Why Have Female Superhero Movies Failed (So Far)?

Wonder Woman Trailer Themyscira Ocean

Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman has a lot riding on her shoulders. On top of having to bear the responsibility of keeping Warner Bros.' hopes for the faltering DC Extended Universe alive, the much-anticipated movie stands as a reluctant symbol not just for a genre, but for an entire gender. In an age where superhero franchises are the bedrock of the film industry, women’s places in them have primarily been in the less heroic roles - most commonly as love interests to the central hero. Even female superheroes with sizeable fan-bases, such as Black Widow, have yet to make the jump to a solo project while multiple male-led movies are greenlit by studios looking for the next billion dollar hit.

Wonder Woman is arguably the most famous and iconic woman superhero in the entire genre, yet it’s taken until now for her to lead her own film, while her fellow DC counterparts Superman and Batman have enjoyed numerous portrayals on the big screen. If Wonder Woman is a financial disappointment, there are fears that its failing could reverberate throughout the industry, which already struggles to put women front and centre in major tentpole properties. There’s also the concern of how such an under-performance would affect studios’ willingness to take chances on women directors, given how few opportunities there are for them in the field as it is (Patty Jenkins is only the second female director in history to be given a budget over $100m).

While male-led superheroes have a pretty decent success rate, especially in the current revival of the genre, the rare instances where Hollywood has taken a chance on a female superhero or female-led comic book adaptation have so far ranged from disappointing to outright atrocious. It’s a peculiar phenomenon in an industry that succeeds in the most ambitious of ways, and raises an important question: How can major Hollywood studios be so bad at something that's seemingly so simple?

Wonder Woman Trailer Diana Jump

One of the first attempts made at a woman led superhero movie was the 1984 adaptation of Supergirl, starring Helen Slater in the lead role. The film was intended as something of a kick-start for the Superman franchise, which had hit a critical and financial block with the third film in the series. While it's been re-evaluated as a camp classic, at its most watchable whenever Peter O'Toole is on screen drunk out of his wits, Supergirl was a critical and commercial flop, primarily criticized for its overlong running time and inconsistent characterization. Supergirl had little to define her beyond being Superman's cousin, and the filmmakers didn't seem to know what to do with her beyond using her as a distaff counterpart to the more iconic male hero. Following Supergirl’s failure, the rest of the Superman franchise came to a clunky end with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and the genre as a whole stuck to television, comics and the underground scene.

When women led comic-book adaptations did return, following the industry changing success of Tim Burton’s Batman, they were more suited to the anti-hero mould, and didn’t originate from the major comic-book properties of the time. 1995's Tank Girl was based on a cult post-apocalyptic comic series by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett, while the following year's Barb Wire was based on a property published by Dark Horse. Both films are, to put it lightly, bizarre. The former is a pseudo-punk adventure with genetically modified human-kangaroos, Iggy Pop as a paedophile, and a mass sing-along of Cole Porter's Let's Fall in Love inside a sex club, while Barb Wire is a re-imagining of Casablanca starring Pamela Anderson as a corseted bounty hunter working in the middle of a war-ravaged 2017 America. Neither of these films are good, and they both flopped with audiences and critics alike, but they do show some of the ways in which Hollywood struggled with turning the success of Batman into a reality for women-led projects.

Lori Petty in Tank Girl
Lori Petty in Tank Girl

Tank Girl and Barb Wire are decidedly not heroes in their respective stories. They fit more comfortably with the anti-hero archetype, although even then it’s not an easy fit. Neither film really knows how to treat their protagonists: Tank Girl is manic and wisecracking, but constantly at odds with the story’s tone, while Barb Wire is solemn and brooding yet shot like a sex toy, with the camera lingering slowly over her revealing leather outfit (complete with thigh-high boots and plunging neckline).

A sexy outfit is not automatically a bad thing – although it does seem to occur more frequently with women than men, funnily enough – but in the case of Barb Wire, the filmmakers’ attempts to turn her sexualized status into an empowering quality is laughable at best. Indeed, it ends up being the only thing that defines her: After spending the running time being a highly specific form of eye candy for male viewers, she shoots a bunch of men for calling her ‘babe’.

The Kate Beaton-designed “Strong Female Character” trope – meaning a woman with vaguely empowering qualities who still fits a male-desired notion of sexuality – runs rampant throughout the few women-led superhero movies we have. The 2005 adaptation of Aeon Flux fits into a lot of the aforementioned problems with such female focused stories, but the most prominent studio-funded takes on the genre, Elektra and Catwoman, embody them to a discomfiting level.

Jennifer Garner in Elektra (2005)
Jennifer Garner in Elektra

Elektra is a reasonably well shot movie that’s hampered mostly by a dull anti-hero storyline, which wastes its lead actress, Jennifer Garner. It’s an anti-hero story of an assassin fighting to save a young girl, but it doesn’t go far enough with either its heroic or villainous angles. It’s too tentative in exploring Elektra’s real complications, which have made for compelling reading in the comics. For all its faults, it’s at least a story that isn’t exclusively defined by Elektra being a woman. A man could be swapped into this story with little change to the story (although they would need to drop the villains’ constant references to her gender). Its failure isn’t gender-based.

