss women in comic books without enraging some readers/movie-goers, so let’s make one thing clear: we’re NOT intending to attack studios on the grounds of sexism, or feel a need to explain why more women in superhero franchises is a good thing. We’re even less interested in determining whether the treatment of women in comic book film universes is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’

The battle for equality between men and women in superhero films is a fight plenty will volunteer for, but the narrow field of roles (and powers) afforded to women isn’t just about equality – it’s about boring storytelling.

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The Facts

X Men Days of Future Past Full Cast Photo Will Comic Book Movies Ever Get Female Heroes Right?

Some will claim that there is no real difference between male and female heroes, and point out that Marvel, DC, Fox, and Sony have all included women in their ensemble casts. Presence = problem solved, right? Unfortunately, it seems every studio has determined that in a superhero story, women are allowed to fit into one of a handful of painfully rote molds.

It’s fair to say that male characters have been just as restricted, showing slight twists on the classic ‘hero’s journey’ (Thor, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker all endured a personal tragedy that shaped them into heroes). But as cookie-cutter as superhero drama may tend to be, the preassigned roles for women are less interesting, less important, and simply more played-out than their male counterparts.

As the current frontrunner in shared movie universes, Marvel offers the most evidence of the problem. With female characters ranging from deadly super-spies to Norse goddesses, and the high-powered executives in between, Marvel’s movie universe has all the makings of a gallery of strong, interesting women. Some prove to be just that; others… less so.

Thor 2 The Dark World Official Photo Natalie Portman Chris Hemsworth Earth 1024x681 Will Comic Book Movies Ever Get Female Heroes Right?

There is much to be said about the intelligent, witty, independent and charming Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her constant need to be rescued (in Iron Man and Iron Man 2… and Iron Man 3), proving that the ‘damsel in distress’ trope is alive and well – even if the damsel in question is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. We’ll get to Pepper eventually, but it’s the Thor series that illustrates a few major problems most clearly.

We’ve spoken at length on the SR Underground Podcast about the lack of any real relationship between the titular god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and even fans of the film will concede that Jane’s existence functions largely as a walking, talking plot device. In the first Thor, the war-mongering son of Odin (Hemsworth) needed to realize humanity wasn’t below him, and be humbled – a problem solved when he fell in love with literally the first woman he met.

It’s hard to defend the use of Jane as a plot device in the first film (a more meaningful romance could likely have been shown developing, yet it is not), and much of the movie’s humor was based on Jane’s attraction to Thor based on little more than his sex appeal. But the issue got even worse in Thor: The Dark World – a film that would (for a nice change of pace) find Jane infected by the film’s MacGuffin, thereby requiring her to play a more active role in the plot.

jaimie alexander batman superman wonder woman Will Comic Book Movies Ever Get Female Heroes Right?

Then there’s Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander). Where the first film had shown Sif taking pleasure in fighting Frost Giants and skewering Destroyers, fans were promised a deeper look at the relationship between Thor and Sif in the sequel. A vague romantic interest between the two had been slightly alluded to in the past, but with screaming New Mexicans surrounding them, the pair had more important things to worry about.

Hopes were high, since Sif had quickly emerged as the only real ‘warrior woman’ seen in a superhero film to that point – despite being more of an ‘Asgardian’ than a bona fide superhero. What viewers got instead was a warrior goddess (who managed to exude sex appeal without showing skin) reduced to a spurned admirer, and the ‘exploration’ of the pair’s relationship a single scene where Sif made herself available to Thor.

The character’s shift from pleasantly unexpected to lovesick was disappointing, but what was worse is that Marvel decided that reducing Lady Sif to jealousy wasn’t just a worthwhile move, but one that should be used as a selling point.

Thor 2 Lady Sif Dirty Look Will Comic Book Movies Ever Get Female Heroes Right?

From The Dark World’s first trailer, it was clear Jane Foster’s arrival in Asgard would lead to an immediate love triangle, with a dirty look from Sif featured prominently. And just like that, Sif’s advances were rejected (for reasons we still don’t understand), and one of the most promising superpowered women in Marvel’s stable was reduced to one of the most stereotypical soap opera tropes imaginable.

The real crime is that Jaimie Alexander was capable of a much better story, having escaped most expected stereotypes in the previous film (landing her as a fan-favorite for Wonder Woman). Yes, male heroes are going to be romantically tied to female characters for the foreseeable future; and yes, those loved ones will always be the first targets for said hero’s enemies. But seeing women running, screaming, and needing rescue has gotten old – fast. Especially when the women doing the running and screaming seem to defy past stereotypes in many other ways (one would think that a scientist who theorized the existence of other realms, or took over Stark Industries could manage to see trouble coming).

