To fans that have long been waiting for Marvel Studios to finally take a chance on a female-led superhero movie, there is no counter-argument more exasperating than claiming that the box office failure of movies like Elektra and Catwoman – both over a decade old and both terrible – proves that no one wants to see female superhero movies.
To hear the Internet tell it, Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter has struck doom into the hearts of Black Widow fans by repeating this argument in a leaked e-mail to Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, which is available to read in WikiLeaks’ collection of hacked Sony documents.
“Marvel CEO Doesn’t Believe in Female Superheroes,” proclaimed the first headline from Indie Wire, and soon everyone from Fox News to Time was following suit with claims that Perlmutter had declared female superhero movies a lost cause.
The Sony hacks present a rather sticky ethical challenge for film journalists. On the one hand they contain a wealth of insight into the inner workings of one of the biggest entertainment companies on the planet. On the other hand, that insight comes from private correspondence that was stolen by people who later went on to make bomb threats against movie theaters.
However, since this e-mail in particular – the only correspondence from Perlmutter to be found in the archives – has already been spread far and wide, it can’t do much harm to publish it again and to take a close look at what it actually says. Here’s the full text:
To: “Lynton, Michael”
Subject: Female Movies
Date: Thu, 7 Aug 2014 05:32:50 -0400
As we discussed on the phone, below are just a few examples. There are more.
1. Electra (Marvel) – Very bad idea and the end result was very, very bad. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=elektra.htm
2. Catwoman (WB/DC) – Catwoman was one of the most important female character within the Batmanfranchise. This film was a disaster. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=catwoman.htm
3. Supergirl – (DC) Supergirl was one of the most important female super hero in Superman franchise. This Movie came out in 1984 and did $14 million total domestic with opening weekend of $5.5 million. Again, another disaster.
Perlmutter refers to a telephone conversation that the two of them had about female superhero movies, and then lists three examples of failed female superhero movies with a brief description detailing how they failed. What he doesn’t say is that these three movies prove that female superhero movies will never work. What he doesn’t say is that “women can’t be superheroes.” What he doesn’t say is that “the financial incentive to make new female-helmed superhero movies is non-existent.”
Like an over-eager contestant on Wheel of Fortune, some outlets took the fragment of a discussion between Perlmutter and Lynton and filled in the blanks, claiming that because Perlmutter’s words could fit into an argument against making female superhero movies, the CEO obviously was arguing against female superhero movies. Never mind that the e-mail could just as easily have been referring to a discussion about how female superhero movies had been mishandled in the past, and how to do it right in the future.
Not much is actually known about Perlmutter. The CEO is notoriously reclusive and has never been interviewed, let alone publicly stated his views on female superhero movies. It’s extremely doubtful that he’s going to come out of the shadows to offer any kind of clarification, which means that this e-mail is all we have to go on: a footnote to a conversation that only Perlmutter and Lynton were privy to. Trying to make claims about his views based on this is like claiming to know the exact contents of an essay by reading its bibliography.
Without context this e-mail is effectively meaningless, and certainly not worth digging out of the trash for the sake of a cheap headline. Even if Perlmutter was feeling cool towards the idea of female superhero movies at the time, he apparently changed his mind enough to sign off on two female-led Marvel TV shows and a Captain Marvel movie.
Gender imbalance and sexism is an undeniable reality in Hollywood, and it’s hard to believe that Marvel Studios could make nineteen male-led superhero movies before finally banking on a female lead without some kind of internal resistance to putting women front and center. Just take a look at the Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise that features every team member except Gamora: that’s much more solid evidence than creative interpretations of a short, out-of-context e-mail.
It might be said that this article is making excuses for Marvel and the scarcity of female leads in its film properties – but that’s not the case. At all. In fact, anyone who really cares about seeing more female superheroes on the big screen should care enough to fact-check and review stories like this to death, because internet outrages that go off half-cocked often do far more damage than good.
The only real scandal here is that the CEO of Marvel Entertainment apparently doesn’t know how to spell Elektra’s name. The headline of this article might be silly, but at least it’s true.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is now in theaters, followed by Ant-Man on July 17 2015, Captain America: Civil War on May 6 2016, Doctor Strange on November 4 2016, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 on May 5 2017, Spider-Man on July 28, 2017, Thor: Ragnarok on November 3 2017, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 on May 4 2018, Black Panther on July 6 2018, Captain Marvel on November 2 2018, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2 on May 3 2019 and Inhumans on July 12, 2019.