Movie after movie has come out the last few years featuring larger-than-life superheroes saving the world from certain peril. They’re the cash cow franchises drive the film industry right now, and for good reason. There’s never been a better time for comic book fans in terms of mainstream entertainment, with many of their favorite characters being brought to life on the big screen. Between Marvel, DC/Warner Bros, Fox, and Sony, there a dozens of superhero movies planned through 2020, giving us no shortage on the genre over the next four years. (You can peep the full timeline on Comics Alliance here.) So why are just two of those movies featuring female leads?
Earlier this year, Avengers director Joss Whedon had some strong words in an interview with Digital Spy, for an industry that’s been shockingly low on female representation in their biggest franchises. He minces few words, calling out the “genuine, recalcitrant, intractable sexism, and old-fashioned quiet misogyny that goes on” within the superhero movie industry. Citing the fact that there’s “always an excuse” not to run with a heroine in the lead role, it’s a bold statement from a director who has a history of portraying strong, independent women (see Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Serenity).
So what happened in Hollywood that brought us to this place? The general justification across the board from Hollywood execs has always been that female superheroes simply aren’t as marketable as their male counterparts. Whedon scoffs at this notion, noticing that “there’s always an excuse” when it comes to sidelining perfectly good characters simply because they’re women. Even comic books are outstripping Hollywood in getting with the times: Recently, the male Thor has been deemed unworthy to carry the legendary hammer Mjolnir, with a new female lead stepping in to assume the mantle of the God of Thunder.
Studios tend to cite the history of past attempts at featuring female heroes in movies as the reason why further attempts have largely been abandoned. On the back of this philosophy, two particular films have become the unfair poster-children: Elektra and Catwoman. Elektra released as a spin-off to the similarly terrible Daredevil, hauling in just $24 million at the box office to go along with an awful 10% Rotten Tomatoes score. Catwoman was meant to be a standalone franchise featuring the starpower of Halle Berry in her prime, but instead made $40 million on top of its similarly horrendous 9% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Both flopped in every way imaginable, and sent studios in a decidedly male direction since that we’ve never fully returned from.
The issue with Catwoman and Elektra wasn’t the fact that women were occupying leading roles though. Rather, it was studios simply making bad movies, and then acting surprised when those patently awful offerings didn’t resonate with audiences. Franchise movies like The Avengers and The Dark Knight both had big name experience behind the camera in Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan. Catwoman‘s director? A relative unknown with more experience in visual effects than in directing (Catwoman was just the second movie he’d ever helmed). Elektra was given a similar situation with its director Rob Bowman, a guy who’d worked almost entirely in television his whole career.
Now we have franchises like The Hunger Games with Jennifer Lawrence leading the charge, making money hand over fist while challenging the age-old philosophy that females in hero roles can’t be marketed. There’s more hope on the horizon in the form of Warner Bros./DC finally giving us a Wonder Woman movie, but more is needed to further prove why the women of the comic book universe deserve their chance at stardom. Similarly, Marvel is working on a Captain Marvel feature set to launch in 2019, but that too is merely a drop of water in an ocean of male-dominant offerings. Hollywood will likely be watching the 2017 release of Wonder Woman closely to see if a bigger change is needed. We of course already know the answer to that question: Absolutely yes.