Iron Man 3 Thor 2 Women Posters Will Comic Book Movies Ever Get Female Heroes Right?

And despite what Man of Steel may imply in regards to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a romance doesn’t always add to the story. At least The Dark Knight trilogy had Bruce Wayne embarrassed and rejected by the women of Gotham for a change.

But that’s just dealing with the females in superhero blockbusters; what about the women hailed as bona fide superheroes themselves?

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NEXT: Female SUPERheroes

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TAGS: batman vs superman, captain america, daredevil, guardians of the galaxy, iron man, man of steel, the amazing spider-man 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 3, thor, thor 3, wonder woman, x-men

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  1. I can’t believe you guys didn’t mention Scarlet Witch. She’s a pretty powerful character and she’s going to have a huge role to play in Age of Ultron.

  2. Women in action movies are about the same as men in YA/Romance movies, no? Usually written by the opposite sex and usually not true to the way men and women are in real life.

    If I wanted real life I would stay home, not go to the movies. We can all get out our nit picking tools but things are not that bad. As some have already mentioned this article seems to have selective memory over they way women have been portrayed in CBM’s.

    I’m not knocking the article or the author, it’s just weird timing as there is no current “this just happened” to point to. Unless I’m forgetting something.

  3. *Sorry for the long comment, but these things get away from me sometimes. Besides, half of it is quotations.*

    I’m not arguing against the idea of this article, or arguing that there aren’t valid points, but I have to say that it seems like the writer is stretching a bit.

    “In X-Men‘s …Cyclops fights with laser attacks, Wolverine fights with his claws, Beast fights with his strength, Iceman fights with… ice. For Marvel, Thor fights with Mjolnir strikes, Captain America fights with fist and shield strikes, Iron Man fights with weapon and repulsor strikes… Perhaps you see where we’re going with this.

    Now look at the women: Rogue leeches life and powers from others, Blink can open portals, Storm communes with the weather, Kitty Pryde can become intangible and phase through objects, Mystique can deceive with disguise, etc..

    Nearly every typical male superhero uses their gifts to attack, exercising power and dominance over whoever they face. Yet the female superheroes (who are presumably their equals) are relegated to support roles; or even more troubling, have their powers originating from an unnatural energy source, or a mental abnormality”

    First off, the male characters “fight with…”. whereas the female characters do this or that; like “commune with the weather.” Why not say that Blink “fights by creating portals”, Storm “fights by firing lightning”, Mystique “fights by kicking people in the head”, Shadow Cat “fights by using her intangibility”? Sure, they don’t tend to be as physical as Wolverine, Thor or Captain America, but why is Storm’s lightning less impressive than Cyclops’ powers?

    Secondly, why are we judging the value of the characters based on how they fight? Rogue stopped Pyro from killing policemen in X-Men 2, Shadow Cat rescued the kid (and managed to defeat Juggernaut in the process) in X-Men: Last Stand, Mystique infiltrates enemy strongholds, gathers information and helps rescue mutants on a couple of occasions. These may not be as flashy as the big battle, but punching somebody isn’t always the most important event in a story or the most interesting way of dispatching one’s enemies. Why not complain that the male characters only get to punch things while the women get to outwit their opponents, save lives and play key roles in the most important parts of the mission?

    Also, in a team, everyone should be playing a support role in the fights, and don’t all of those female characters get their powers the same way as the other mutants? Unnatural energy sources? And… “mental abnormality”?

    Later in the article comes this:

    “Jean Grey, Storm, Rogue, Emma Frost, and Kitty Pryde are some of the most influential and powerful figures in the comic’s history.”

    But, doesn’t Storm “commune with the weather”, Rogue “leech life and powers” and Kitty Pryde “become intangible” in the comics? If they are so “influential and powerful” in the books, then why are their powers a problem in the movies?

    “Fantastic Four‘s Susan Storm can disappear from sight, and lashes out emotionally with blasts of nonlethal energy when not complaining about her powers.”

    I don’t remember the FF movies perfectly, but I don’t recall Susan Storm complaining about her powers, at least no more than Reed and certainly not as much as Ben Grimm; only Johnny Storm seemed really pleased with his powers, as I recall. As for her lashing out emotionally, I thought she was one of the more stable characters of the Four, maybe I need to watch them again. But, I guess, nonlethal force is kind of girly.

