"There is genuine, intractable sexism and old-fashioned quiet misogyny that goes on. You hear 'oh, female superhero movies don't work because of these two bad ones that were made eight years ago'. There's always an excuse."
That was Avengers director Joss Whedon two summers ago, skewering what has remained a depressing reality of the movie industry: superheroes are everywhere, but female superheroes are nowhere. A character like Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow exists solely as part of an ensemble, never spinning off into her own movie despite being played by Hollywood's highest-grossing actress of all time.
Both of the major superhero studios seem to finally be getting the message – Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman was a standout in Batman v Superman and will star in her own movie next summer, while Marvel Studios has slated the female-led Captain Marvel for 2019. (For context, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first female-led movie will also be its twenty-first movie overall.) The conventional Hollywood wisdom has simply become that female superheroes aren't bankable, despite the clear earning potential of non-superpowered heroines like The Hunger Games's Katniss Everdeen and Frozen's Anna.
As Whedon notes, there's a double standard at play here. Female-led comic book movies are not the only ones that flop, but they are the only ones forced to atone for their sins – the failure of films like Halle Berry's Catwoman and Jennifer Garner's Elektra are continually dredged up as evidence that audiences just don't want to watch women with superpowers. Ben Affleck's Daredevil movie flopped hard too, but now there's a Daredevil series on Netflix and Affleck is playing Batman in a new franchise. Remember 2006's Superman Returns? A studio disaster, but it didn't stop anyone from making Superman reboot Man of Steel a few years later.
So setting aside the inherent sexism of Hollywood, do female-led superhero movies even deserve the bad rap they get? The back catalogue – when it comes to movies that don't just feature a female superhero, but actually center on one – is so limited that it's hard to draw much of a conclusion, but let's give it a try.
Starring Helen Slater in the title role of Superman's plucky cousin, this wasn't a great start for female superheroes on screen either critically or financially. Slater herself was the best thing about it, managing to eke some real appeal out of her limited role, but the movie's overall tone of campy glibness seemed to invite mockery. As Roger Ebert noted at the time: "We do not go to Superman and Supergirl movies to laugh condescendingly at the characters… why even go to the trouble of making a movie that feels like it's laughing at itself?"
In the same year came this largely-forgotten adaptation of the 1930s comic book Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, which is notable for being the first comic ever named after a female character. Essentially a female take on Tarzan, the movie flopped, barely making back a quarter of its budget worldwide and drawing a slew of damning reviews. But it had its admirers – among them legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who called it "a lighthearted, slightly loony adventure film" – and has developed a minor cult following online.
Tank Girl (1995)
There was so much potential here for an unconventional gem. Based on the outlandish British comic of the same name, Tank Girl had a charismatic anti-heroine (played by Lori Petty, who you now know as Orange is the New Black's unstable Lolly), an intriguing post-apocalyptic setting, and a subtly feminist bent that echoes last year's unexpectedly glorious Mad Max: Fury Road. But all those elements lacked a strong core narrative, and the end result was yet another flop, grossing only around $4 million worldwide against a $25 million budget.
This is the one. The movie that gets thrown out more often than any other as evidence that female superheroes just don't work, and there's no denying that Catwoman itself is pretty much a disaster. As a rule, superheroes only work if their human self is as interesting as their costumed alter ego, and Halle Berry's meek, mousy Patience Philips is just a terrible character, even before she dons that S&M-inspired catsuit and the camera's creepy male gaze really gets to work.
Mishandled from beginning to end, the film ultimately didn't even make enough to recoup its budget, and Berry herself acknowledged it as "a piece of s***" while picking up her Razzie award in 2005. Because she is nothing if not a great sport. What hurts the most is that this mess might be the reason why Anne Hathaway's spectacular Catwoman aka Selina Kyle (who was maybe the best thing about 2012's The Dark Knight Rises) never got a shot at her own spinoff.
It's rarely a good idea to green-light a sequel without a solid first movie, and foundations don't get much shakier than 2003's Daredevil. Jennifer Garner's Elektra was just fine opposite Ben Affleck's bland Matt Murdock, but her character was superfluous to the plot and did little to demand a spinoff movie. So it's unsurprising that the end result was underwhelming, despite Garner's charisma and commitment, thanks to a leaden script and uninspired action sequences. The film ended up just barely making a profit, and remains one of the most significant flops ever adapted from a Marvel comic.
So… there you have it. There hasn't been a female-led superhero movie since 2005, and things have changed so much in that time that it's meaningless to try and draw conclusions from the failure of Catwoman or Elektra. Comic book movies did not have the same clout ten years ago that they have now – a shift was beginning back then, thanks to the X-Men series and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, but movie studios certainly weren't rushing to create expanded comic book universes. Now that superheroes essentially run Hollywood, it's about time the genre stopped treating women as supporting players.
Over on television, it's a different story, and it always has been. Lynda Carter's beloved Wonder Woman debuted in 1975 on the small screen, and remains more or less unparalleled as a kick-ass and genuinely iconic superheroine. And last year was a kind of watershed moment, with the debut of two very different shows – CBS's bright-eyed, big-hearted Supergirl, and Netflix's dark, psychologically nuanced Jessica Jones – finally putting paid to the idea that female-fronted comic book properties are a risky prospect. Here's hoping the big screen catches up soon.