Catwoman, unfortunately, is a catastrophe of incompetence, defined by its misogynistic ideas about what women and heroines should be. On top of having absolutely no connection to the Batman universe, the Halle Berry-starring clunker takes one of Gotham’s most fascinating characters and reduces her to a badly-dressed pun-machine. Catwoman (or Patience, as she is known here) works for a cosmetics company, where the villain Sharon Stone has helped to create a face cream that will cause women's faces to disintegrate if they stop using it.

After discovering this, Patience is killed, then resurrected by magical cats who have deemed her to be worthy of a historic feline gift that will bestow cat powers on her, including an urge to eat tuna from the can and rub catnip across her face. She briefly becomes a thief, seemingly to tenuously tie her to the comics, but otherwise her story is pointless, dull and insultingly bad. It’s a film that works so hard to be as feminine as possible (in broad terms of femininity that still allow for Halle Berry to wear a skimpy leather outfit) that it completely misses the point of the character, never mind the audiences themselves.

The assumption in Catwoman, as well as many others we’ve discussed, is that the primary audience will be men, so their base instincts must be catered to. Women tend to be scantily clad in comic books – Elektra’s outfit is actually more revealing in the comics than the film – but that’s no excuse for directors to film their leading women like sex dolls. Moreover, the obsession with sexing up female superheroes may be a key reason why these movies have struggled to succeed; a 2015 meta-analysis of 53 different studies found that, at least with regards to advertising, the old adage that "sex sells" is demonstrably untrue, and can actually reduce the effectiveness of ads.

Halle Berry in Catwoman

All the films previously mentioned failed to turn a profit, and we haven't seen a woman lead a superhero movie since Catwoman hit theaters well over a decade ago. That said, the presence of female superheroes in ensemble movies has increased (albeit at a maddeningly incremental pace), and progress has also been made on television thanks to the success of shows like CW's Supergirl. Captain Marvel is also on the way, although no director has been announced and that project was still pushed back to make way for another Spider-Man movie. DC has tentatively announced a Gotham City Sirens movie, which would follow the anti-hero mold set by Suicide Squad with a woman populated team including Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and Catwoman. Representation is increasing, but female superheroes still only make up a tiny fraction of everything else going on in the Marvel and DC Universe’s calendars. Clearly, the fear is still there.

The scarce few women-led superhero movies made so far have all failed, but each failed in very different ways: Supergirl was a bore-fest that tried to coast off its association with Superman; Tank Girl was too off-the-wall for mainstream audiences, but not consistent enough for the cult crowds; Barb Wire had no identity outside of its Casablanca homages and struggled to define its protagonist; Elektra is too restrained in its exploration of her complex character; and Catwoman is so ludicrously bad that its faults cannot be kept to a mere sentence.

Sometimes these films failed because the directors or writers tried too hard to pull the Strong Independent Woman angle, but other times gender was irrelevant and the film was just plain bad. Terrible films happen, but they don’t tend to be to the detriment of male heroes, their stars or directors. Batman and Robin is a clunker for the ages, but we still got Batman Begins eight years later. The failure of a male-led film is not used as a stick to beat the rest of the genre with. Nobody decided that the flop of Green Lantern would end all male-led superhero films. Hell, it didn’t even end Ryan Reynolds’s superhero career, and nor should it have, but it’s obvious that a double standard is at play.

Melissa Benoist in Supergirl
Melissa Benoist in CW's Supergirl

In a recent Q&A, Patty Jenkins said that the "real challenge" of making a Wonder Woman movie was challenging the belief that women’s stories are only relatable for women, while men’s stories are universal. The director explained that when she first saw Richard Donner's Superman, she had a great deal of empathy for young Clark Kent. "I was Superman," Jenkins recalled. "I was that little boy. I took that ride and that journey." So, when she finally got the chance to make a Wonder Woman movie, her goal was to create a character that girls and boys alike could relate to.

"It ends up being funny because this sexism comes to the fore, because she’s walking into 1918 and she’s completely oblivious... And so there ends up being accidental comments about it, but I also went into it not making a movie about a woman at all. I’m making a movie about Wonder Woman, who I love, who to me is one of the great superheroes. And so I just treat her like a universal character. That’s what I think is the next step, is when we can start doing that more and more and the studios have confidence to do that."

The notion that female-led movies can only ever appeal to women has been debunked numerous times. From The Hunger Games to Resident Evil to Underworld, women-led action franchises have made serious money and kept audiences of all genders flocking to the theatres, while actresses like Scarlett Johansson and Charlize Theron are carving out new stages of their careers as old school action heroines. The revived Star Wars franchise is already two-for-two when it comes to female-led movies becoming billion-dollar success. It’s clear that this is something audiences want and, given that women make up the majority of cinema-goers in America, it seems like a missed opportunity not to offer more heroines in those major properties. Politics aside, it's just bad business.

Wonder Woman's success with audiences will largely depend on it's success at creating a compelling central character. So far the trailers have been encouraging, and the director and star seem to have a good grasp of what makes Diana so appealing and unique. If it doesn’t meet those lofty expectations then there is a real risk that women as a whole will suffer for it in the film industry, but it shouldn’t be the end of such stories. We’ve waited long enough for women to save the day, and once won’t be enough.

Next: How Wonder Woman Pays Homage to Richard Donner’s Superman

Key Release Dates
  • Wonder Woman (2017) release date: Jun 02, 2017
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