    “(Pepper Pott’s) panic only subsides once Tony tells her that he can “sort out” the situation, meaning he’ll remove her abilities (ones every movie-goer would kill for).”

    She seemed to be doing pretty well with her powers IMO. And, what’s so wrong with her showing some emotion after she’s been kidnapped, imprisoned, genetically modified with something that could cause her to explode and nearly killed? Anyone would have some emotions after things like that; it seems more realistic than the male characters just walking away as if nothing happened; besides, Stark had been panicking for the whole movie anyway.

    “Men can love their powers as the gifts they are, but if women take joy in being different – something sinister lies ahead.

    For evidence, look no farther than X2: X-Men United’s Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), The Wolverine’s Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Iron Man 3’s Brandt (Stephanie Szostak), X-Men: First Class’ Emma Frost (January Jones)… If a superpowered woman is laughing or taking pleasure while using her powers in a film, odds are she’ll be a villain or morally ambiguous at best (hell, even Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman stopped enjoying herself once she decided to fight for good).”

    Wasn’t Lady Deathstrike under some kind of mind-control? That might be why she didn’t seem to take any joy in her powers. And Catwoman stopped having fun after the city had been taken hostage and was being threatened with being blown up, and even then she seemed to be more easy-going than the male characters. And, considering all of the examples are villains, of course they are going to seem villainous. Where are the heroes that treat their powers as burdens? Other than Rogue, I can’t really think of any that seemed to act any more burdened than the male characters around them; of course, I could be forgetting.

    “We’re simply making the case that at this point, seeing yet another woman at the hero’s side receive powers, and complain about them rather than using them in a charming, or entertaining fashion is just downright boring.”

    I’ve read Mark Waid complaining about that attitude being used for superheroes in general, and I can’t blame him after seeing Superman moping around in MoS. I’d say the problem with female characters in this case would be the characters that have been used. The X-Men aren’t exactly the most upbeat characters around, so they aren’t likely doing cartwheels over their powers, but I found Mystique, Blink and Shadowcat to be very entertaining in their use of powers.

    “(Mystique) would later spend the course of X-Men: Days of Future Past trying to decide which of the men in her life she was going to listen to”

    I would say that she was trying to decide between the two ideologies the two men represented, but she never seemed to be subordinate to either man.

    “Moviegoers who assumed Rogue could use her power to copy every mutation of those around her were clearly dreaming – but that’s exactly what makes the comic version of the character so powerful. On the page, Rogue has flown into combat, and dealt out punishment with the super team’s heaviest hitters. It was only on film that her powers came to define her as a victim, instead of the complex character she’s always been.”

    Rogue definitely could have been used better, I won’t argue with that, but she was partially hindered by the fact that they couldn’t have her take Ms. Marvel’s powers, which would have made her far more formidable in a fight. However, it was not only in the films that her powers were presented as a burden for her, they were a problem since the time she joined the X-Men. Some might say that is a bad thing, but personally I’d say that has been one of the things that has made her “the complex character she’s always been”; and my favorite X-Men character. The fact that her powers are a burden and carry with them their own drawbacks, creating her limitations, make her very interesting and unique, IMO. To me she is like the Hulk, who no one seems to mind complaining about his powers.

    “But for whatever reason, movie studios seem stuck on one idea: women should complain, and see fighting the good fight as a burden.”

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I really don’t see this happening. The female X-Men never seemed any more burdened with their powers or less interested in fighting than the men. In fact, in the very first movie Wolverine seemed to be the most reluctant, and there was a scene with Storm trying to convince him to fight alongside them, and when there was a “cure” for mutations it was Storm who said they had no need for it. Mystique certainly doesn’t seem to be reluctant to fight; if she had been, then DoFP wouldn’t have spent the entirety of the film having Wolverine trying to convince Xavier to get back into the fight and to stop Mystique. Black Widow chose to fight (in fact, I don’t even know if she was supposed to be an Avenger until she went out with them), it was Banner who didn’t want to get involved. I don’t remember the Fantastic Four having to drag Sue Storm into a fight, she didn’t hesitate to face Doom to rescue Reed Richards, and was (as I recall) the first to attack Dr. Doom at the end of the first movie; even after Doom says “Let’s not fight.” She defiantly “lashes out emotionally” by calmly responding “No, Let’s” and then attacking him, all by herself (that’s even in the trailer.)

