The Problem with Female-Led Superhero Films Has Always Been Men

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We should all know by now that the argument against female-led superhero films is rooted in sexism. However, I think hitting you with the numbers is a great way to illustrate how really, truly, madly ridiculous it is.

In a previous piece I wrote about the 1975 Wonder Woman television series, I took an opportunity to point out how many of the other main DC heroes were given films before her:

“The character of Wonder Woman first appeared in December 1941 in All Star Comics…Wonder Woman went on to become one of the most popular comic book characters in history. And yet, after over 70 years of being a comic book icon, there has never been a Wonder Woman live-action feature film.

This is mind-blowing to me. Between Wonder Woman’s first appearance in comics and the present year of 2016 there have been 20 live-action feature films centering around superheroes from the DC Universe. There have been eight Superman films and nine Batman films. As for the other DC heroes; Green Lantern, Supergirl, Steel and Catwoman have all gotten their own feature films. All four films were terrible, but at least they exist. Meanwhile, Hollywood has avoided bringing Wonder Woman to silver screen.”

  • In Praise of Wonder Woman (1975), Jourdain Searles (Fishnet Cinema)

Eight Superman films! 9 Batman films! And yet… 0 Wonder Woman films. It really is absurd. So much so, that it’s easy to let that absurdity overshadow the actual content of the new Wonder Woman film.

Thankfully the film itself is worthy of praise, not just for existing, but for being a good film on its own merits. Wonder Woman is the most well-reviewed superhero film with a female protagonist. This all adds up: Wonder Women marks the first time a female-led superhero film has had the correct mix of production budget, talent and the marketing power necessary to create a commercially successful hit.

With that in mind, the question on hand is: Why did it take this long for a high-profile studio to put the actual time and effort in to create a film like Wonder Woman?

Your first instinct would probably be to look back at the female-led superhero films before it.

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Much has been said about the previous efforts to bring female superheroes to the big screen. What much of that conversation lacks, is the ability to recognize one important fact: Almost none of the previous superhero films were directed by women. With the exception of Tank Girl, most female superhero films were brought to the silver screen with men at the helm. (Tank Girl is a good movie, and I will die on that hill.)

Indeed: Elektra, Catwoman, Supergirl and Barb Wire were all directed and written (primarily) by men. Supergirl was directed by Jeannot Szwarc (Somewhere in Time, Jaws 2) and written by David Odell. Catwoman was directed by Pitof and written by John Brancato, Michael Ferris and John Rogers. Theresa Rebeck has a story by credit, but there’s really no telling how many of her ideas actually made it into the final product, if any. Elektra was directed by Rob Bowman (Reign of Fire) and written by Zak Penn, Stuart Zicherman and Raven Metzner. Barb Wire was directed by David Hogan and written by Chuck Pfarrer and Ilene Chaiken (who also holds the Story By credit). Only Elektra and Barb Wire have female co-writer credits; and in the case of Elektra it was one female screenwriter and two male ones. (Tank Girl‘s sole writing also goes to a man–Tedi Sarafian.)

Much of the framing around female superheroes not doing well on film puts the blame on female actresses—despite the fact that the creative minds behind writing and shaping the film were overwhelmingly male. The female performers are used as a scapegoat for the structural and narrative problems with the films. This is clear double standard problem considering that actors like Ryan Reynolds, Chris Evans, Ben Affleck and recently Michael B. Jordan were given second chances to star in comic book films, despite the low quality of their previous starring turns. Reynolds went from the failed Green Lantern to Deadpool. Affleck leveled up fro failed Daredevil to the new Batman. Evans and Jordan both starred as The Human Torch in two separate, failed film franchises. Now Evans is Captain America and Jordan is playing Erik Killmonger next year in Black Panther.

Meanwhile, among the stars of Tank Girl, Barb Wire, Elektra, Supergirl and Catwoman, only Halle Berry has played more than one superheroine. Her character, Storm, was part of the ensemble cast of Bryan Singer’s early X-Men films, prior to the release of Catwoman. With the exception of X-Men: The Last Stand, those films are considered good and Berry’s performance (though not remarkable) showed little indication that given the proper script she may have been able to play a compelling Catwoman. It’s not Berry’s fault the film around her was poorly-made. Having female actresses bear the brunt of the blame for why these films are of low quality is erroneous; it absolves male writers and directors of their role in not giving them compelling characters to play in the first place.

