I started writing this post about a year ago. I threw all the statistics together, then ran out of time. Then DC announced a series of movies rotating around their Justice League characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al). Clearly they were taking a cue from Marvel’s Avengers success. In that list was a Wonder Woman movie, plus 2 Justice League movies that would feature Wonder Woman as a shared lead. They also told us she would get significant screen time in Batman Vs Superman (why this isn’t enough is a matter for another blog). Marvel got embarrassed about their lack of female characters and went and announced a giant pile of movies for 2015-2020. Included in that slate is Captain Marvel, which they promised would be Carol Danvers, not Mar-Vell. Even Sony got in on the action, and using their rights to Spider-Man, announced an untitled “Female Lead Spider-Man Spin-off.” (Who that is, no one knows, my hope is Spider-Gwen, but I’d be just as happy with Silk, and pleased enough with Black Cat).
With all those women led movies, I thought maybe the point I was making wasn’t as important.
Then came a lot of dissatisfaction with Avengers 2: Age of Ultron and how Black Widow is treated unfairly. Much has been made of this and it’s plenty of material for its own post as well. I’m not going to unpack it, but I think several of the problems were not avoidable given circumstances. But seriously, no scenes with any 2 of Helen, Wanda, Natasha, Laura, and Maria taking the lead? — and that’s all the women characters?). The bigger problem with Ultron is how Disney is merchandising it. There are very few tees, toys, and posters that focus on Black Widow, generally just letting her support the guys, if she’s there at all. Disney has a history of that problem, like when they remade Brave‘s Merida into an older “pretty princess”, effectively negating her entire character arc in the film.
But that’s not the end of it. The attitude is still prevalent. Prevalent enough that we’re lucky to even get Captain Marvel three years from now. It turns out not all the bad stuff in the Sony document leak damns just Sony. There’s also this email from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter. (That’s on WikiLeaks, if that poses a problem for you in any way, the letter is reproduced in a lot of places, including this article on Indiewire.)
Yup. Perlmutter thinks Superhero movies with women are necessarily bad.
So let’s think about it.
Supergirl, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Tank Girl, Catwoman, Elektra, Ultraviolet, Aeon Flux, Barb Wire
These are the eight female superhero movies I could even think of in the last 30 years. It’s pretty sad that I couldn’t think of any more than this, even with help from Twitter. That alone should be enough to make us suspicious about some sexism. It doesn’t automatically blame Hollywood. After all, DC Comics has a whopping 8 monthly titles where the title character is a woman (and that counts titles like Superman/Wonder Woman, where she technically shares title billing) — and they release more titles than that every week. It’s a little misleading, as not all their title characters are currently published. For example, there have been (at least) 4 different characters called Supergirl. And as many Batgirls. So there’s not a full on drought of female characters. It’s just that there’s an overwhelming flood of males (when I was last buying comics regularly, there were 5 regular continuity titles each for Superman and Batman, not counting things like annuals).*
The point being that there are female superheroes to be found that can hold a story on their own. It doesn’t have to be a testosterone ocean.
But “Girl superhero movies don’t make money.” Well. Let’s unpack that. TO THE INTERNET!
|Movie Title||Year||Domestic Gross||Foreign Gross||Total Gross||Budget||Net||Notes|
|My Super Ex-Girlfriend||2006||22.5||38.5||61||na||na||5|
|Numbers are millions and U.S. dollars. They are not adjusted for inflation.
Numbers pulled from www.boxofficemojo.com.
OK, on a superficial level, which I will unkindly imply is the only way that Hollywood executives can think, the statement carries out. The only one of these that was profitable seems to be My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Which was marketed as a comedy.
But was the problem that female leads deny an audience? Tomb Raider netted 160m. The sequel netted 60m. (And neither of them were very good either.) The Sigourney Weaver Alien movies have netted somewhere around 400m. The Hunger Games series has netted over a billion, and it’s not even done yet. Yeah. The problem is not woman action heroes.
Look again at that list. Every single one of them is objectively terrible. Terrible scripts, rotten special effects (Supergirl fights a monster that is invisible for… reasons… reasons that probably include “cheaper monster budget”), and bad directing. In some cases bad acting, but not across the board. THEY WERE BAD MOVIES. Just bad all around. You can read the footnotes for some details on what made them bad. Hint: it’s not because they had woman leads..
I used to complain a lot about how much professional athletes get paid. But then I realized that the athletes wouldn’t – couldn’t – get paid that much unless fans were willing to pay for the tickets and concessions and watch the TV so much. For a while I thought this might be the big problem with woman led movies. But I don’t think so. It’s because studios have not put forth real effort to make these movies. They aren’t getting the writing and directing that are needed for a fantastic hit.
So on the one hand, I want to tell people they need to go see Wonder Woman whether or not it’s any good. So the movie studios can finally get over their stupid ideas that it’s a woman superhero that causes the problem. But it’s not the audience that’s the problem.