    Perhaps I’m nitpicking and forgetting some things, but the argument in this article seems a bit weak to me.

    • Read the whole thing. Best comment on the thread.

      • I second that.

      • Thanks for sticking with it. It didn’t look nearly so long until a pasted it onto the site, and it started out as just one quote and a comment, honest, but pretty quickly it got out of hand. It all happened so fast!

    • Just an English trick when taking huge quotations. Use period, space, period, space period, space (. . .) or [...] to cut huge segments out of a paragraph to bring it down to the essentials. For example:

      “In X-Men‘s …Cyclops fights with laser attacks, . . . For Marvel, Thor fights with Mjolnir strikes, . . . Perhaps you see where we’re going with this.”

      or

      “Nearly every typical male superhero uses their gifts to attack [...] exercising power and dominance over whoever they face. Yet the female superheroes [...] are relegated to support roles;”

      Anyways, I agree with your response. Superheroines are not given the short stick in movies. The only consistent detraction I’ve seen is how oversexualized they are (but then again, so are the male characters, especially Marvel), but as characters, they are equal members of the team. Essentially, the strong, attractive woman suffers from the Lara Croft syndrome, where even though she has many positive traits and characteristics, feminists pick one thing and declare her a misogynistic fantasy.

      • You’re right, DragonKnightleader, some ellipses would have been a good idea, but by the time I finished, I was running out of time and didn’t think of it; wish I had. Even so, with the space I would have saved, I probably would have just added more quotations to comment on.

        The over-sexualization is one thing that gets annoying, of course, it isn’t limited to superhero movies or even just action movies. I like looking at Scarlett Johansson as much as the next guy, but does she have to always be facing away and looking over her shoulder on every poster?*

        Thanks for the response.

        *Nobody answer that!

  4. Guys stop complaining, Elektra was the best female lead movie ever made said no one ever

  5. Guys female lead movies will come in due time the worse thing to happen is a female lead with a rushed plot and cliche romance/story telling

  6. Guys female lead movies will come in due time the worse thing to happen is a female lead with a rushed plot and cliche romance/story telling

    P.S- sadly this America, so NO ONE is entitled to their opinion

  7. I posted this earlier but i don’t think it got posted. this thread is getting incredibly long. Hope i’m not being redundant. Just wanted to throw my 2 cents in here. Someone made a comment earlier about Horrible Bosses 2 trailer being an example of over-sexualization of woman. But in this forum we are talking about strong female leads in more of an action/super-hero role – horrible bosses is a raunchy comedy with all sorts of intentional sexualization that potentially shores up some great comedic moments – ie. guys drooling/boner jokes etc. etc.

    I think we are talking about strong female…action/super-hero/dramatic leads..Maybe I am wrong. While i don’t disagree that leading female roles get over-sexualized on film, (i mean, tomb-raider for example and angelina tossing her hair about in the shower), there are still good examples of phenomenal non-sexualized (at least less so) leading ladies – ie. the most current and contemporary example being Katniss in Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence also killed it in “Winter’s Bone.” Great strong female lead dealing with her family in the wake of her meth head dad disappearing.

    What about Chloe-Grace Moretz? She is a bad ass in Kick Ass, as well as in Let Me In. Nothing over-sexualized about her in those movies.

    What about Sigourney Weaver in Alien? I know there were a couple of scenes where she was in her underwear, but I mean, what a bad ass!

    What about Ellen Page in movies like Juno (not overly-sexualized and highly relateable) or in Inception? If you’ve seen “The East”, I loved her in that.

    What about Sandra Bullock in Gravity? Really strong non-sexualized lead performance.

    Is it unfair to say that women naturally possess an inherint sexual quality? Just throwing it out there. Femininity is an important, beautiful and intimidating quality.Obviously some male audiences love seeing Megan Fox in a bikini. I don’t particularly care for that.

    One other citation regarding this discussion – Game of Thrones. Talk about the ultimate super-heroes!

    While there’s no doubt HBO pushes the line in terms of sexuality on that show, certain characters who are now established regulars no longer will do sexually explicit scenes. Additionally, I would argue the sex depicted in GoT is more there for the purpose of advancing character arcs. Look at season 4 with Jammie and Cersei for example. Even danaerus in season 1 – her sex scenes paved the way for her growth as an independent queen. I would also argue that sexualized characters can be done for the purpose of beauty – sex is a beautiful thing. I only condone gratuitous sexuality if it is for the purpose of showing a character’s personal experience and how that affects their arc. I don’t want to watch porn in my movies!