As Kelsey Snyder of Wired asserts, these films are “set up to fail”:

“Let’s use the Razzie-winning Catwoman as a case study. Catwoman had a production budget that was two-thirds that of Batman Begins, which came out the next year. Unlike the well-known directors who spearheaded male-led films, Catwoman had a director unknown and untested in the American market. Catwoman’s costume, clearly made for sex appeal, was criticized by fans and media alike. The male-written script may be the largest culprit. The main plot begins with Halle Berry’s character being killed over…face cream. Is it any wonder Catwoman wasn’t a success?”

  • Hollywood Sets Up Its Lady Superheroes to Fail, Kelsey Snyder (Wired)

The truth about Catwoman is that it wasn’t made to be a good film. It was made to pander to a nebulous “female market” that only cared about men, looking sexy and cosmetics. When a film is made to pander to a demographic that the filmmakers obviously don’t understand and there is little focus on the film actually being good, a bad film emerging is inevitable.

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Still, low quality doesn’t account for the scarcity of representation for female superheroes in comparison to male superheroes onscreen. The truth is, there isn’t a big enough sample size to accurately assess them in comparison to male superhero films.

The first female superhero film was Supergirl, released in 1984. There isn’t another one until almost a decade later— 1995’s Tank Girl. Barb Wire came out in 1996 (which makes you wonder if Dark Horse Comics was only giving out film rights for their blonde female anti-heroes in the 90s). It’s eight years until we see another one— 2004’s Catwoman, followed by Elektra in 2005.

Now, 12 years later (the longest time stretch) we have Wonder Woman. That makes 6 female-led superhero films up against over 50 male-lead superhero films within the span of 6 decades. Judging by these dates it looks like female superheroes have 1-2 chances per decade to succeed and if they don’t it’s on to the next one.

There has never been such a standard for male-led superhero films. Studios just kept churning out film after film, giving countless chances to reboot male characters and get them right. The first male-led superhero film to be released in color to the big-screen was 1966’s Batman. But, the influx of superhero films didn’t really start until Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. Following its success we saw a boom of superhero films in the 1990s and 2000s, culminating in the release of Iron Man in 2008, which kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU.

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I tried to get an exact number of male-led superhero films, but I eventually just gave up. Suffice to say, there are A LOT.

In the midst of all these films, franchises and extended universes, there have been a number of reboots. Superman has been rebooted twice. Spiderman has been rebooted twice as well. Batman takes the cake, being rebooted 3 times and counting. Even The Punisher has been rebooted two times. In the midst of all these reboots, nobody thought to give Supergirl, Catwoman or Elektra another try. All three of these characters have recently been given a second life on television with them appearing on Supergirl on The CW, Gotham on FOX and Daredevil on Netflix, respectively. Still, that’s not the same as the full reboot treatment. Despite the fact that these characters continue to live on through comics and television like so many of the major male heroes, they have not been entitled to the same reboot treatment.

There really isn’t any quality-related reasoning to explain that.

The reason why Wonder Woman took this long to get to the big screen is—gender inequality within Hollywood. Hollywood doesn’t put in the time, money and effort necessary to make female superhero films well. Then they blame women—the actresses starring in the films and female audiences for not seeing the films—and use as an excuse to try even less the next time around. That cycle has been continuous, until now.

Wonder Woman has broken it.

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So, what should Hollywood do now that they know how wrong they’ve been about female superhero films this entire time? How should they act now that it’s evident where the blame really lies?

They can start by hiring more woman writers and directors, especially when the main characters in the film are played by female-identifying actresses. Maybe they should think more about creating coherent, narratively satisfying stories instead of pandering to what they think female viewers might want. And they could remember that it isn’t enough to just put female faces onscreen.

The films themselves also have to be, you know, good movies.

 

(Note: I personally do not think Tank Girl is a bad movie (it’s actually one of my all-time favorites), and much like Wonder Woman, it was directed by a woman and written by a man. However, Tank Girl was made on a very low budget (25 million; for comparison, Batman Forever which came out the same year, had a budget of 100 million) and could not even manage to make it’s money back. It was also critically panned. In a way, it’s an exception to the majority of the gender issues I discuss in this piece and out of all the 5 pre-Wonder Woman it’s the only one worth watching. I included it because I had to talk about it. It felt weird not to.)

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