Look, Marvel? Sony? Fox? Warner Brothers? You guys have got some really awesome material. A lot of it features women leads. Half of your audience are women. Women are reading comics and watching movies as much as men. And men want these characters on screen, too.
Marvel: I would go see Ms. Marvel in a heartbeat. I would take all five of my daughters on opening day. And no one understands why you haven’t done a Black Widow movie.
Sony: Why haven’t you used any women characters except Aunt May and Peter’s love interest? This is terrible. Heck, even if you can’t get away from the love interest angle, you have Black Cat. You’ve got tons of Spidey-related women characters that would make awesome films.
Fox: Not every X-Men movie has to be about Wolverine. You know what? Shame on you for yanking Kitty Pride out of the Days of Future Past and replacing her with Wolverine. The number of women X-Men you could use is astounding. Why not a Storm movie? And I guarantee you a massive male audience for a Psylocke or Emma Frost film — provided you write it and don’t just trot a sexy person across the screen.
Warner Brothers: I can’t even. You’ve had the most egregious fails with women superheroes, in my opinion. Need some hints? Do a Thrillkiller movie and don’t reverse Dick’s and Barbara’s roles!. There are so many things you could do with a Lois Lane solo film, or even Gotham Academy. Mine the popularity you already built with Justice League, Young Justice, and Teen Titans: M’gann, Raven, Starfire, Artemis, Rocket, Bumblebee, Zatanna, Hawkwoman, Terra, Black Canary, Huntress… you could do an amazing movie about Vixen. Search your heart. You know it to be true.
Fans, the real responsibility for you is to clamor for these films. Ask for a Black Widow movie. Push for Harley to get her own film. If you ask for it enough, you’ll finally get it. And we deserve it!
*: Comics are improving. Marvel’s launched Squirrel Girl, Princess Leia, and Ms. Marvel, all of which are doing great and get critical acclaim. They also relaunched Thor as a woman, and that’s also doing really well. DC’s fired up Gotham Academy which is led by three girls, though they cancelled Supergirl, and their Batgirl title is rocking the Casbah. ^
1: By contrast, Superman III, released the year before, grossed 60m domestic (foreign earnings and budget not available). Despite the fact that Supergirl had Faye Dunaway, Peter O’Toole, and Mia Farrow, it just had a terrible script. Superman III was the first really terrible Superman movie, but even with that, it was a better script than Supergirl, and had 2 previous movies of momentum for it. ^
2: There’s no end to explanations for why Catwoman was such a stinker. But creating a supernatural origin for a character that has always been non-powered and no actual play of the main character’s abilities are certainly contenders for biggest culprit. I also like to blame producers and/or writers with no familiarity with the character. She’s a foil for Batman who became a strong enough character to have her own titles. She doesn’t need Batman to be a good character or have a good story, but to write her as Catwoman instead of some random burglar, you need to know how that informed her character. They didn’t, so we got a character that was only the comic book character Catwoman in name. ^
3: There’s a number of things to note about Elektra. First, foreign sales saved it from being a total loss. With domestic only, it would have lost 19m. Even in Hollywood, that’s not chump change. Second, it was a disappointing follow-up to Daredevil. Not a true sequel, but it was the same character and was conscious of the first. Daredevil ended up netting 100m. Which, for this stinker of a movie, is very impressive. Daredevil‘s success was probably why Elektra was greenlighted in the first place. Yet Daredevil had, at least, a traditional superhero fight (and star power with Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan) while Elektra made up some weird magic thing that had nothing to do with her and didn’t hire any big names besides Garner.
It’s been argued that Hulk, 2 years earlier, also bombed, yet got rebooted. But while it’s true the comic community didn’t receive Hulk well, and it lost 5m domestically, with the foreign numbers Hulk netted 108m in the end. And it should also be noted that in between the two Hulk movies Marvel finally started putting together the idea of an Avengers movie by making character films, starting with Iron Man (which netted a whopping 445m). The Incredible Hulk dropped 2 months later with a less artsy director and a more straightforward monster vs. monster plot and netted 113m. That’s not quite a bomb. With the Avengers tie-in, there’s a business logic there. So Hulk is a not the best counter-example to Elektra.
The character Elektra would probably never be in the running for Avengers, but one wonders what would have happened if they had made a Captain Marvel, Tigress, or Moon Dragon movie with a halfway decent script (and that ignores She-Hulk and Spider Woman, both interesting characters unfortunately seen as just the “girl version” of other heroes). ^
4: Let’s face it. Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet were essentially the same concept and almost the same movie, which is why Ultraviolet, which was not based on a comic property, is on this list. Both tried to rely on a sexy lead and sfx instead of an interesting story, though. And both failed (though Aeon Flux more spectacularly, at least measuring by net profit). ^
5: My Super Ex-Girlfriend was also not based on a previous property, but was undeniably a superhero movie. It was also undeniably more a comedy than a superhero movie, as the supervillain plot is not only secondary to relationship humor, but actually a b-plot that hung on the relationship plot. All of that means that studio execs don’t look how well My Super Ex-Girlfriend did relative to superheroine films, but against romantic comedies. ^