    But here’s my list of bad-ass women in GoT;

    1.Danaerus – Yes, in season 1, emilia clarke was oversexualized, but for character arc reasons. Yes, she is gorgeous. But i don’t watch what she is doing in the slave cities for her sex scenes. I watch because she is THE MOTHER OF DRAGONS!!!! Talk about an amazing leading lady who no longer does sex scenes and can captivate audiences with her independence and sexy sense of justice.
    2. Arya – Talk about one of the best castings of a young female. She is just down-right bad ass, especially in season 4.
    3. Katlin Stark – bad ass.
    4. Cersie – Bad ass. Terrifying Bad ass (some over-sexualization but for character arc reasons)
    5. The Greyjoy daughter
    6. BRIENNE of TARTH!!!! Holy crap, what a bad ass. She-Hulk. Inspiring character.

    At the end of the day, the fact is, (regardless of it being a dramatic/action/super-hero film), there are lots of examples where leading ladies have been given the opportunity to shine without exposing their breasts or being complete porn fodder.

  8. @ Silent Red

    Great counter-point (Not-So-) Silent Red.

    I think that Andrew wrote a nice op-ed that got a nice debate going, but it felt a little over-reaching and forced to me. Like one of the many college essays we all had to write where we had to use a healthy amount of BS and force it to have a theme. Sure, there is a lot of merit to what Andrew is saying, but as you pointed out, you can argue it pretty well from different perspectives.

    I especially liked your point about the Hulk. If the original Hulk had been a female, people would forever be trying to tie her rage to a woman’s PMS. We sometimes create links where there are none, and sometimes exaggerate ones that are present.

    Similarly, as a male, should I take offense at the fact that the majority of supervillains are male? Should I say statistically 50% of all villains should be female?

    “Secondly, why are we judging the value of the characters based on how they fight?”

    That was the other great point I liked. Professor X fights from a wheelchair. Does that make him weaker or less manly? I think not. Is his wheelchair a representation of some psychological or emotional flaw? Maybe. Or maybe the guy is just in a wheelchair and this ain’t Moby Dick!

    • Thanks for the response, and I agree with you.

      I appreciate what he is going for in this article, I just don’t think his argument holds up. I mean, I could complain about something in practically every paragraph. In his defense, I don’t figure he spent years writing this article, probably a few hours at most, so it isn’t reasonable to expect it to be flawless; I’m not trying to shoot him down as a writer or anything.

  9. Most Comic Book Movies Can’t Get Source Material Right! I Lament For The Female Heroes…

  10. Andrew makes some good points but definitely overstates the case. Female characters in these films have _generally_ but not _universally_ been poorly represented in these films.

    The X-Men films have been pretty good on this score and it’s unfair to show a picture of their cast then say:

    “Presence = problem solved, right? Unfortunately, it seems every studio has determined that in a superhero story, women are allowed to fit into one of a handful of painfully rote molds.”

    That statement simply isn’t true of the X-Men films and anyone who has seen them would instantly recognise that.

  11. Me like lady sif,black widow,jane foster,mary jane waston, and many other woman in marvel universe and they cool strong woman in marvel universe and woman that any marvel fan will like as well.

  12. I would say that it is part of the human condition for both genders to be subconsciously drawn to a male character.
    But along came a female warrior named, “Katniss Everdeen”.

    • Perhaps, but I’ll admit that something somehow also draws me to female superheroes ;)

  13. I mean, “Lucy” is about to hit our theaters. I’m thrilled by the trailers, but I can feel some kind of emptiness inside when considering whether to see the movie when I contemplate that the protagonist is female.
    Even if this is due to subconscious conditioning experienced literally my whole life, do we risk societal chaos, possibly doing irrevocable harm to ourselves, and our civilization as a whole?

    • You think Lucy is the first movie with a female protagonist?

  14. WOW to you too. That was completely uncalled for and completely rude. Instead of displaying your personal distaste as an offending insult, please go look up a book on How to Be Courteous 101. Anyone is entitled to their own opinions, so stop acting so immature.

  15. Thankfully, the offending comment has been removed. (But thank you for the rebuttal at the time)

  16. Sounds like you have your own hidden agenda as well. As much as you say DC fanboys defend at all costs, you also hate at all costs so thanks for bringing balance back to the universe. When praising Marvel for their “plan” for Sif as a positive you rip on DC for having an equal plan…… I dunoo, some of your comments were beginning to make sense until it came across as bickering. None the less thanks for the read

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