Superhero films have been dominating at the box office for more than a decade, but the history of female superhero movies is less than stellar.
The difference in the number of superhero films starring men and woman is obviously large, but even I didn’t realize how extreme it was until I dug into the numbers.
Since 1978, when the “Golden Age” of comic book movies began with Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, there have been something like 68 male-led live-action superhero films based on characters from the big 2 comic book companies – DC and Marvel.
In that same time, there have been a grand total of 3 female-led superhero films based on characters from those companies.
Why has the prospect of female-led superhero films merely received lip service for years while male-led superhero films continue to shatter box office records?
There’s many reasons for this. Some of the reasons are good. Most of them are not. One thing is for sure though – director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, due in theaters June 2, has a chance to revolutionize not just the superhero genre, but the representation of women in movies in it’s entirety.
I agree that Catwoman and Elektra are generally anti-heroes in most interpretations and rarely true superheroes. For the purposes of this article, though, I’m including them. Leaving them out would make history look much worse, which is saying something.
Why are female superhero films important?
Why is any superhero film important? There are plenty of reasons – inspiration, education, or entertainment chief among them. But it doesn’t have to be a male superhero to inspire others.
I certainly believe that women can look up to male characters and men can look up to female characters. Heck, I’m more excited for Wonder Woman than anyone I know. But that’s easy for me to say, because I already have so many male characters to look up to.
When I was a kid, my parents raised me to believe that I could be anything. I never doubted it because I had positive female role models in my family, my teachers, my sports heroes, the books I read, and the TV shows and movies I watched. One of those was Helen Slater’s Kara Zor-El in Supergirl: The Movie. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized how important seeing a lady superhero leading her own film might have impacted my life.
The 1984 Supergirl film never made a massive impact on pop culture, but still influenced the lives of many young people. Just how impactful could a successful Wonder Woman film be?
It’s not just about having the same skin color or gender. It’s about having a diverse set of role models for young people (and adults) to look up to. If you believe any person – regardless of their skin color or gender – can be a good person, then shouldn’t our superheroes reflect that?
Why haven’t there been more female superhero movies?
The easy thing would be to assume that every studio executive in Hollywood is sexist and doesn’t think women could carry a film. That might be part of it and I’m sure we could find many cases of misogyny from studio executives in the past.
But money talks. Most big budget films get put into production because studios are hoping to capitalize on a proven formula. Until there is a successful superhero film starring a woman, studios will consider it a risky concept. Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra don’t exactly fall into the “successful” category.
Why do we see so many remakes, sequels, and adaptations? Because those things work. If there is a built-in audience, there is much better chance of making a profit.
Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins was asked why there hadn’t been more female-led superhero films in an interview with Empire: “I think the reason that there wasn’t a woman superhero made for a long time is because people were assuming that it had to be a different kind of thing. Or more rarefied, or something. This is Wonder Woman. There’s nothing different.”
That’s a very politically correct answer by Jenkins, but there is some truth to it. If Wonder Woman is a financial hit and studios still avoid female hero films, we’ll know there is a more serious problem.
That doesn’t mean big studio executives are completely blameless. Marvel Studios has seemingly been able to print money with their cinematic universe that focuses largely on males, with an occasional tree, raccoon, or woman thrown in.
As of the time of this writing, we are still nearly 2 years away from the release of their first female-led film, which is scheduled to come only after 20 films led by males. Are you telling me the studio doesn’t consider a film headlining a female as one of their 20 best ideas for a movie?
Unfortunately, studios are going to have to see the box office results at least once before we see many more female films put into production.
Can female superhero films be successful?
Some may say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but this one tests the limits. With superhero films being all the rage, many fans would flock to an excellent film starring a female.
Many fans of all ages and gender are eagerly awaiting it. Wonder Woman being the most anticipated movie of summer 2017 is only the latest proof.
The Hunger Games franchise gives one of the best hints at the potential of female-led action films. That franchise grossed nearly $3 billion at the worldwide box office over 4 films.
The Star Wars franchise has also proven the potential of females taking on a leading role with both The Force Awakens and Rogue One. There are countless other examples, such as the live-action Beauty and the Beast.
This argument doesn’t even take into account the massive success many female-led action television shows have had. How many shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias do we need before everyone realizes female leads can be just as compelling, if not more, than their male counterparts?
Just how big of a deal is Wonder Woman?
The box office projections from companies like Box Office Pro show just how massive Wonder Woman could be. The film was initially projected for a domestic opening weekend of $83 million, with a total domestic haul of $225 million. More recent data has bumped those numbers up to $111 and $300 million, respectively.
I discussed this at length on the April 10th episode of the DC Daily Drop podcast, but those are some big numbers. The initial projection of $83 million would make the largest debut solo film for a DC Comics hero, number 5 for all superheroes, and 5 times larger than any female superhero debut.
While box office success is great, Wonder Woman could be remembered for much more than the films net profit or loss. As Johnson noted, the film could have a much larger impact:
As a child, it never occurred to me that a movie like Wonder Woman shouldn’t or wouldn’t exist. Now, as an adult, I think about friends of mine who have young daughters. What could impact them as they age and mature? Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman could be the film for this next generation that reinforces the idea that they can be anything.
The potential impact on young people can not be understated. Wonder Woman can be a character women can look up to in the same way men have dozens of characters to look up to.
The future of female superhero movies (and female directors)
If Wonder Woman can meet or exceed initial financial expectations, you can be sure it will be the start of a trend. In fact, it has already started. DC Films has already begun development on Batgirl and Gotham City Sirens films. On the Marvel side, Captain Marvel and a Silver Sable/Black Cat film are in the works.
Wonder Woman also has the chance to prove something else in the film industry – the ability of women to direct blockbuster films.
Despite writing and directing 2003’s Monster to critical acclaim and a $60 million box office on a shoestring budget (for which she was only paid a flat $60,000), it would take well over a decade for Jenkins to direct another feature film.
If Monster and the trailers for Wonder Woman are any indication, Jenkins is more than qualified to handle the biggest of films. If Wonder Woman is a success, she could be a superhero to many women looking to make films.
Jenkins may already be helping to pave the way for other female directors. Is it any coincidence that in the days leading up to Wonder Woman, release dates were given for Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels and Michelle MacLaren’s The Nightingale and Sony chose Gina Price-Bythewood for a superhero film?
It would only be fitting that the first and most iconic superheroine of all time to start a new trend and inspire a generation.